Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Bellevue War - An Incident of Frontier Iowa Life in 1840

Only known contemporary illustration of the Bellevue
War. (Colorized print from The Loyal West in the 
Rebellion
, by John W. Barber. Published in 1865)
In the late 1830’s the area surrounding Bellevue, Iowa served as a refuge for horse thieves, counterfeiters, gamblers, and robbers. The Burlington Hawkeye and Iowa Patriot blamed the rash of outlaws on the area's proximity to the Mississippi River. It drew the “very dregs of depravity into this country.” They would swoop out of their hideouts, grab their booty, then race back to the safety of William Brown’s hotel before anyone could identify them.

Brown was one of the original settlers of Bellevue. He came to the area in 1836 or 1837 and purchased the hotel. In 1838 he ran for sheriff of Jackson County and lost to William W. Warren of Dubuque. In 1840 Brown ran for a seat in the Territorial Legislature and lost to Thomas Cox. That created bad feelings because Cox had accused him of illegal dealings during the campaign.

The band committing most of the robberies around Bellevue worked out of Elk Heart, Michigan. They focused on Iowa and the Rock River Valley in Illinois, though occasionally they ventured as far as Kentucky, Missouri, and the Cherokee Nation.[1]


The way the band worked, they had spotters on location who passed on information about promising prospects. When the robbers hit, the spotters were careful to be with a neighbor who could vouch for their innocence. That way no blame could fall back on them.


Bellevue was a central point on their route.

The leader, William Brown, was a strong, athletic man who ran a public house. Outwardly, Brown was as honest as the day was long. He “possessed a pleasant, kindly address, and was scrupulously honest in his every day’s dealings with his neighbors.”[2] If anyone nearby needed anything, Brown stood ready to offer a helping hand—whether it be food, money, or a place to stay.

 

Over time, “as his power increased, Brown threw off his mask and flaunted his power. Even then, he stayed in the background and planned the gang’s jobs. He never participated in passing counterfeit money, stealing horses, etc.”[3] Like the Banditti of the Prairie, Brown had a ready alibi for any of his men if they happened to get arrested.


William Brown's hotel in Bellevue as it looked in 1903.
(From William Gue's History of Iowa From the Earliest 
Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Centur
y. 1903)
Brown’s band wasn’t fussy. They were primarily horse thieves, but that didn’t stop them from grabbing a stray cow, pig, or an occasional yoke of oxen.  

 

The citizens of Bellevue eventually had enough of the band’s shenanigans. They met on March 20th, 1840, to determine how to rid themselves of the bandits. When it came down to it, they had two choices. They could drive the robbers away, or they could hang them. Finally, they decided to let circumstances guide their decision.

 

They procured an arrest warrant for the whole gang from Judge Watkins. Sheriff Warren and Thomas Cox assembled a posse to go after the bandits.

 

Among those charged with horse theft, counterfeiting, etc. included William Brown, William Fox, and Aaron long. 

 

Warren first read the warrant to Brown on March 26th. Things didn’t go very well. While it was apparent Brown wanted to surrender, his men had no intention of turning themselves in.

 

Warren said, Brown’s men “were more like demons than human beings.” When they learned Anson Harrington swore the warrant out against them, they forgot about Warren and chased off in pursuit of Harrington. As soon as they left, Brown told him Harrington’s life was in danger, “the boys had been drinking.”[4] 

 

After that, Brown told Warren he should go before his men came back. If they couldn’t find Harrington, they may take their vengeance out on him. Moments later, Mrs. Brown grabbed Warren’s arm and dragged him to the back door saying, “Run for your life; they are coming and will kill you.”[5]

 

Warren wasn’t sure what to do. Finally, he deputized a posse and set April 1st as the day to arrest Brown and his men. 

 

When Warren arrived in town, he met up with Colonel Cox’s posse at Richard Burk’s place. From there, they could see Brown‘s men parading in the street with their guns in their hands. In front of the hotel, a red flag inscribed with the words “Victory or Death” waved in defiance. 

 

After much deliberation, the posse decided Sheriff Warren should approach the building first and read the warrant to Brown and his men. After reading the warrant, Brown asked what he intended to do. “Arrest them all,” replied Warren, adding he had the men to do it.[6] 

 

Brown thought about it for a moment, then said it might go better with his men if Warren brought John Sublette, H. R. Magoon, Jerry Jonas, and old man Watkins to pledge their safety.

 

Warren agreed to Brown’s terms, but when he returned to Brown’s hotel, things inside had gone from bad to worse. The gang members were drinking heavily, passing bottles back and forth. They called Warren a damned fool and said they would never give themselves up. They were twenty-three men strong and had a small arsenal to fight the townspeople off. Why should they give themselves up?

 

William Brown didn’t know what to do. He wanted to keep the deal, but his “men had become unmanageable.” They were stinking drunk, and he was “powerless to control them.”[7]

 

Brown pulled Sheriff Warren into the back room. Unlike his men, he was perfectly sober. Brown told Warren he wanted to surrender but now wasn’t the time. If Warren could hold off on arresting them until morning, “when his men would be sober,”[8] he could convince them to turn themselves in. That could have worked, except—just as Sheriff Warren agreed to postpone the arrests the posse came marching into view.

 

Warren ran outside to stop them. He tried to get the posse to turn around. But the men kept moving forward. Brown stood on the porch, with his rifle in hand ready to defend himself or drop his gun. It all depended on what happened next.

 

When he felt everything was going to work out, Brown lowered his rifle. Unfortunately, it misfired. The bullet tore through Thomas Cox’s coat. John Sublette and V. G. Smith returned fire killing Brown. Someone inside the house fired a shot from one of the upper story windows, and Mr. Palmer fell dead in the street.

 

That sparked an all-out war.

 

Much of the fighting was hand to hand. Brown’s “gang fought desperately for fifteen minutes as the posse” forced their way into the hotel. The posse fought their way up the stairs “where a hand to hand struggle with gun barrels, pitchforks and Bowie knives continued.” When Sheriff Warren realized he couldn’t take the building by force, he ordered it fired. Brown’s men jumped out second-story windows as flames burst through the roof. They were quickly captured.[9]

 

The sheriff eventually arrested ten of Brown’s men, five more of them were killed in the shootout—including Brown. Six escaped.[10] Four townspeople lost their lives. 

 

Now that they had the gang, the mob’s mind turned to what they should do with them. The District Court would not meet for three months. The town had no jail, so whatever they decided, they needed to do it quickly.

 

For a moment, it looked as if the prisoners might be hanged. The posse draped nooses around several of their necks. However, calmer heads prevailed.

 

D. G. Bates proposed they should meet the next morning and vote on how to handle the prisoners. That said, they agreed to meet at ten o’clock the following day.

 

Anson Harrington felt the men should be hanged but finally agreed the posse should vote on whether the prisoners be hanged or whipped and banned from Jackson County. Each man was given a white bean and a black bean. White beans were for hanging, black beans for whipping.

 

The verdict was for whipping.

 

Colonel Cox pronounced the sentences on each man, then meted out from four to thirty lashes on the bareback. After that, the posse loaded the prisoners on a boat and floated them downriver with three days’ rations. Each man was warned that should he return he would be hanged.[11] 

 

William Fox later told Edward Bonney about the punishment he received after the Belleview War. “Yes. I was at Belleview in Iowa, at the time the mob shot Brown. They arrested me at the same time but could prove little or nothing against me. So, they tied me up to a tree and whipped me nearly to death, and then let me go.”[12]

 

Apparently, the townspeople had seen enough violence.[13] But it was a close call. If three votes had gone the other way, each of the prisoners could have been hanged.

 

It was a tribute to frontier justice. The mob could just as easily have strung the prisoners up, but cooler heads prevailed.

 



[1] Chicago Western Historical Company. The History of Jackson County Iowa. 1879. P. 520.

[2] Chicago Western Historical Company. The History of Jackson County Iowa. 1879. P. 521.

[3] Chicago Western Historical Company. The History of Jackson County Iowa. 1879. P. 522.

[4] Sheriff Warren’s account of the Bellevue War was first published in the Jackson Sentinel and Bellevue Leader. The entire series of articles was collected in The Bellevue War by Susan K. Lucke. 2002. Bellevue Leader. February 9, 1876.

[5] Sheriff Warren’s account of the Bellevue War was first published in the Jackson Sentinel and Bellevue Leader. The entire series of articles was collected in The Bellevue War by Susan K. Lucke. 2002. Bellevue Leader. February 9, 1876.

[6] Sheriff Warren’s account of the Bellevue War was first published in the Jackson Sentinel and Bellevue Leader. The entire series of articles was collected in The Bellevue War by Susan K. Lucke. 2002. Bellevue Leader. February 9, 1876.

[7] Chicago Western Historical Company. The History of Jackson County Iowa. 1879. P. 615.

[8] Chicago Western Historical Company. The History of Jackson County Iowa. 1879. P. 615.

[9] Gue, Benjamin F. History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century. Vol. 1. 1903. P. 333.

[10] Gue, Benjamin F. History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century. Vol. 1. 1903. P. 333.

[11] Sheriff Warren’s account of the Bellevue War was first published in the Jackson Sentinel and Bellevue Leader. The entire series of articles was collected in The Bellevue War by Susan K. Lucke. 2002.Bellevue Leader. March 8, 1876.

[12] Bonney, Edward. The Banditti of the Prairie. 1855. P. 130.

[13] Maquoketa Excelsior-Record. March 19, 1914.


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