Winnebago County, Illinois
The Polish Claims Delay Land Patents
[Source: "Past and Present of City of Rockford and Winnebago County Illinois", Charles A Church and H.H. Waldo, 1905]
Events of local interests occasionally have their historic background in national and even international affairs. A notable instance was the celebrated Polish claims made in 1836 to a portion of the territory which now comprises the townships of Rockford and Rockton. It is one of the most interesting chapters in the history of Winnebago County . Local histories have briefly referred to the incident, but only one complete statement of the affairs has previously been written.
The checkered career of Poland furnishes the historic background. The reader of history will recall the Polish rebellion of 1830-31. Previous to that time here territory bad been partitioned between Russia and other powers. The impulse to this uprising of 1830 was given by the French, and was begun by a number of students, who proposed to seize the Grand Duke Constantine in the vicinity of Warsaw. The city and the troops enlisted in the movement, under the command of General Chlopicki, a veteran of the wars of Napoleon. Upon the suppression of this uprising in the following year, the leaders were sent into exile. They naturally sought refuge in this country.
The forlorn condition of these exiles enlisted the sympathy of the American people, and congress rendered them some assistance. An act was approved June 30, 1834, which granted to these Polish exiles, two hundred and thirty-five in number, who had been transported to this county by the order of the emperor of Austria, thirty-six sections of land. These sections were to be selected by them, under the direction of the secretary of the treasury, in any three adjacent townships of the public lands, surveyed or unscrewed, in the state of Illinois or the territory of Michigan. After this land had been surveyed it became the duty of the secretary of the treasury to divide the thirty-six sections into equal parts, and to distribute them by lot among the exiles. They were to reside upon and cultivate these lands for ten years, and at the expiration of this time they were to obtain their patents upon the payment of the minimum price per acre.
The exiles arrived in America in 1835, and their committee, at the head of whom was Count Chlopicki, arrived in Rockford in the autumn of the following year. The count was an elderly gentleman, well informed, and apparently an excellent judge of land. Upon his arrival in the Rock River valley, he selected townships forty-four and forty-six, range one east. These are Rockford and Rockton. The intervening township of Owen was not taken, and thus was violated one of the provisions of the grant, which stipulated that the land should be selected in three adjacent townships.
Much of this land was already in the possession of American citizens when the count arrived upon the scene. They had only a squatter’s title, inasmuch as there was then no pre-emption law that would apply in this case, and the government had not placed the land upon the market. The settlers had enclosed their farms and made such improvements as they were able. Moreover, the several Indian "floats" in these townships might have precedence of the claims of settlers or exiles. But these facts did not disturb the plans of the doughty count. He disregarded the squatters rights of the settler, and made a formal selection of their land, and reported his choice to the secretary of the treasury.
While in this section Count Chlopicki had been a guest of Germanicus Kent. That gentleman explained the situation to his visitor, and the latter declared that the settlers should not be disturbed. He thus set their fears at rest in a measure. But these assurances were not entirely satisfactory, and after the count’s departure a sum of money was raised and Mr. Kent was sent to Washington to make further inquiry. The anxiety of the settlers was increased by the fact, as already state, that they held not titles to the land which they had settled. Upon Mr. Kent’s arrival in Washington he found that his apprehensions were well founded. The count had not kept his work; he had chosen the very townships he had promised Mr. Kent he would not select. Mr. Kent went directly to the land office and made his complaint before the commissioner; but he was told that every settler in the county was a trespasser, and that he had no legal right to a foot of the land which he had so unceremoniously taken. It is said facts are stubborn things. Mr. Kent and the settlers knew that the commissioner was correct, but they did not become alarmed. Perhaps they thought that in union there was strength. The secretary of the treasury did not, however, order the subdivision of the lands, because their selection by the Polish agent was not in compliance with the law, and thus the matter rested for some years.
The selection of these lands by the Polish agent, while squatter’s possession was held by the settlers, complicated the whole question of titles. The settlers had certain rights in equity, but inasmuch was no pre-emption law was then in force that would bear upon the case, the government did not at that time formally recognize their claims. In view of this fact, it is not a matter of surprise that the Polish count; in his desire to select good lands for his exiled countrymen, should disregard claims that the government did not recognize. Moreover this section of the Rock River valley had been framed in the prodigality of nature. It soil was good, its atmosphere invigorating, its scenery a perpetual delight. The possession of such land always promotes domestic happiness and commercial strength.
The lands in this vicinity belonged at that time to the Galena land district, and with the exception of Rockford and Rockton, were opened to sale and entry in the autumn of 1839. These townships, which included the thirty-six sections in controversy, were withheld from sale for nearly eight years after they had been surveyed.
Matters continued in this unsettled condition until 1843. In the meantime the land office had been removed to Dixon, through the influence of John Dixon, who settled there in 1830, and after who the town was named. In 1840 Mr. Dixon went to Washington, and through the influence of General Scott and other army officers, who were his personal friends, he secured the removal of the government land office from Galena to Dixon. The settlers in Rockford could not procure patents of the lands which they had occupied for some years. The attention of congress was repeatedly called to the situation. The settlers address petitions to that body until their grievance received attention. The Polish agent had forfeited his claim in not selecting his lands in three adjacent townships. The exiles had also forfeited their rights in not making an actual settlemnent on the lands. Congress, therefore, April 14, 1842, passed another act, authorizing the entry and sale of these lands in these two townships. This relief was due in large measure to the efforts of Hon. O.H. Smith of Indiana; Hon. Robert J. Walker, of Mississippi, and Hon. Richard M. Young, of this state, senators in congress.
When the settlers had been finally delivered from their dilemma by a special act of congress, they began to make preparations to perfect their titles to their lands. The inhabitants petitioned the president for a public sale. Fifteen months elapsed before their petition was granted, and October 30, 1843, the land in these townships was offered for sale, and was sold November 3rd. It was the most notable land sale that ever occurred in the district. Rockford had been incorporated as a town four years before. Daniel S. Haight had platted the East side, north of State, as far east as Longwood, and south of State east to Kishwaukee. A portion of this had been platted as early as 1836; and Mr. Haight had sold the lots to the settlers and given them quit-claim deeds to the same several years before he had obtained his own patent from the government. When the land was finally offered for sale at the land office, Mr. Haight was authorized to go to Dixon and bid in the entire tract for the settlers. A committee, appointed for this purpose, prepared a list of names to whom the deeds should be given after the sale. This committee consisted of Willard Wheeler, David S. Penfield, E. H. Potter, of Rockford, and Nathanial Crosby, of Belvidere. This committee was in session for several days, passed upon every lot in the town on the East side, and decided quite a number of disputed claims. Mr. Crosby was not present, but it was understood that a majority should have power to act. Thus a number of the first settlers of East Rockford purchased their land twice. The first purchase of town lots was from Mr. Haight; the second was made through Mr. Haight as agent, from the general government. Inasmuch, however, as the land office took no notice of the face that the lands had been platted, it was sold at the usual price of a dollar and a quarter per acre. The second purchase was therefore more of a formality than an additional burden. With the land sold in bulk, at a dollar and a quarter per acre, the second purchase of a town lot, from the government, was at a nominal price, merely its relative value to an unplanted acre of land. This second purchase, however, perfected the title.
At this point it may be necessary to state that Mr. Haight’s first sales of land were perfectly legitimate transactions. The purchasers knew at this time that a second purchase would be necessary to procure a perfect title. There was recently found among some old papers of the late Francis Burnap a list of the town lots in East Rockford and the names of the persons to whom the deeds should be given after the land sale. The document comprises seventeen pages of legal cap, and is perfectly preserved. At the same sale at Dixon the land on the west side of the river was bid in for the settlers by Ephraim Wyman. The West side committee was composed of G.A. Sanford, Derastus Harper, and George Haskell. The certificates of title were turned over to Mr. Wyman by the committee. When Me Wyman went to California, about 1850, these certificates were left in a trunk, in charge of G.A. Sanford. During Mr. Wyman’s absence they were totally destroyed by rodents; and these facts are set forth with grave precision by Mr. Wyman, in a certificate, duplicates of which are on file in the abstract offices of this city.
This for a period of nine years from Mr. Kent’s settlement were the early residents of Rockford and Rockton unable to obtain titles to the lands which they had selected and improved, by reason of the illegal intrusion of an exiled Polish count. The sequel is one of those facts that is stranger than fiction. Only one of those exiles ever subsequently appeared in Rockford or Winnebago County. He was employed for a time as a cook, in 1837, by Henry Thurston, the landlord of the old Rockford House. The later history of the exiles is unknown.
Mr. Haight’s plat of East Rockford was filed for record November 7, 1843, four days after the land sale. The east part of the original town of Rockford, was of Rock River, included all that part of the city south of a line drawn from the Beattie residence west to the property now occupied by the Ziock flats, and east of a line drawn from the latter point to the west end of the Chicago & Northwestern railroad bridge. It was platted by Duncan Ferguson, November 9, 1843, and filed for record by Ephraim Wyman, November, 28, 1843.
J.W. Leavitt’s town plat included all that part of West Rockford situated between Wyman’s plat on the east, and Kent’s creek on the west and south. This plat was made August 17, 1844, and filed for record October 5, 1844.
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