Wilcox v. Jackson, 38 U.S. (13 Pet.) 498 (1839), sometimes nicknamed the "Beaubien Land Case"[1] was a legal action decided by the United States Supreme Court concerning the land under Fort Dearborn shortly after incorporation of Chicago as a town in Cook County, Illinois.[2]

Wilcox v. Jackson
Argued February 27–28, March 2, 4–6, 1839
Decided March 9, 1839
Full case nameDe La Fayette Wilcox v. John Jackson
Citations38 U.S. 498 (more)
13 Pet. 498; 10 L. Ed. 264; 1839 U.S. LEXIS 457
Court membership
Chief Justice
Roger B. Taney
Associate Justices
Joseph Story · Smith Thompson
John McLean · Henry Baldwin
James M. Wayne · Philip P. Barbour
John Catron · John McKinley
Case opinion
MajorityBarbour, joined by unanimous

Background edit

The U.S. Army built Fort Dearborn near the confluence of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan in 1804, pursuant to a land concession by native Americans in the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, as modified in the 1803 Treaty of Fort Wayne. Farmers and traders also settled upon and improved land near the fort, which served as refuge during various conflicts. Hostilities with Native Americans escalated after the 1809 Treaty of Fort Wayne, and the fort was destroyed shortly after the beginning of the War of 1812, which led to an evacuation order that resulted in the Fort Dearborn massacre of August 15, 1812.

The U.S. Army rebuilt Fort Dearborn in 1816, but only periodically occupied it. However, even without the military presence, the U.S. government stationed a factor and Indian Agent at or adjacent to the Fort for trading with nearby Native American peoples, as well as to pay annuities under those and other treaties, including 1816 Treaty of St. Louis and the 1821 Treaty of Chicago. Trader Jean Baptiste Beaubien, who had bought a shack and farm next to the fort in 1812, then returned to the area, built a home and trading post in 1816, and in 1822 bought the nearby factor house after it was closed following the previous year's treaty. Meanwhile, the settlement grew. A town was platted in 1829 as part of the construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal (designed to link Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River via its tributary the Illinois River), and a real estate boom ensued. The state legislature chartered the Town of Chicago following a census in 1833 which showed 500 residents, among them Beaubien and his relatives.

Meanwhile, on May 29, 1830 the U.S. Congress passed a temporary act (later revived by an act in 1832[3] and the act of June 19, 1834) granting a right of pre-emption to those who cultivated and were in actual possession of public lands, so settlers who had improved and occupied public lands the right to buy them from the government.[4] Robert McKinzie, the son of recently deceased trader John Kinzie managed to get such a patent for his land his father had occupied (and where he had lived) on the west side of the Chicago River. Beaubien twice sought a similar patent for his land on the east side of the Chicago River, but two different land agents (first in Palestine, Illinois and later in Danville, Illinois) issued formal letters of rejection. Meanwhile, local native Americans agreed to relocate across the Mississippi River in the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, so many expected the fort's permanent closure.

In 1835, upon hearing about further land sales except to the extent settlers already lived and improved on the tracts, Beaubien tried again to patent his homestead, this time at the new Chicago land office. He paid $94.61 and tendered documents claiming 75.69 acres, and seemed to succeed. He received a certificate from the registrar (who had consulted with the local U.S. attorney), which he conveyed (sold) to attorney Murray McConnell, who had established a law office downstate in Morgan County, Illinois and who for a time was a state legislator.[5] McConnell leased the lakefront land to John Jackson, but the U.S. Army again occupied the fort, so Major Lafayette Wilcox was living on part of the tract. Jackson (with McConnell as his lawyer) pursued an action in ejectment against Wilcox.

Future Illinois governor Thomas Ford was the initial judge, who pointed out that the General Land Office had failed to act and complete the paperwork by issuing a land patent in exchange for the tendered registration certificate, and so invalidated Beaubien's claim as incomplete. When Beaubien appealed, the Illinois Supreme Court (in an opinion drafted by his friend Theophilus W. Smith) found his claim valid on the grounds that the Illinois legislature had never authorized the military reservation.[6] Thus, the trial court found for the commander, but the Supreme Court of Illinois found for the lessee.

Opinion of the Court edit

In reversing, the Court ruled that the original settler of the property did not acquire title because it was reserved from sale by the president under the authority of the 1830 act. Also, no land patent was given and only such a patent would convey perfect title enforceable against the government. The register's certificate was not evidence of title.

Aftermath edit

Following the Supreme Court decision, the U.S. District Court ordered Beaubien's payment returned, but the military realized the fort unnecessary since Native Americans had left the area. Therefore, the General Land Office proceeded to ready the property for subdivision and public auction as the "Fort Dearborn Addition to Chicago" (reserving only space for a lighthouse and quarters for the harbormaster). The subsequent sale of 233 lots raised $106,042.16 for the federal government, despite the decline of real estate prices after the Panic of 1837.[7] Beaubien had pleaded with fellow Chicagoans not to bid on the six lots which contained his home seventeen-plus years earlier, as well as garden and outbuildings (many previously legitimately from the government during the fort's downsizing). Nonetheless attorney James H. Collins, who had assisted the government's case against Beaubien's claim, bought five of the six lots for about $1000, and Beaubien could only purchase one of them, for $225. Either Beaubien then sold his lot when he couldn't buy the rest of his homestead, or Collins actually evicted Beaubien from his Michigan Avenue home in 1839.[8][9][10] However, Collins was later less successful in his lawsuit against the Illinois Central Railroad for encroaching on his lakefront property, and when the federal government formally abandoned the lighthouse and harbor area in 1854, Beaubien's friend, Congressman John Wentworth secured special legislation allowing Beaubien to patent those nine lots.[11][12]

References edit

  1. ^ Andreas, A. T. (Alfred Theodore) (1884). History of Chicago. From the earliest period to the present time. Kankakee Community College Learning Resource Center. Chicago, A. T. Andreas.
  2. ^ Carl B. Roden, "The Beaubien Claim", Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society Vol. 42, No. 2 (Jun., 1949), pp. 150-154, 162
  3. ^ "ACTS OF THE TWENTY-SECOND CONGRESS" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on June 11, 2023. Retrieved October 15, 2023.
  4. ^ "General Land Office automated records project Pre-1908 patents". Retrieved October 15, 2023.
  5. ^ "McConnel, Murray (McConnell)".
  6. ^ John Jackson ex dem. Murray McConnell v. Lafayette Wilcox, 2 Ill. 344 (1836) (McConnell was Beaubien's lessee, and had subleased it to Jackson)
  7. ^ Roden, pp. 157-161
  8. ^ Mason, Edward Gay (1881). Illinois in the Eighteenth Century: Kaskaskia and Its Parish Records : Old Fort Chartres : and Col. John Todd's Record-book. Fergus Printing Company.
  9. ^ Andreas p. 86
  10. ^ Illinois Catholic Historical Review. Illinois Catholic Historical Society. 1918.
  11. ^ Roden pp.160-165
  12. ^ According to ancestry.com, the petition raised in the 3rd session of the 25th Congress, journal page 305, was tabled.

External links edit