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claim jumper / Mr. Hunter / Jack Hunt

claim jumper. One who lays violent hands upon another and ousts him from his land by sheer brute force. – Americanisms Old & New, 1899.

At De Smet, Kingsbury county, George Brady and John Hunt had a street encounter which resulted in Brady shooting Hunt in the abdomen and inflicting a probably fatal wound. Brady has had the father of Hunt arrested for stealing a claim shanty. – May 1881, Winona, Minnesota, Daily Republican.

In By the Shores of Silver Lake (see Chapter 27, “Living in Town”), Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote that a homesteader named Hunter had been murdered. Mr. Hunter and his father had driven up to the son’s claim after being away working on the railroad grade, and a claim jumper opened the door and – when confronted as to why he was there – had shot Mr. Hunter dead. The claim jumper tried to shoot the father as well, who managed to whip up the horses and get away. The claim jumper was arrested.

The trouble with Wilder’s story (which is similarly told in Pioneer Girl) is that it didn’t happen when or where or how or to whom she described. There was no confrontation at a claim shanty between two men, one of whom had moved into the dwelling belonging the other without having filed on the land himself, with the purpose of forcing the legal settler to give up his claim.

In 1930, Neva Whaley wrote the following, published in the De Smet News: “All was not fun and frolic however. One day in the summer of 1880 a tragedy occurred on Main street. A quarrel over the jumping of a claim resulted in the shooting of John Hunt, father of Frank. He had just arrived with his young wife and two small children, had not even unpacked. And she was left alone to earn her living and bring up her children. That she succeeded so well shows of what heroic stuff our pioneer women were made.” Whaley was also incorrect as to the year the murder took place; could Wilder’s placement of the event in 1880 may have been due to reading this article?

According to multiple newspaper reports – from Brookings, Dakota Territory, to Winona, Minnesota, and beyond, the crime took place on May 14, 1881 (so at the end of the Hard Winter, not before it). Charles Ingalls is said to want to move the homestead immediately to keep someone from taking over their own claim shanty, but it could have prompted the family’s move to the farm after the Hard Winter. A letter written on May 23, 1881, tells the story:

A shooting affray occurred on the streets of De Smet on May 14 in which George Brady shot and mortally wounded John Hunt. It appears that Brady had just caused the arrest of Hunt’s father on charge of stealing a shanty from his claim and that young Hunt proposed to give him a thrashing for ti. They clinched on Harthorn’s hay scales, and Hunt seemed to be getting the better of his antagonist, when Brady suddenly jumped backward at the same time drawing a small pistol form his pocket, and, before the twenty or more astonished witnesses realized what he was doing, fired, the ball taking effect in Hunt’s abdomen. Brady immediately gave himself up and was bound over in bonds of $300. Hunt died on May 20. This is the first row of any note here, and it speaks well for a young town like De Smet, that Brady was not lynched on the spot. One merchant did offer the use of his sign board for that purpose. -R.N. Bunn, published in The Independent, Galesville, Wisconsin, June 9, 1881.

Mrs. Hattie Bradley Jones wrote in the De Smet News in 1936, remembering: “As Mr. Hunt lay dying in the hotel from buck shot wounds I couldn’t stand to stay in the drug store so sat in a rocking chair on the prairie …”

Both George Brady and John Hunt had come to Kingsbury County in 1880, along with John’s father, Patrick. Brady filed on a homestead in Mathews Township, the NE 34-109-57, on April 9, 1880. According to the 1880 census, he was a railroad hand at the time of the census, living in the Lake Preston section house. Working for the railroad probably allowed him to jump a train to De Smet easily. On April 3, 1880, John Hunt filed on a tree claim, the NE 34-109-56, and a homestead adjoining, on the NW 34. Note that John and George were on claims a township (six miles) apart. Patrick Hunt’s homestead, however, was a half mile from Brady’s; he first filed April 9 on the NW 35. Brady paid cash for his claim while on trial. Julia Hunt took over both her husband’s tree claim and homestead, proving up on both even though she was left with two toddlers at the time of her husband’s death.

Following a trial in District Court in June, Brady (who was represented by Attorney John Owen) was convicted of manslaughter in the first degree, and Judge Lauren Kidder sentenced him to four years in prison in Detroit, the Brookings County Press reporting that many thought it “a very light sentence.” Witnesses in the trial had included Charles Tinkham, Jerome Woodworth, and William Ruth, well-known in the Little House world. Owen got Brady a new trial, however, and he remained in jail in Brookings for over a year, even escaping once before recapture.

In June 1882, the newspaper reported:


In District Court. In the case of Territory vs. Brady, on a verdict of manslaughter in the first degree, Brady was sentenced to seven years at hard labor. — Poor Brady. Everybody knows Brady—knows why he has been imprisoned in the Brookings lock-up for the past year. It is all account of a little murder he committed about one and a half years ago. He was sentenced for four years hard labor, at his first trial, on the verdict of manslaughter. He was dissatisfied, and secured a new trial. The trial took place at the last week’s term of court, the jury returning the same verdict. On Monday the Judge sentenced him to seven years at hard labor, and Tuesday he left for Detroit, Mich., in charge of Sheriff Risum and Will Jones. When Brady heard his sentence, he broke down entirely, the tears pouring from his eyes, accompanied by deep, heart-rending sobs. There is no doubt he feels bad, for he is terribly disappointed. He really expected a very light sentence, if he didn’t get clear altogether. But no fair mind can even pity him—he deserves more than he got. Murderers must be punished, and seven years in state prison for killing a man in cold blood, is a light, very light punishment, when it seems a miracle that he escaped with his life. Brady is in poor health and may not survive his term of imprisonment, but he was robust and healthy when he committed the fearful deed, and a little hesitation then would have prevented all this trouble for himself and other people. – Brookings County Press, June 22, 1882.

Julia Hunt remained in De Smet until her sudden death in 1919; she was buried in the De Smet cemetery, as were her husband’s parents. Born Julia Convey in 1856, she had married John Hunt in November 1878. The couple had two children: Mamie (born in 1879) and Frank (born in 1880). She did not remarry.


claim jumper (SSL 20, 25, 28; TLW 16; PG)
     Mr Hunter murdered (SSL 27)
     Mr. Hunter’s father (SSL 27)
     Mr. Hunt / Jack Hunt, murdered (PG)
     Mrs. Hunt (PG)