Land Locators & Claim Jumpers Part 1

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True West Magazine has kindly given us permission to abridge and reprint a remarkable, autobiographical article of August 1970 titled "Claim Jumpers" by Walt Coburn. We have not yet found a more detailed account of a Land Locator’s activities than Walt’s, and perhaps this is due to his subsequent background as a surveyor and ability as a "word wrangler".

In this account, and those of Alice Day Pratt¹ and George C. Bailey² we have seen that the Land Locator’s scope of work was much larger than that of a Surveyor’s. So also were his fees; up to $1.00 per acre to "locate" a claim as compared to $20.00³ total for a survey only. (A good wage at that time was $3.00 for a 12 hour day.) Though Walt Coburn refers to Charles Beard as a "Surveyor", we shall see that Mr. Beard’s actions were the much larger ones of a "Land Locator", which were:
1. Identify the land still open for claiming;
2. Find and evaluate the land;
3. Transport the client to the land and show it to him;
4. If selected, survey the land and mark its boundaries;
5. Fill out the claim applications;
6. Accompany the client to the Land Office for filing.

We shall develop this more in Part II next month.

The Claim Jumpers
By Walt Coburn

(The italicized words are Walt’s.)
The Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 was duly passed, doubling the homestead acreage from its original status of 160 acres to 320 acres, and countless circulars and pamphlets were broadcast which read "FREE GOVERNMENT LAND IN MONTANA." (This) marked the real beginning of the homesteader invasion in Montana.

Immigrant cars waited on sidetracks in Chicago, St. Paul and Minneapolis. Such immigrant trains4 departed daily, west bound for Montana, filled with men, women and children of all ages who held dreams of a paradise… Those waiting immigrant trains contained stock cars to hold work teams and farm implements, barbwire and household goods. With few exceptions (these) were destined for the (nightmare) of failure (and) poverty.

Land locators appeared in every cowtown along the Highline, to locate those unfortunate people on arid, waterless prairie land.

"During the summer of 1911, I had passed my twenty-first birthday and was therefore eligible to file on a 320 acre homestead. Charlie Beard, a…Justice of Peace at Zortman, Montana, was also a qualified surveyor and during the past years had surveyed the patented land owned by my father’s Circle C outfit…Charlie Beard had compiled these parcels of patented land… in one large blue-print map about five feet square. Charlie knew every square mile of that part of Montana, the location of every section corner…dating back to the 1880’s when the boundary lines of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation were established.

Charlie Beard had known me since I was a yearling and he was a grown man. It was that sort of friendship. I was always welcome at his ranch in the Little Rockies and I’d helped him survey many times when he came to the ranch.

When the time came for me to file on my homestead, Charlie Beard showed up at the ranch in his buckboard, with transit, surveyor’s chain and blueprint maps. Pencil in hand he pointed out a strip of land located alongside the reservation fence which was government land. `That’s where we’ll locate your homestead, Walt, before some scissorbill nester beats you to it.’ There was no need to fence the land in because the reservation fence established the west boundary and (a) fenced-in alfalfa field established the south boundary. A plowed furrow following the survey line on the east and north would take the place of a barbwire fence. (This was a Roman practice as well.)

I spent the whole day helping survey the 320-acre strip, chaining it off and driving wooden pegs in the ground every 100 (feet), with a sulky plow following the survey line… It was almost sundown when we finished, and just as Charlie Beard was stowing his transit in the buckboard Spurlock and Wells rode up. Spurlock was a six-foot, lean man with graying hair and mustache…He packed a .38 Colt automatic in a shoulder holster… and judging from his high-chinned manner you’d have thought he wore a nickel-plated deputy marshal’s star.

`What’s going on here?’ Spurlock’s thinlipped mouth twisted.

`I’ve just taken up my homestead rights,’ I proclaimed with pride.

`Any man,’ Spurlock said, "who files on a homestead claim is supposed to stay on it-plow the land and grow a crop. Bear that in mind, kid.’

Though Charlie Beard was well acquainted with both (men) I noticed he didn’t speak to either of them, simply ignoring them as he dismantled his tripod and shoved the instrument into a shabby saddle leather case.

"Tomorrow morning," Jake Myers, the Circle C ranch foreman, told me, "you and Charlie better be on the stage for Malta. Charlie will help you file on the right homestead at the land office." B. W. Brockway was the first U.S. land commissioner, and it was (at the Malta log cabin land office that) I filed my homestead claim.

A couple of Métis built my sod-roofed log cabin. A sulky disc plow turned over about twenty-five acres of level land below the spring, and seeded the land in bluejoint and timothy… Sometimes I slept there at night, and I made it a point to show up there each day for an hour or so just to fulfill the requirements of a homesteader, but mainly for the benefit of Spurlock and Wells in case they were spying with field glasses.

Thus a year went by, and while I was working as a cowhand for the Circle C outfit I made the token gesture, all that the law required of any homesteader in Montana. [historically correct]

(Then) Charlie Beard… found out that a honyaker scissorbill by the name of Thomas Briggs had filed a contest notice to my homestead claim at the Dodson land Office, and Spurlock and Wells had signed affidavits to the effects that I had not lived up to the terms required of a homesteader. The land locator at Dodson had advised Briggs to move in and claim squatter’s rights. Briggs had followed his instructions with the (other two) backing his play…

(Shortly thereafter our) hired man…informed us that there was a four-horse team loaded with logs in the middle of the alfalfa field. (The) load of logs had come in by way of the reservation fence which had been cut…(and would shortly be the jumper’s claim shack).

Jake Myers, gave me a meaningful nod, `Looks like Spurlock has finally opened the pot’. Me’n you and Walt Sizer here are about to buy a stack of chips in his game.’ Shortly afterwards, the three of us were ahorseback… All of us packed six-shooters shoved in the waistband of our Levis, and as we rode along at a jog trot Jake gave me’n Sizer our orders.

I was told to tie into the driver of the four-horse team…"Stampede the team," Jake whispered to me as he rode close, "Double that wet rope across Briggs’ back…All right, have at `em!"…At that same moment came the sudden crack of Jake’s .45 six-shooter…Before I could swing my wet rope down across Briggs’ back, my green

broke bronc whirled and jumped, bogged his head and started pitching. At the same time the four-horse team, spooked by the explosion and sudden burst of flame, broke into a run…I got my horse’s head jerked up and he broke into a run… Briggs was hollering, "God’s sakes don’t shoot my horses! Whoa, boys!&

Briggs got his team stopped just this side of the reservation fence. He had been jolted off his perch on the reach and was holding a death grip on the lines. He’d been dragged in the mud and was a skinned-up mess…Then he sighted me as I rode up with my wet rope in my hand. "I got a-plenty, mister", Briggs pleaded as he reached for the sky. "I got a bellyful. Don’t hurt my horses!"

"You’re the gent that aimed to jump this homestead claim. You done filed your contest at the land office."

"I done changed my mind," Briggs replied in a plaintive tone…

Briggs withdrew his claim to my homestead and Jake hired him and his team of horses to haul winter supplies to the Circle C ranch, and for a few years Briggs stayed on the payroll. Later on, he filed a homestead near the ranch… He was only one of several luckless homesteaders who were hired by the Circle C outfit when they went broke on a dryland farm. Working for wages enabled Briggs to prove up on the land that he sold later to the outfit.

In 1912 a new law was passed, cutting the allotted time for homesteaders to three years, and I got my final papers without anybody contesting my claim."


¹ See "Locators – The Lost World", American Surveyor, August 2013.
² See "Tall Tree Surround Us", American Surveyor, December, 2013.
³ Annals of Wyoming, Vol. 50, No 1, page 120; Old Jules, by Mari Sandoz, Hasting House Publishers, page 270.
4 See Robert Lewis Stevenson’s 1896 book, Across the Plains, which tells of his emigrant train ride across America.

Chad & Linda are avid sleuths of the history of surveys and monuments. Linda says, "The more we know of the Metes and Bounds states the more we will understand the future of PLS states." Chad & Linda would appreciate research suggestions:

A 5.090Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE