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Jackson County, Iowa

County Seat Contests

The First County Seat was Belleview (Bellevue) in the mid to late 1830’s. The fight over which town would hold the honor of County Seat was tumultuous, in addition to pitting Jackson County towns against each other, there was voter fraud, likely on both sides of the issue, and altercations that barely stopped short of tragedy.

For a more centralized location, Andrew became the County Seat in 1841 and the fight was on between the two communities.

The honor moved back to Bellevue in 1851.

Back to Andrew around 1860.

And finally to Maquoketa in 1873.



The county of Jackson was organized by the legislature of the Territory of Wisconsin when Iowa was a part of that domain. Belleview was made the county seat and it remained the county seat when Congress organized the Territory of Iowa. In the year 1840, the territorial legislature of Iowa at its extra session held at Burlington in July, appointed three commissioners to locate the county seat of Jackson county as a majority of them might agree, "having reference to the geographical center, water, timber, and the welfare and convenience of the present and the future population," and providing "That the site selected shall be the seat of justice from and after the first day of December next: Provided that until suitable buildings are erected at the place selected as the county seat, the District Court shall be held at the town of Belleview."

Just what proceedings were taken under this act the writer is not advised, nor does he know whether there is any record of the proceedings of the commission, but on the 15th of January, 1841, the legislature at its regular session amended this act by appointing different commissioners, who were authorized to select a site and give it a name, and when they had made such selection a special election should be held to determine whether the site so selected, or the original county seat, should be the permanent seat of justice, at which election each voter should mention viva voce the place for which he wished to vote.

The law also provided that when the result should be ascertained, the board of county commissioners should borrow enough money to purchase from the government the quarter section selected by the commissioners, and pay interest thereon at not exceeding forty per cent, and with the money enter the quarter section selected under the preemption act, and then after surveying the land and laying it out in lots, sell enough of them to build public buildings and refund the money borrowed to enter the land, but the District Court should be held at Belleview until the public building should be erected.

As under this law a quarter section was selected near what was claimed to be "the geographical center," and named Andrew, and as the county seat was removed to that place, and courts were held there until 1851, it is presumed that the election was carried in favor of Andrew, and that the money was borrowed and the town surveyed. At any rate, Andrew was the county seat until 1851.

The third general assembly of the State of Iowa at its regular session passed an act approved February 5, 1851, providing that at the next April election the legal voters of Jackson county might vote for such points as they might think proper, and if any point received a majority over all the others, then such point should be and remain the permanent seat of justice of such county. But if no point received a majority then a special election should be held on the first Monday of May between the three points receiving the highest number of votes, and if no point received a majority of all the votes, then another election should be held on the first Monday in June, between the two points receiving the highest number of votes, and the winner should take the county seat. Whether there was more than one election held under this law, the writer is not advised, but he never heard of any special election under it. At any rate the county records were moved back to Belleview, which in the meantime had, by the authority of the legislature, changed the spelling of its name from Belleview to Bellevue, and no attempt to move it was made until 1857.

In 1856 the late Nathaniel Butterworth laid out a town plat on his farm something less than a mile from the center of the town of Andrew, and named it Centreville. The law had been changed as to provide that on the presentation of a petition signed by a majority of voters of a county asking for the relocation of the county seat, the county judge must order that a vote be taken at the next April election between the place named in the petition and the existing county seat.

Mr. Butterworth presented such a petition, and Judge Spur ordered the election to be held in April following. People living in the town of Andrew were not enthusiastic for the establishment of a county seat so near their town and yet outside of it, and joined with Bellevue to defeat the application, and Centreville lost by a majority of about one hundred and eighty, so Centreville passed into history. No person ever lived in the town; nor was there ever a building of any kind on the town site; nor was any lot ever sold and the town plat was vacated not long afterward.

Squire William Morden had laid out the town of Fulton in the early fifties, and a petition was presented to the County Court in 1857, asking for a vote at the next April election, for the county seat between Fulton and Bellevue, and the vote was ordered accordingly; but although the contest was sharp and vigorous, Bellevue won by a majority of twenty. A contest was begun by the Fulton people alleging that a sufficient number of illegal votes had been cast in the town of Bellevue to change the result. The action was by proceeding in quo warranto, and the friends of Bellevue retorted that more illegal votes had been cast in Farmer's Creek and adjoining townships than would balance the illegal votes cast in the eastern part of the county.

As the case was never tried, the truth cannot now be ascertained. Both parties continued to be of their own opinion. For my part, I never doubted that there was a great deal of truth in the allegations on both sides. I recall going over to the polling place in Bellevue, the old courthouse, on election day. Captain E. G. Potter was one of the trustees, and was at that moment receiving the ballots offered. John A. Weston owned a large timber lot in Illinois, on the islands opposite Bellevue, and as I arrived he brought up his wood choppers, about thirty in number, to vote. I remember one of them, a German about fifty years old who could speak no word of English. As he handed his ballot to Captain Potter, the captain asked him, "What is your name?" The voter said, "Pellfew." "No," said the captain, "I don't want to know what you are voting for. I want to know your name." The German, thinking him hard of hearing, raised his voice and answered "Pellfew." The captain tried him again "where do you live?" The answer came louder still "Pellfew." The captain appealed to the crowd, "Does anybody know this man's name?" The German, thinking the captain deaf, shouted in tones of thunder "Pellfew." The captain gave it up, and putting the ballot into the box said to the clerks "John Smith" and it was so recorded. The votes in the rival towns were greater than they ever polled before, or for some years after. I was one of the attorneys for the defendants in the quo warranto proceedings and we were always ready for trial, and why it was not tried was never explained to me.

The same year, 1858, a petition was presented to the County Court asking for a vote at the next April election between Bellevue and Andrew. The legislature of 1858 had changed the time of electing all officers to the general election in the fall, leaving no officer to be elected in April. In fact, the last election was held in 1858. No April election was held in 1859 or 1860. Judge Kelso, then county judge, held that the April election had been abolished, and refused the application. No appeal was taken and matters remained in statu quo until 1860.

When the political conventions in 1859 were held, Judge Kelso was beaten in the democratic convention by Charles Rich of Maquoketa, and the republicans nominated Joseph H. Smith, of Andrew, and the old settler, Smith, beat the newcomer, Rich, at the polls, though both were pledged to order a county seat election whenever a petition should be presented. In the spring of 1860 such a petition was presented by such a majority of voters that no attempt was made to file a remonstrance other than enough to give standing in court for the attorneys who appeared to oppose the application. I think the remonstrance was signed by only a half a dozen voters. J. Y. Blackwell elected himself the commanding officer of the Andrew forces, and was ably seconded by Judge Bradley. C. M. Dunbar and A. L. Palmer. As for myself, I was satisfied that this petition was sufficient in form, and was signed by the requisite number of voters, and whether it was or not Judge Smith would order the election, and further that when the election should be held, Andrew would win out by a large majority. I therefore declined to take any part in the legal fight. Judge Booth and Judge Kelso represented Bellevue in the County Court. My part in the contest was editing the Bellevue paper in conjunction with the late W. L. Redmond through the campaign.

While the application was pending in court, Jerry Jenkins, then senator from Jackson, in the state senate, called at our office in Bellevue one morning and after some conversation we went over to the courthouse together and on entering the courtroom it was evident that the fight was waxing hot. Judge Smith was just saying "I see the pint, Judge Booth, go on, I see the pint." Thus encouraged, Judge Booth went on with great warmth and earnest gesticulation. It was one of the peculiarities of this gentleman that when speaking rapidly, he would sometimes substitute for the word he wished to use, and was certain he did use another of similar sound and so in trying to impress on the mind of the court that the proposed action would be a nullity, he wound up his argument with the astounding assertion, "Besides sir, if your Honor sir, a perfect nudity sir, a perfect nudity."

As the judge resumed his seat, the commander-in-chief of the Andrew forces rose with great dignity and with the assurance of complete victory written all over his countenance and putting both thumbs in the armholes of his vest and majestically clearing his throat began: "Your Honor, I don't see anything in this case for my friend Judge Booth to take odium at." Then replacing his thumbs in his armholes and clearing his throat with greater majesty than before went on: "If the Court please, we have made out a perfect case of prima facieousness anyhow." With that Senator Jenkins grasped me by the shoulder saying, "Let's get out where we can laugh." And a few minutes after we got into the hall the bailiff came out to inform us that our laughter was disturbing the deliberations of the court.

About two weeks before the date set for the election, Judge Dillon held a term of court at Bellevue. At about eleven o'clock of the second day he interrupted the counsel who were trying a jury case with "We will postpone the further hearing until afternoon. I understand there are a number of persons here who wish to be naturalized." Then addressing the audience who filled the courtroom said, ''If there is anyone here who wishes to be naturalized, let him stand up." And everybody outside of the bar arose as one man. Both parties had scoured the county, and about four hundred were naturalized at that term. There was no failure on either side for want of witnesses. The writer knows of one person, now a large land holder, who arrived in America from Luxemburg in October, 1860, who was told that he ought to go down to Bellevue and get his first papers - that is to declare his intention of becoming a citizen - who went home from court that evening with full naturalization papers in his pocket, thanks to the vigilant care of Fred Scarborough, the clerk of the District Court, and he has been voting on these papers ever since.

Just before the election an attempt was made by the Bellevue people to enjoin the holding of the election, but Judge Dillon refused the writ, though urged by both Judge Booth and Judge Leffingwell in speeches of remarkable force. Henry O'Connor appeared with the advocates of Andrew's claims. The excitement increased in intensity as the date of the election drew near. In fact, if a statement in the Bellevue paper was correct, it came near having tragic consequences. In the issue just preceding the election, that paper lamented the personal feeling that was manifested, and stated that on the Saturday before active hostilities had broken out between the contending forces and that one of the Bellevue volunteers from Clinton county, had opened the war by discharging a loaded shell from a window in the second story of the Sublette House at the commander-in-chief of the Andrew forces, which had missed the head of that august personage by a narrow margin. It is believed that the statement was true, but the shell was an ordinary household utensil of pottery and not the "iron shard" that Kipling writes of, and was discharged in the manner of a hand grenade, and not from the "reeking tube" of his Recessional.

The majority in favor of Andrew at this election was five hundred and sixty. Another effort was made in the court to defeat the removal of the records but it was unsuccessful, and the Supreme Court decided that because the April election had not been expressly abolished by name, an election for county seat could be held at that time, but not for any other purpose. I recall telling the learned counsel for the appellants that there were just five hundred and sixty reasons why they should be beaten, and they were. All the same, I think Judge Kelso's construction of the law was correct.

A few years afterward Bellevue made another attempt to have another vote taken between Andrew and Bellevue, and filed a petition signed by the requisite number of voters, but before it was passed on by the board of supervisors, Andrew procured enough of the signers to the petition to sign a remonstrance, and so reduced the number below the requisite majority. This ended the efforts of Bellevue to recover the county seat from Andrew.

When the last movement began to be agitated, I was asked to attend a meeting of some of its promoters and at the meeting was also asked to give my opinion as to the proposed step. I advised against making the attempt, basing my judgment not only on the decisive majority against Bellevue on the former contest, but also on the fact that a majority of the voters in the county lived on the south side of the Maquoketa River, and on the further fact that the people of Bellevue had without remonstrance allowed the principal roads leading into their own to be so changed for the worse that Dubuque on the one side and Lyons on the other were more easily accessible to more than two-thirds of the people of the county than Bellevue. All my attempts to inaugurate "a good road movement" in that town had met with no response whatever. The others, however, knew better and determined to go ahead; and assigned me to the task of canvassing the four townships in the southwestern part of the county, which was certainly the "enemy's country," assuring me that if I could get fifty signatures from that territory we could get the vote ordered, and carry the election.

I returned the petitions with three or four times the number assigned to me. I did the canvassing principally through others. A good many of them signed the remonstrance also. If my friends who were so sure of winning the contest had canvassed their own territory with half the care that I did mine, the vote would have been ordered and Bellevue would have been beaten at the polls. About this time the Andrew people, in order to "cinch" their hold on the county seat, made an offer to the board of supervisors to sell to the county the courthouse, which they had erected at their own expense, at a trifle over one third of its cost. The board before acting on the offer referred the matter to myself and a brother lawyer to examine the title, greatly to the disgust of the persons making the offer; and while we were engaged in making the examination of the records, I heard them expressing their opinion of the board for putting a Bellevue man on this committee, in terms more forcible than elegant.

As chairman of this committee, I reported that the title was defective, as the record of the town plat showed that it was located in township five (5) range three (3), which was somewhere in Arkansas, while Andrew was actually located in township 85 north and range three (3) east.

While reading this I heard my Andrew friends muttering "I told you so; that is what we get by having a Bellevue man pass upon the title," and it would have taken but little to have caused an explosion. But as I went on with the statement that this defect was not in our judgment fatal, and was probably due to an error in copying by the recorder, which, if necessary, be corrected by a decree of the court, and that in our judgment the title was sufficient and the bargain a desirable one, and recommended the board to close with the offer, their astonishment was greater than their previous anger.

They acknowledged that even a Bellevue man knew a good thing when he saw it, and though the building was not what it ought to have been for a courthouse, its purchase saved the county a good deal of money, but it failed to keep the county seat there.

The contest, which ended in October, 1873, in the transfer of the county seat from Andrew to Maquoketa, was after I had removed from the county, and I had no part in it. Andrew was handicapped by the rumors of maladministration of the county affairs, which the same month proved well founded ; and the removal of the county seat was a blow from which, after the lapse of a third of a century, it has not yet recovered.

The other attempts to obtain a vote on the question since 1867, I have but little knowledge of and leave it for others to speak of. Maquoketa has been the county seat for nearly one-half the time that Jackson county has had its political existence, and will probably remain the county seat of that political division of Iowa until some Japanese historian, viewing the ruins of the state capitol at Des Moines, and meditating on the marvelous extinction of the great American republic, shall outline his history of the decline and fall of that great commonwealth of corn and cattle, of hens and hogs and horses for which Jackson county was once so notable a part, and of which the old stone courthouse at Andrew shall be the only surviving monument of its greatness.

[Source: History of Jackson County, Iowa by James W. Ellis, published by S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., Chicago, Illinois, 1910, submitted by Mary Kay Krogman]

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