Squatters’ Rights

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Squatters Rights


Land for the Taking. In the 1820s and 1830s thousands of American citizens moved west to find a new life. Many of the emigrants dreamed of owning their own farms, but even though the federal government had gained control of massive parcels of land, thousands of the would-be farmers did not have the money to purchase land when it became available. Faced with the choice of remaining in the East or moving west and taking possession of land without paying for it, many Americans chose the latter course and became squatters. They knew that they would be able to farm their land until the individual who had obtained the title arrived to dispossess them. To the emigrants the West was vast. Many no doubt believed it was unlikely that the legitimate property owners would arrive at any time in the near future. Often with little more than a dream of owning land, many settlers took their chances and moved to the prairie. When they did so, they broke the law, which defined their actions as trespassing on private property.

Pike Creek. In February 1836 Jason Lothrop, a man with many talentshe was a schoolteacher and Baptist minister among other thingsemerged as the leader of a group of squatters in Pike Creek, Wisconsin, a small community on the banks of Lake Michigan. The settlers apparently wanted to apply for a title to sections of the land in the area, but the legal infrastructure was not yet in place for them to do so. Fearing that they might lose their lands and the labor that they put into clearing forests, planting fields, and building houses and fences, the settlers decided to organize themselves. They were responding to the difficulties that they confronted in trying to lay a claim to land in parts of the West. Some were greedy in securing at least one section of 640 acres for themselves, Lothrop later recalled, and some as much for all their friends whom they expected to settle in the country.

Pike River Claimants Union. On 13 February 1846 the settlers gathered at a local store and signed a document written by Lothrop. Their treatise, The Pike River Claimants Union for the attainment and security of titles to claims on Government lands, attempted to establish the legality of the squatters actions. They began by noting the importance of bonding together since a union and co-operation of all the inhabitants of the region would be indispensably necessary, in case the preemption law should not pass, for the securing and protecting of their claims. In essence the squatters wanted to make sure that their claim to the land was as valid in law as the claims destined to be made by land speculators. The squatters knew that the speculators would have used all of the weapons in their legal arsenals to gain title to this territory as soon as the federal government had completed its survey and a local land office opened to accept applications. The trespassers were not lawless. They based their attempted seizure of the land on the notion that, as their manifesto claimed, the federal Government has heretofore encouraged emigration by granting pre-emption to actual settlers, which meant that they were assured that our settling and cultivating the public lands is in accordance with the best wishes of Government.

Rationale. The squatters of Pike Creek were not obeying the law, but at the same time they were doing all they could to make sure that the land, when it became legally available, would be theirs to own. In other words, their actions were extralegal rather than illegal. The Pike Creek squatters actions mirrored those of many members of the Revolutionary generation who had declared their independence from Britain in order to preserve rights they believed they possessed under British constitutional law. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the squatters in this community in southeastern Wisconsin invoked the language of the Revolution when they tried to establish their claim to land there. We, therefore, as well meaning inhabitants, having in view the promotion of the interest of our settlement, they declared, and knowing the many advantages derived from unity of feeling and action, do come forward this day, and solmenly pledge ourselves to render each other our mutual assistance, in the protection of our just rights.

Cherokee Protest

Among the protests offered by members of the Cherokee nation and their allies during the 1830s, few were as effective as those remonstrances that pointed out that many Cherokees determination to retain their homeland was justified under American law, particularly the U. S. Constitution. That point was clear on 22 June 1836, when a group of Cherokees protested the federal governments continuing efforts to pressure them to move to Indian country:

The Cherokee delegation have thus considered it their duty to exhibit before your honorable body a brief view of the Cherokee case, by a short statement of facts. A detailed narrative would form a history too voluminous to be presented, in a memorial and protest. They have, therefore, contented themselves with a brief recital, and will add, that in reviewing the past, they have done it alone for the purpose of showing what glaring oppressions and sufferings the peaceful and unoffending Cherokees have been doomed to witness and endure. Also, to tell your honorable body, in sincerity, that owing to the intelligence of the Cherokee people, they have a correct knowledge of their own rights, and they well know the illegality of those oppressive measures which have been adopted for their expulsion, by State authority. Their devoted attachment to their native country has not been, nor ever can be, eradicated from their breast. This, together with the implicit confidence, they have been taught to cherish, in the justice, good faith, and magnamity of the United States, also, their firm reliance on the generosity and friendship of the American people, have formed the anchor of their hope and upon which alone they have been induced and influenced to shape their peaceful and manly course, under some of the most trying circumstances any people ever have been called to witness and endure.

Source: Memorial of Protest of the Cherokee Nation, June 22, 1836, in The Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents, edited by Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green (Boston: Bedford Books, 1995), pp. 78-82.

Rights of Squatters. Everywhere in the West in the early nineteenth century, white settlers arrived on newly available land before local, state, or federal officials opened it for legal settlement. In some ways those who moved West into such lands in the nineteenth century were doing something that had been done for generations during the colonial period: moving west to create a farmstead. In colonial times these westward-moving settlers often lived in or near communities of Native American Indians. By the 1820s and 1830s, after the federal government had gained access to territory once owned by Indians, either by treaty or through warfare, white settlers thought that they had a right as citizens of the United States to stake out their tract. Although many were eventually disappointed when surveyors and government officials favored the rights of land speculators over those of squatters, these settlers nonetheless demonstrated two crucial features of life in the West. First, they believed, as the Pike Creek squatters declared, that they had a legal right to gain possession of land in the West even if the federal government did not deed the land to them. Second, though their action was beyond the boundaries of the law, the effort to articulate their beliefs in 1836 demonstrated that westward-moving Americans wanted their own land, but they did not want to inhabit lawless communities. In nascent communities across the plains and the far West, citizens of the United States believed it was necessary to establish the rule of law if they were going to enjoy the rights to property that they so desperately wanted to hold.


James Willard Hurst, Law and the Conditions of Freedom in the Nineteenth-Century United States (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1956).