In 1831 Rebecca Burlend, her husband John, and their five youngest surviving children left England for Pike County, Illinois. Resentful of the high rent they paid for their Yorkshire farm, the Burlends looked forward to owning their own farm in the United States. Once arrived, however, they learned that land ownership on the American frontier presented its own difficulties and dangers. In Illinois, government land offices either sold sections of land to settlers or provided them with certificates of preemption. “Preemption” was a process through which a settler could stake a claim to a piece of land for up to four years without paying for it as long as he (or she) cultivated it, built on it, or otherwise “improved” it. The government’s goal was to encourage settlement of the wilderness. Settlers, however, sometimes illegally exploited the process, as Burlend describes here.
After reaping our wheat this season, our neighbour, Mr. Paddock, expressed a wish to sell us the pre-emption right to his land. Like many persons in Illinois, this individual wanted [lacked] industry, as he rarely worked more than half of his time. He had been more than three years on it, and would consequently lose all right to it in a short time, unless he paid the government demands—one hundred dollars, before the period expired. Notwithstanding his love of ease, he was not without the means to pay for it; but preferred, as he said, a change, and intended to migrate to another unimproved situation, and there spend four years, or perhaps longer, if no one thwarted his interests. As his land was contiguous to ours on one point, we thought it would be a good speculation to purchase it, especially as the price he set upon the improvement was very moderate. He had fourteen or fifteen acres broken up, besides the house, which was a tolerably good one of the kind. He valued his labour at fifty dollars, and offered to receive payment in either cattle or wheat at a fair price. We hesitated a long time before we decided, foreseeing that unless we paid for it at the land office the succeeding spring, we should be liable to lose it. We however finally determined to have it, and as our cattle had again done well, we gave him a good cow, a heifer, and seventy bushels of wheat, which he disposed of at his pleasure. Mr. Paddock, after this, speedily vacated the house, wishing to erect another before the frosts should set in. The only instrument we received as a proof of the bargain, was the pre-emption certificate, which Mr. Paddock had obtained from the recording office, endorsed with his name, ratifying the agreement. This was, however, sufficient testimony. One day shortly after, a Mr.Carr, hearing that Paddock had removed, came to his late possessions and found my husband repairing a fence. He seemed to interest himself very much in the situation, and asked several questions respecting the pre-emption right, &c. His questions were evaded as well as civility would allow. They, however, served to premonish [warn] us that Mr. Carr had some sinister plans affecting that property, and we knew that if he took possession of the house it would be a very troublesome affair.
Though these considerations were based only on conjecture, the disreputable character of Mr. Carr, added to his suspicious manner, gave them much of the force of reality. Perplexed with these ideas, we scarcely knew what course to adopt. At one time we thought it advisable to set fire to the house and burn it down; then again we wished it not to be known that we feared for its safety; besides it would be very useful to keep farming implements in, or it would serve as a piggery or sheep cot if we wanted. We would have gone immediately to the land office and paid for it, if we had possessed sufficient money; we expected, however, our sugar-orchard would make up the deficit the following spring. To quiet our apprehensions in the present instance, our only feasible method appeared to be, that we should take possession of the house ourselves. But here was another obstacle: it was impossible that we could leave our present establishment, on account of our cattle and dairy being kept there. We found we should be obliged to divide our family, and have one part at Mr. Paddock’s late residence and the other at our own. My husband would have cheerfully gone to the newly purchased situation, had not his presence and services at home among the cattle been indispensable. It evidently therefore became my duty to undertake the unpleasant task of leaving home, to occupy a house which we feared an unprincipled intruder wished to inhabit. I had however grown accustomed to hardships even more severe than this. I took with me our two youngest children, something with which to warm our food, and a bed. As the house was only half a mile from our own, I frequently saw the other parts of the family during the day; but the nights seemed dreary and long. For a few days nobody came near us, and I would have gladly hoped our fears were groundless.
They eventually proved but too true, as the following account sufficiently manifests. One afternoon, after I had been living in this manner about a week, a person drove a clumsy waggon to the door, containing a little furniture, a woman, and two children. I shut the door, and endeavoured to fasten the latch, there being no lock. But the man, who I afterwards learnt was Mr. Carr, quickly forced it open, and bidding his wife walk in, said to her,—well, my dear, this is our house: how do you like it? without seeming to notice me in the least. He then carried in their furniture, and then, for the first time, found leisure to speak to me. He told me they could do without my company pretty well, and wished me to be a good neighbour and go home. There were two rooms; I took my bed and other articles into the other which was unoccupied, and felt very anxious to see my husband. He came in the evening, and saw what had occurred. Mr. Carr held up a paper as a defiance, and told him that it was the certificate obtained at the land office, Quincy, as a title to the estate. We were assured he could not have purchased it legally; and we even doubted that he had paid for it at all. When my husband attempted to enter the house, Mr. Carr shut the door, and resisted with all his force; but being inferior in strength, admittance was obtained. On perceiving us engaged in a whispered conversation, he intimated that if we intended to spend the night in his house, he would go and make use of ours, to which we made no reply.
The result of our deliberation was, that my husband should ride over to Quincy, a distance of fifty miles, take the pre-emption certificate with him, and ascertain whether through perjury he had purchased the land. Shortly after, my husband went home, and on his arrival found Mr. Carr, whom, as I afterwards learnt, he quickly made scamper. Next morning he called with a quantity of provisions, and took leave of me for his journey, which would take him three days; no one but myself knowing the purport of his leaving home. It was most uncomfortable for me to be thus left with only two little children under the same roof with a family whose sentiments towards me were the most unfriendly imaginable, and whose character stood assuredly not very high for probity. In the fullest and worst sense of the word, I was a prisoner, not daring to leave the room, and exposed to the jeers and taunts of a malicious man who left no means untried, short of personal violence, to expel me from the house; telling me my husband had sent me there to get rid of me, with a thousand other fabricated and tantalizing remarks.
The third day, which was the Sabbath, having sent for my Bible, I endeavoured to solace myself by perusing its sacred pages. This made him more furious than ever; uttering the most blasphemous imprecations, he vowed “he would be both rid of me, and my cursed religion before long.” About ten in the forenoon, two or three of his friends came to see him, who, finding or knowing how matters stood, assisted him in his attempts to deride me. I really thought I now must surrender, and had it not been for the man’s wife, who checked their scorn, I am apt to think I should have been obliged to withdraw. After dinner my situation took a favourable turn. By some means or other many of our neighbours having learnt where I was and on what account, came to the house to see me. For a while my keeper refused admittance to all, till by and by there was quite a crowd at the door. I conversed with some females whom I knew through an aperture in the wall, which served for a window; and as many of them wished to enter, a number of men favourable to our interests told my disappointed persecutor if he did not allow the females to visit me, they would convince him he was no master. Awed by this declaration, he opened the door and the house was immediately filled, Mr.Carr and his party appearing completely nonplused. And, so strangely had matters changed, that religious worship was held in the place that evening, suggested by a few pious friends, who seeing my Bible, had thought it their duty to propose it.
This was too much for Mr.Carr; he entirely left the premises during service. Towards nightfall the arrival of my husband was announced, who was much surprised to find me so well attended. He told Mr.Carr, in the presence of the persons congregated, where he had been, and how his perjury was detected. He likewise gave him to understand that he would probably find he had acted imprudently as well as wickedly. But the most agreeable part of the intelligence to me was, that there was no necessity for me to remain any longer in the house. I therefore very willingly left it and accompanied my husband to our own habitation, having first thanked my friends for their kind interference and regard. The sum of the particulars is, that Mr. Carr had paid for the land, having previously sworn there was no improvement on it; although a pre-emption certificate had been obtained at the recording office, Pittsfield. Of course the purchase was illegal, and Carr liable to a heavy penalty. The following morning, we learnt our firmness had acted powerfully on the mind of our opponent, as his wife called upon us to say that her husband was willing to make a compromise, and would either pay us for our claims on the estate or sell his certificate. This proposal required some consideration; we therefore gave her no definite answer, but told her if her husband wished to have an interview with us, notwithstanding his base conduct, we would treat him with civility. In the meantime, we considered it best to sell our pre-emption right, if he would produce the money, as we knew we could not buy his certificate at that time. In a day or two our opponent waited upon us wishing to have us pacified, as he knew he had acted criminally. We told him we would allow him peaceable possession on the payment of eighty dollars for the improvement, which he agreed to pay, and shortly afterwards the affair was settled, eventually to our advantage, though it cost us some anguish of mind. The peculiarity of the American law respecting the purchase of land, although framed originally with the view of assisting new settlers, is not infrequently a source of strife; at the present time there are many persons who have cultivated land for numbers of years, without paying anything for it; and there is no means of knowing, except by applying at the land office. Should, however, this counsel escape them, some one would be sure to go and purchase it, or even reap some of the corn when ripe, the original cultivator having no legal power to prevent them.
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Source: A True Picture of Emigration: Or Fourteen Years in the Interior of North America; Being a Full and Impartial Account of the Various Difficulties and Ultimate Success of an English Family who Emigrated from Barwick-in-Elmet, near Leeds, in the Year 1831. London: G. Berger, Holywell Street; Leeds: David Green; Manchester: A. Heywood; and all other Booksellers, 52–55.