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CHOUTEAU vs MOLONY

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CHOUTEAU vs MOLONY. Argued before the United States Supreme Court in 1853 by Dubuque attorney Platt SMITH, the case involved the legal rights of settlers in Dubuque.

The Chouteau family challenged the rights of settlers occupying land formerly controlled by Julien DUBUQUE. Their claim was based on the will of Dubuque who had in 1804 deeded almost half of his land to Rene Auguste CHOUTEAU from whom he had borrowed money. The Chouteau heirs claimed that Dubuque had received the land through a contract with the MESKWAKIES and confirmed by the Spanish governor in New Orleans. The claimants also noted that both the United States Senate and House of Representatives had passed a bill to allow the claim, although not during the same session of Congress and therefore not legally binding.

The miners and settlers used as evidence the attack on the Dubuque claim made by Albert GALLATIN. They too were able to point to the fact that Congress was unable to decide the validity of the Dubuque title.

On July 1, 1842, a Senate committee declared that Dubuque had no clear title. On March 3, 1847, however, another committee found that Dubuque should have been considered the titleholder. The case had been heard before John J. Dyer, of the United States District Court for Iowa. Judge Dyer ruled for the settlers and against the Chouteau heirs. It was this decision that was appealed to the United States Supreme Court in 1853. The hearing lasted through January 1854, and it was March before the unanimous decision of the Court was announced.

Thomas S. WILSON and his associate Platt SMITH successfully argued that the Native Americans had intended to sell only mining privileges and that the Spanish authorities had onlly confirmed this limited grant. By its decision in favor of the later settlers, the Supreme Court affirmed the legal status of Iowa and the rights of its citizens to protection from claims based on colonial or territorial law. (1)

The manner in which Judge Wilson found out the court's favorable ruling was unique. Reported originally in the Iowa Historical Record X (April 1887:457, 463, 465:

         ...when Mrs. Wilson and myself had taken our seats at the breakfast table...
         Judge McLean, of the United States Supreme Court, with his wife and daughter
         sat down at the same table; and ...alluding to what I said to the court in
         my argument, and when trying to represent what the condition of the settlers
         in our town and county would be if the decision should be adverse to them,
         that when turned out of home on the cold prairies they would be in a worse
         condition than the Israelites were when in the desert, having no manna
         placed upon our pathway, no pillar of cloud by day or fire by night, the
         judge said to my wife: "Mrs. Wilson, are you ready to turn out upon the
         desert this snowy morning?...I immediately rose from the table...and went
         rapidly to Smith's room...Clapping him on the shoulder to arouse him, I said,"
         Smith, awake, we have gained our case."...I then told him that the Judge
         would not have jested with us upon the subject, if the conclusion had been
         adverse to us. We immediately went to the clerk's office to learn the facts.
         The Court had sustained our objection. (2)

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Source:

1. U.S. Supreme Court Chouteau v. Molony, 57 U.S. 16 How. 203 203 (1853) Chouteau v. Molony 57 U.S. (16 How.) 203. Online: https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/57/203/case.html

2. Richard, Lord Acton and Patricia Nassif Acton. To Go Free: A Treasury of Iowa's Legal Heritage, Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1995, p.65,66