DAKOTA DATEBOOK: A Case of Claim Jumping
by Merry Helm
July 21, 2020 — Back in 1884, some pistol-packing cowboys showed up at the depot at Devils Lake. The news was quickly carried to Sheriff Ever Wagness, who confronted the men and told them to either surrender their guns or get out of town. Because of events the year before, Ramsey County had passed an ordinance requiring handguns to be registered, and permits were now required for carrying them – and they had to be concealed.
It all began with a West Point graduate named Heber Creel. In 1880, Creel was a Second Lieutenant in the Seventh Cavalry when he was transferred to Fort Totten at Devils Lake. There, he created detailed maps of the lake and the adjacent reservation. A year later, he was building a telegraph line from Ft. Totten to the railhead at Larimore when he was drawn in by increasing speculation about where the railroad was next headed. As interest in the land around Devils Lake increased, the 27-year-old got land fever, resigned his post and bet on the lake’s northern edge.
Creel sent out the word and managed to bring in a variety of former military men, frontiersmen and speculators to help him establish a townsite that he named – of course – Creel City (or Creelsburgh) on what came to be known as Creel Bay. To his area maps, Creel now added pie-in-the-sky drawings of any number of different railways – all converging on his new dominion.
He and his cronies set about gaining control of as much of the north shore as possible. They filed claims, squatted and used legal mumbo-jumbo to convince newcomers that the land was already taken. If that didn’t work, they resorted to threats and intimidation, and by the spring of 1883, they had gained control of several thousand acres.
During the winter, Fred and Charles Ward, sons of a wealthy Chicago businessman, had come to Dakota to go into the real estate business with Lucien Goodhue, the founder of Larimore. The boys filed on four 160-acre tracts under the homestead and preemption acts, and then cast their sites toward Devils Lake.
By now, Heber Creel had organized the Citizens Protective Association to ward off intruders, so when the Ward boys asked about the land on which Creel’s boys were squatting, they were warned to keep moving. The Wards brothers waited and watched and studied. About half way between Creel City and the town of Devils Lake, three miles away, they discovered that one of Creel’s men, John Bell, had used his claim shack to straddle two adjoining claims.
Accounts differ about what next transpired, possibly because one of the defendants in the case was the publisher of the Creel City Inter-Ocean – the same newspaper that reported the story.
According to North Dakota historian, Frank Vysralek, the Ward brothers went to the U.S. Land Office in Grand Forks to investigate John Bell’s land claim and learned that Bell had legal claim to only one piece of the land. The other parcel was open to contest.
Accounts agree that by April 22, 23-year-old Fred had placed a claim shanty on one of the parcels. Fred, his 27-year-old brother and a man named Jack Elliot were in the shanty when John Bell and some friends showed up that afternoon. An argument broke out between the two parties, and when Bell left, he warned that they’d be back with help.
That night, people heard gunshots, and at dawn, they went to the disputed claim shack to investigate. Both Fred and his brother, Charlie, were found shot in the back outside the shanty.
Jack Elliot, who was also at the shanty, was badly beaten. He told authorities that a group of men surrounded the shanty and told them to leave, but when Fred opened the door, he was promptly dragged off and beaten. Charlie reportedly yelled into the dark, asking his brother if he was okay. There was no answer, so he fired his revolver from the window. The answer was a volley of rifle fire until he yelled that he gave up. When Charlie walked out, he was shot in the neck and killed.
The men who took part in the murders arrogantly admitted they did it, calling it a case of claim jumping. Within hours, the Ward brothers were painted as the bad guys, and Creel’s men were congratulated for their “peaceable actions.” Two days later, a press release issued in St. Paul said that the railroad had agreed to buy land held by Creel and his men for $25,000.
Historian Frank Vyzralek writes, “…Creel’s former partners chuckled at their good fortune and took turns submitting exorbitant bills to Fred and Charlie’s father, Dr. Edward P. Ward, for services performed in connection with the coroner’s investigation.”
The trial was held 15 months later, with Dr. Ward sending a heavy-hitter from Chicago to work with prosecutors from Fargo and Grand Forks. Of the dozen men charged with the crime, the two with the most evidence against them were tried first. One was the local newspaper editor, Bickham Lair, who had admitted that he dropped to a knee and carefully sighted before shooting Charlie Ward. There were several such damaging statements, and the prosecution was optimistic, but both men were acquitted. In a bizarre twist, the prosecutors then told the judge that if they couldn’t convict these two, they couldn’t convict any of them – an impartial jury couldn’t be found. The judge agreed, dismissed the remaining cases, and all the men were set free.
John Bell and several others next tried to preempt on the deceased brothers’ four land claims of 160-acres each. In the only justice he received, Dr. Ward took the case, on behalf of the heirs including Charlie’s wife and baby, before the General Land Office and the Department of the Interior. He won, and his sons’ killers were evicted.
Three months after the murders, the railroad reached Heber Creel’s self-titled town and renamed it Devils Lake. Ramsey County passed an ordinance requiring all handguns to be registered, and only people with permits were allowed to carry them. The following summer, a group of pistol-packing cowboys got off the train in Devils Lake, and Sheriff Ever Wagness told them to either surrender their guns or get out of town. The cowboys handed over their guns without complaint. One of them was new to the territory and introduced himself… he was Teddy Roosevelt.
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.