Dying For Land: Murder of Andrew Brown 1852

Murder Victim

Andrew M. Brown
29-year-old Farmer
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Land Dispute

Murder Scene and Date

South Fork Township
Near Maquoketa, Iowa
Jackson County
April 30, 1852


By Nancy Bowers
Written June 2011

South Fork Township is of Maquoketa, Iowa in Clinton County

South Fork Township is northwest of
Maquoketa, Iowa, in Clinton County

Land — rich, black, and fertile — is arguably the most valuable material possession or asset a rural Iowan can own.

So, it’s not surprising that rightful ownership and boundaries are often fiercely protected to ensure the right to build fences and structures, use water and roadways, graze cattle, cut wood, and grow crops.

Since the time of the first Iowa settlers, arguments, vandalism, law suits, and physical altercations have centered on who has the right to certain land. Sometimes disagreements have resulted in murder.

Iowa’s most recent land-related violence came in January 2003 when Milo, Iowa, farmer Rodney Heemstra shot his neighbor Tom Lyon between the eyes and then dragged his body for a mile behind a pickup before stuffing it into a cistern and placing hay on top.

Controversy surrounding the legal outcomes of that murder, spurred on by disagreement about land, still runs high in the state.

This is nothing new. In fact, land claims were at the center of a South Fork Township murder in Jackson County during the spring of 1852 not long after the Iowa Territory became a state in 1846.

☛ Land Claims and Club Law ☚

When the first settlers arrived in Iowa, they operated by land claim law through land clubs made up of men who staked out land close to each other in geographic locations.

Location of the land dispute (courtesy Jackson County Historical Society)

On a first-come, first-serve basis, a settler could claim land — as much as 320 acres — and was considered the rightful owner as long as he occupied it. Then when it came up for sale, he was allowed to purchase it from the government — at $1.25 an acre — without competition from his neighbors.

Land club by-laws specified that if anyone outbid the original settler and claimed the land, they were required to deed it back to the settler for two or three years without interest and not use the land until the time had passed. This made immediate occupation or use of the land by the new buyer impossible.

The primary advantage of the club system was a united front by settlers against encroachers, particularly land speculators. The club members were legally allowed by the Legislature of 1839 to use force to protect settlers’ land, if necessary.

Land sales in Jackson County began in 1845, when the land office for that district opened at Dubuque.

The locations of 40-acre lots to be sold in each township were announced ahead of time by the government. Then the settlers club members appeared at the sales and made new bidders uncomfortable.

If they could not dissuade the buyer from out-bidding them, the settlers banded together to ensure, by whatever means, that the original settler kept the land for two years after the new party made his claim.

There was a committee to arbitrate disputes, but the settlers always stuck together against those who claimed the land.

An Original Settler ☚

One of the original settlers and land holders of Jackson County was Absalom Montgomery, who was born in North Carolina in 1813. Montgomery was a strong presence in the area. Not only did he possess substantial amounts of land, he was a larger-than-life character.

One source alleged Montgomery “figured quite conspicuously in the court records” of the county for years.

A 1904 Jackson Sentinel historical retrospective described him this way:

A typical Southerner of the homicidal sort was the notorious Absalom Montgomery. He . . . removed to Memphis while quite young, and from there to Terre Haute, Indiana. He came to Galena [Illinois] in the early [18]30s and finally to this locality in 1837. Though wild and reckless, he was energetic and companionable and therefore quite popular among the sturdy pioneers of the day.”

Montgomery was known to drink a lot of whiskey, talk big, shirk work, and spend most of his time away from home.

But his land made him wealthy; and he was a force to be reckoned with, especially with the rules and force of the settlers’ land club behind him.

A Land Buyer ☚

Dr. Francis Brown Rhodes moved his wife Hannah Gibbs Rhodes and their children west to Iowa from Washington County, New York, just after the 1850 census. Accompanying the family was Andrew Brown, the husband of the Rhodes’s daughter Betsey Jane. The family settled in Maquoketa.

At the land office, Rhodes bought 40 acres of Maquoketa River bottom land about one and a half miles northwest of Maquoketa below Pinhook. The parcel had a rich stand of valuable timber, which the Rhodes family began hauling out.

There was a problem, however; by the claim-laws, the land belonged to settler Absalom Montgomery of South Fork Township.

The land club settlers called on Rhodes and offered to buy his land plus pay his expenses in filing the claim so that Montgomery could retain the land. But Rhodes refused. And in the meantime, he continued to take timber off the land.

The settlers, who by law could stop Rhodes by force, hesitated to use it and did not demand an immediate arbitration of the dispute.

Montgomery, however, was not reluctant to act; and he warned against trespassing on his land.

In the third week of April, 1852, Andrew Brown brought home from the post office an anonymous letter addressed to his father-in-law. It said that unless Rhodes gave up the land, that he or someone in his family would be killed.

Murder On the Land ☚

On the morning of Friday, April 30, 1852, Andrew Brown readied Rhodes’s wagon and team to haul a load of wood off the disputed land.

Family members warned him about Absalom Montgomery’s threats but Brown claimed he wasn’t afraid, saying, according to his wife, “barking dogs never bite.” He also said he believed Montgomery was a hard drinker and his threats were just whiskey talk from a coward.

Brown’s first trip to the timber went smoothly, so he returned in the early afternoon for another load.

The Amelia and William Earl family lived on the road leading to the disputed land. William was not home that day, but his son Judson Earl saw Andrew Brown passing by in the wagon on his way to the woods and then Absalom Montgomery heading in that direction with a gun. Both men disappeared from Judson’s view.

The stage was set for violence: some folks believed Brown was hot-headed and aggravating and everyone knew for certain that Montgomery was tough and dangerous.

A later reconstruction of events placed Brown standing in the wagon and Montgomery about 10 feet away when the men met up.

The two exchanged words. After Brown told Montgomery that he had drunk enough whiskey to pay for three pieces of land, Montgomery raised his rifle and fired.

Brown collapsed into the wagon box, incapacitated from a bullet hole in his belly near the breast bone that was six inches deep and a half-an-inch wide.

Frightened by the gunshot, the horses whirled and ran with the wagon, coming to a stop in front of the Earl place.

Amelia Earl heard someone calling out from the wagon, but feared the person was intoxicated. When she summoned the courage to investigate, she found Andrew Brown. She and her children carried him into the house, and Mrs. Earl sent her children to Maquoketa to notify Dr. Rhodes.

Rhodes rode out with several other men, arriving just in time to hear Andrew Brown describe what happened to him before dying about 6:00 p.m.

Rhodes and the other men pursued Montgomery on horseback. When the posse neared the schoolhouse in the Buck Horn district, they saw Montgomery in the yard of Shadrach “Shade” Bruleson’s place.

Leaving their horses at the schoolhouse, the men crept down to Burleson’s house and, by hand signals, communicated with him to take away Montgomery’s guns. Then they stepped in and arrested him.

Justice Served? ☚

Montgomery was taken back to Maquoketa and kept for several weeks under guard in the upper story of the Goodenow Hotel.

On May 18, a grand jury with David Sears as its foreperson issued this indictment:

“That Absalom Montgomery, late of the county of Jackson, aforesaid laborer not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigations of the devil, on the 30th day of April, in the year of our Lord, one thousand, eight hundred and fifty-two, with force and arms at and in the county aforesaid, in and upon one Andrew M. Brown, in the peace of God and the said state, then and there being feloniously, willfully, deliberately, premeditatedly, and of his malice aforethought, did make an assault.”

Testimony in Montgomery’s murder trial was heard on June 23 and 24 in the District Court of Jackson County. Joseph Kelso prosecuted for the county, and local lawyer Platt Smith defended Montgomery.

On June 25, the jury returned a verdict of “murder in the first degree.” Judge Wilson sentenced Montgomery to be hanged in the town of Bellevue on August 14, 1852 between 10:00 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Attorney Platt Smith, however, appealed Montgomery’s case. In 1853, through what one newspaper termed “a writ of error,” Montgomery was tried again. That time the trial took place in a Delaware County Court in Delhi, and that time Montgomery was acquitted.

It appeared that some Iowans believed murder was a reasonable way to settle a land dispute.

The citizens of Jackson County were appalled, but not surprised. A local newspaper account expressed their feelings:

“Few, if any, persons had any doubt about [Montgomery’s] guilt, but he had means, and when a man has plenty of means the lawyers do not allow him to suffer anything more serious than the depletion of his bank account, or the proceeds of the sale of his farm.”

To pay his lawyer, Absalom Montgomery was forced to sell the land at the heart of the dispute.

Murder victim Andrew M. Brown never received justice.

Andrew M. Brown’s Life ☚

Andrew Brown’s tombstone, courtesy Ken Wright

Andrew M. Brown, who was born July 12, 1823 in Dresden, Washington County, New York, to J.M. and William Brown, is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Maquoketa.

Left to mourn Andrew were his widow, Betsey Jane Rhodes Brown — whom he married about 1849 — and their two-year-old son William Francis, known as “Willie,” who was crippled from childhood.

Betsy remained true to Andrew’s memory and never remarried. A 1906 newspaper found her living in Maquoketa on N. Dearborn Street and described her as:

“a very sprightly lady for her age . . . . A little below medium height, her hair . . . white as snow . . . her faculties as clear as ever.”

Betsey Rhodes Brown died at the age of 93 in December 1921. Willie Brown lived with his mother, working 30 years as a school janitor until poor health forced him to quit. He died in 1933.

Andrew Brown’s mother-in-law Hannah Gibbs Rhodes died in Maquoketa in 1865. Her widower Dr. Nathan Rhodes remarried, moved even farther west, and died in 1878 in Walla-Walla County in Washington Territory.

Absalom Montgomery, who lost his valuable land paying for his defense in two murder trials, moved his family to Linton in Vigo County, Indiana, and then to Brouilletts Creek in Edgar County, Illinois, where he died in 1882 at the age of 68.

Cursed Land? ☚

Absalom Montgomery’s property — which he was willing to murder for — was taken as payment by his lawyer Smith Platt and then sold to a man named Piper. Piper built the biggest house in the area — locals considered it a “mansion” — and then, according to local gossip, burned it down for insurance money.

Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.



  • 1910 History of Jackson County, Iowa.
  • ☛ “Ancient Crime Is Recalled, Clinton Herald, May 20, 1927 (transcribed by “K.W.” for Iowa Old Press).
  • Annals of Jackson County, Iowa, Issues 1-7 published by the Jackson County Historical Society.
  • History of Jackson County, Iowa, Volume 1, by James Whitcomb Ellis.
  • ☛ “Horrible Murder In Jackson County,” Democratic Banner, May 7, 1852.
  • Jackson Sentinel, June 16, 1904.
  • ☛ “Sentence of Montgomery,” Democratic Banner, July 23, 1852.

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