Historical Moments & Musings: Dirty Politics: BV County was not immune

Wednesday, May 30, 2012
A few early pioneers, including Abner Bell (center) forced an end to a notorious political scandal.

In this political campaign season, it is perhaps appropriate to point out that as questionable, even sometimes nasty, as politicking has become, Buena Vista County has been not above it. The county, in its early days, displayed some despicable--even near fatal--politicking.

In 1858, Buena Vista became an official county, and a county Board of Supervisors and officers were elected. The political scene during its first four years of existence was relatively calm and orderly--no doubt due to the novelty of the birth of the county. But, it wasn't long before some of the prominent citizens morphed into conniving politicians.

During the election year of 1862, W.E. Lee, a wily entrepreneur, and George Killam, a prominent citizen, competed for the office of county treasurer. The campaigning was hot and heavy--even intimidating. Even though there were only 20 qualified voters in the county at the time, each man attempted to persuade them to vote for him, with bribes of money, cows, promises and anything else that would be persuasive--even intimidation. The individual voters were quick to take advantage of the situation and played both campaigners against each other, reaping rewards and promises of special considerations from the winner. In spite of the bribes, the candidates did not trust his neighbor's word of fidelity. The race seemed a toss up.

When the ballots were counted, each candidate accused the other of tampering with the ballot box. Killam, the upstanding citizen that he was, resorted to filing legal action to resolve the situation. Lee, however, being the wily entrepreneur that he was, intimidated Killam with threats of gunplay and other forms of harassment. Killam, in the face of dangerous and superior force, sold his farm, packed up his family, and left the county. Lee became treasurer by default.

In 1865, Lee resigned as treasurer to go back east to sell his land, and Richard Ridgway was elected to fill the vacancy. However, Oliver Moore, a relative of Lee's and having observed how Lee had achieved the office, threatened Ridgway at gun point and, intimidating the board, was allowed to occupy the office of treasurer. He also brought onto the board a friend of his and Lee's, M.S. Jameson.

By the following year, 1866, the citizens had become fed up with the corruption and interminable reign of the board. Abner Bell, an early settler and activist, and friend Hubbard Sanderson, led a voter revolt. Voters were incited to oust the incumbents and vote Bell and Sanderson to the board. The citizens came out in force, heavily armed, and milled about in the streets during the election. Even the Quaker, Hollingsworth, joined the armed rebellion. It was anticipated that there would be gunplay, but fortunately it never developed to that extent. The election was conducted, and Bell and Sanderson won handily.

Never-the-less, many of the voters were still angry at the ex-board members, and threats of lynching the ousted officers motivated Moore and Jameson to sneak away in the dead of night--taking with them all records of their past financial transactions, minutes of the board meetings and even the county seal! They went to friends in Ft. Dodge and tried to rally armed citizens to return to Sioux Rapids with them (the county seat at the time) and forcefully restore them to their positions. They had told the Ft. Dodge friends that the people of Sioux Rapids had deprived them of their legal rights to office. A group of the Ft. Dodge citizens, armed, were about to accompany them back to Sioux Rapids and forcibly reinstate them. However, upon hearing the true circumstances of the situation, the two were indicted. But, again, they fled under the cover of darkness, and thus avoided prosecution.

The new Board of Supervisors met and, declaring the office of clerk vacant, appointed Bell to the position. By now, the county was eight years old, but there were no records of the Board of Supervisors actions during that time - having been stolen by Moore and Jameson. Therefore, the only records reassembled were actions as recalled from the memories of Bell on one side, and Lee (who had returned, but did not become politically involved again) on the other. These recollections were recorded by Bell in his handwriting - notoriously illegible, but Bell could read it himself, and that seemed good enough for the board.

The politics of Buena Vista County, since the voter rebellion of 1866, have become comparatively tame and civilized, at least physically, but more subtle and insidious - with words, media and money. Unfortunately, dishonest political campaigning is an American tradition going back as far as 1758 when, history tells us, George Washington bought 158 gallons of booze to portion out to buy votes. There is something to be said for the old-style of politicking: it was open and obvious, and motivated voters to be involved. Although often despicable, it was exciting as hell!