Our Iowa Heritage: 1845 – Legal Troubles in Bloomington.

(C-0022) February 10, 1845 stamp-less postmarked letter – Iowa City – Johnson County – Iowa Territory 

This rare letter set is addressed to the Sheriff of Muscatine County in the city of Bloomington, (Muscatine) Iowa. It is a two page letter/court document from the District Court in Johnson County – Iowa Territory and was most likely drawn up in the Old Stone Capitol in Iowa City. The issue at hand is money still owed to William Green by four brothers (Carothers et al) surrounding the purchase of two pieces of Muscatine County land (near Nichols, IA) first negotiated in January 1843. The letter was written by and has the wax seal of Stephen B. Gardner (SGB), Clerk of the District Court, Johnson County, Iowa Territory, and page two includes the embossed seal of the Supreme Court of Iowa Territory, witnessed by the Honorable Judge Joseph Williams on February 7, 1845. This set also includes a third page, a response from Sheriff George W. Humphrey, signed March 28, 1845. This set is a true postal treasure dating back to the days when Iowa was a U.S. Territory (1838-1846).

1846 iowa map 2

Where is Bloomington, Iowa? The Town of Bloomington was laid out in 1836 by Colonel Vanater who named the town for his hometown Bloomington, Indiana. This was the first survey by an act of the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature. Approved in January 8, 1837, Bloomington, located on the Mississippi River, was made the county seat. Bloomington was incorporated as a Town of the second class on January 23, 1839, and on May 6 its first president, Joseph Williams, was elected. The population of Bloomington in January 1839 was 71 and there were 33 buildings in the town. Because of the great difficulty in getting mail, (it was often sent to Bloomington, Illinois, or Bloomington, Indiana, and sometimes Burlington, Iowa), in 1850 the new name of Muscatine was adopted.

Why no stamp?  The United States issued its first postage stamps in 1847. Before that time, all domestic mail was “stampless” with the rates, dates and origin of the letter being either written by hand (manuscript) or sometimes in combination with a handstamp device. Postage rates varied according to the distance a letter was to be carried from the post office where it entered the mail to its final destination. These “zone” rates were relatively stable from 1825 to 1845, with a single (1 ounce) letter rate as follows:

Not over 30 miles: 6 cents; 30 to 80 miles: 10 cents; 80 to 150 miles: 12½ cents; 150 to 400 miles: 18¾ cents; over 400 miles: 25 cents. There were “double” and “triple” rates as the letter’s size increased.

Our 1845 “stamp-less” letter is going from Iowa City to Bloomington (Muscatine), which is 41 miles, plus it was extra heavy (over 1 ounce), so the postmaster marked it “Double 20,” which meant the sender paid the 10 cent rate (30 to 80 miles) x 2 (double) = 20 cents.

Read more about “stamp-less” mail and how postage rates were determined.


Page One: “William Green vs. four Carothers brothers” looks to be land dispute in Muscatine County, but was taken to the Iowa Territorial Supreme Court in Iowa City for judicial review. This letter is directing the Sheriff in Muscatine County to execute the Court’s decision in favor of the plaintiff, stating that the Carothers must pay Green $282 in damages, plus $40.06 in taxes, plus any additional court costs that accumulate between the writing of this letter and the resolution of the issue (up to 70 days). The sheriff is being drawn into this court case by order of the Judicial Court of the Territory of Iowa.


Page Two: “Witness the Hon. Joseph Williams, Judge of Our Said Court with the seal thereof here unto affixed at Iowa City this 7th day of February A.D. 1845. Stephen B. Gardner, Clerk of District Court, Johnson County.”

muscatinemap 2

The land in question?  Muscatine County, Iowa – two pieces of land, each eighty acres. (#1) West Half of the North East (NE) Quarter of Section Thirteen (13) Township Number Seventy-Seven (77) North, Range Four (4) West of 5th Principal Meridian. (#2) East Half of the North West (NW) Quarter of Section Thirteen (13) Township Number Seventy-Seven (77) North, Range Four (4) West of 5th Principal Meridian. These 160 acres are in the same township (as Nichols, Iowa (Seventy-Seven North, Range Four W) in Muscatine County. (see map above)


Page Three: This third page included in our unique letter set is a short response written on the back of the original letter by Muscatine County Sheriff George W. (GW) Humphrey. Humphrey states that after visiting the defendants in question (March 18, 1845), he has decided that there has been an “error in advertising” and because of an inadequate amount of time to correct the issue before the execution order expires (70 days from the date of the original letter), he did not proceed with the court’s order. Signed March 28, 1845 and returned to Iowa City.

1845alias What happened next?

Page Four: The final piece of info on this letter/summons is the notation of S B Gardner on the back side of the letter. Gardner, upon the receipt of Sheriff Humphrey’s response, filled the paperwork under the title: William Green vs. John Carothers, Et al. Execution to Muscatine County, recording the date of the letter return (March  31, 1845). On May 5, 1846 (over one year later) Gardner returned to the file and issued an alias. An alias refers to the process of issuing a second execution after an earlier process has failed for some reason to accomplish its purpose. Alias execution, alias subpoena, alias summons, and alias writ are all example of alias process.

The key players involved in the writing of this letter:

Stephen B. Gardner, the author of our 2-page letter, was Clerk for the Iowa District Court, and Clerk for the Johnson County Board of Commissioners, living in Iowa City with his family during the 1840’s and 50’s. The 1850 US Census (Iowa City – Johnson County) shows:

Stephen B. Gardner, age 46, clerk of District Court, born in N. Carolina
Margarett (as spelled), age 52, born in Maryland
Barbary (as written) Nickols, age 12, born in Pennsylvania

Other state records show that Stephen B. Gardner was one of twenty-five trustees appointed in April 1843 to oversee the formation of Iowa City College, a seminary of higher learning for “the benefit of the youth of every class of citizens, and every religious denomination, who shall be freely admitted to equal advantages and privileges of education, and to all the literary honors of said college.”

Stephen B. Gardner appears in the story of Iowa City historian, F.W. Irish. By the 1870’s, Gardner had moved to Kansas as was the recipient of Irish’s gentle kindness and generosity. Read more here.

Honorable Judge Joseph Williams, official witness to the letter written by Clerk Stephen B. Gardner, served on the Iowa Territorial Supreme Court from the formation of territory in 1838 and on the State Supreme Court until January 25, 1848; and again from January 15, 1849 until January 11, 1855. For seven years he was Chief Justice. Click here to read about the 1839 court case that struck a massive blow against slavery – a case that Judge Williams participated in.

Born December 8, 1801, at Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. He studied law in the office of Chauncy Forward and was admitted to the bar in his native state where he practiced law for a time at Somerset. Upon his appointment to the Iowa Territorial Supreme Court in 1838 by President Van Buren, he located in the new Territory of Iowa at Bloomington (Muscatine). The 1838, 1839, and 1840 court sessions were held at the territorial capitol in Burlington. The 1841 through 1854 sessions were held in Iowa City. In 1855, the 5th General Assembly voted to change the location of the capitol to Des Moines. In 1857, he was appointed, by President Buchanan, a Supreme Court judge of Kansas Territory and later, by President Lincoln, as Judge of the United States District Court at Memphis, Tennessee. Justice Williams died at Fort Scott, Kansas, March 31, 1870.

George W. Humphrey, author of the return letter, was Sheriff of Muscatine County from 1844-through 1845.

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