Why Did Francis Key, the Star-Spangled Banner Poet, Visit Nauvoo?

Francis S Key
The General Land Office of the United States issued a formal patent for 640 acres of land at Montrose in the Iowa Territory on the Mississippi River shoreline, on February 7, 1839 to Edward Brooks and other heirs of Thomas Riddick. After the Louisiana Purchase the courts agreed to recognize previous French and Spanish land claims in that area. Shortly after the formalities of the patent were finalized, Edward Brooks filed for a hearing for the next session of the U.S. District Court to be convened at the Fort Madison Courthouse for Lee County.
At an April 1839 court session an “action of right” was commenced against several residents on the one square mile land in question which included: William Coleman, David W. Kilbourne, John Taylor, Brigham Young, Wandle Mace, Harmon Booth and several others.
After the Mormons were expelled from Missouri, a group of Saints lead by Israel Barlow moved south along the Mississippi and settled at the abandoned Fort Des Moines barracks. Barlow made the initial contact with Isaac Galland for church members to buy the lands. They were followed by other church leaders including Brigham Young and John Taylor who likewise agreed to rent space in the barracks to house their families temporarily until more suitable arrangements could be made.
One of the early targets of Edward Brooks was against David Kilbourne, known to be an agent for the New York Land Company. Kilbourne and the New York Land Company, as defendants, determined to keep the matter concealed from Joseph Smith and the saints.
Hiram Barney, another agent for the New York Land Company frantically wrote to Francis Scott Key, their attorney, on July 30, 1839, “We deem it of the highest importance and it is our earnest desire that you should proceed to Iowa as soon as you possibly can”.
Hiram Barney continued calling for Francis Key to come to the Iowa Territory as they were in serious need. Francis Key, the famous poet whose writing of events of the War of 1812 later became the national anthem, responded that he couldn’t come at that time due to sickness and that he was still heavily involved in other legal work particularly regarding settlements with the Mexican Government for war reparations. He was further delayed after the surprising death of President Harrison. At age 61, Key, an accomplished attorney in Baltimore and former district attorney arrived at Fort Madison on Wednesday, April 28 after traveling nearly a thousand miles. Francis Key arrived in the Half Breed Tract area of the Iowa Territory early in May 1841 and toured the main sites of the holdings of his client, for the trip.
The New York Land Company was in dire economic circumstances. They were unable to sell off land holdings without incurring costly litigation. The Iowa Territorial legislature was not supportive or helpful. The company was deeply in debt. Expectations were that if they lost in the courts, the company would be lost. Key was so impressed upon seeing the area he wrote back to Hiram Barney:
“I have never seen any thing like Montrose & the bluffs & prairies around it. It exceeds in beauty even what my imagination had painted… Keokuk is to be the great place…lots could be sold there tomorrow, if the title is clear of doubt, for $100,000.”
Or at least he had been told as much by a very excited local attorney, Hugh Reid, who upon his arrival, filled him in on their local perspectives and prejudices. In the same letter he continued to Barney,
“The Mormons, if we don’t soon adjust these matters, will over-run us…if they get fixed there, they will shut out all other settlers & greatly injure us… If we settle with Reddick’s heirs, we start a town at Montrose at once, & get ahead of them.”
Greatly concerned, Key wrote to Barney, “We are engaged in our Reddick cause… I see that it is to be fought desperately and at great length.” (Referring to the Edward Brooks et.al. claims regarding the Thomas F. Reddick Spanish Land Claim). He had the day before been to the Fort Madison Federal District Courthouse still under construction.
Besides the Reddick cases, Key was updated on the complex activity regarding Josiah Spalding et al. vs. Euphrosine Antaga legal matters. Employing his vast legal expertise and overall good sense he sought a formula for the desired partition of the entire Half Breed Tract properties. During a conference of shareholders that extended into the night, Key presented a plan to Judge Charles Mason. He explained this also to Barney back in New York,
“the Judge obliging us by continuing the Court for the purpose, I drew up a decree of partition…Counsels are appointed, & very competent ones, to divide the reservation (excepting the lots of Montrose for the present at least) into 101 equal shares…I think I may congratulate our clients upon a very favourable result of our labours. I do not mean as to the Reddick case…
Judge Charles Mason had consented to Key’s proposals and later issued a formal decree of partition based on that formula. It is likely that Judge Mason knew that Key’s brother in law was none other than Roger Taney, the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and hoped not to have been overruled if these very hotly contested verdicts were appealed. Key recognized however that the primary problem for his client still remained that the Reddick heirs were stubborn and unwilling to compromise.
Francis Scott Key, on behalf of the trustees of the New York Land Company agreed to join suit to the previous Petition for Partition filed April Term, 1840 To the District Court of Lee County, in the Territory of Iowa. Judge Charles Mason presided during the proceedings and made the final ruling for the petitioners. Other local attorneys representing petition claimants agreed to join the 1840 petition of Josiah Spalding with Francis Key.
All these attorneys understood that by their actions they were disenfranchising all of the Mormon residents from their homes in the entire Half-Breed Tract. The lands purchased by Joseph Smith, Vinson Knight, Granger, and others of twenty thousand acres were being reallocated to the 101 claimants. Proper due process and notifications had not been provided the Mormons or their leaders. Principals of the New York Land Company had not been honest with Key concerning the validity of the claims to the Mormon lands. Key had been misled that Isaac Galland was still a partner of his client.
As part of the required legal process, Francis Scott Key filed on behalf of the New York Land Company trustees on May 8, 1841 and claimed “…the persons interested in said association, whom they represent, claim to be entitled to the shares and proportions of said half-breed tract, the land mentioned in said petition, set forth in the annexed list or schedule of half breed claims, the proofs of their title to which, and authentic copies of the conveyances by which the same are held, are herewith filed and produced to the court, and the defendants are willing that their said claims, and the claims of the said petitioners, and of the other parties in this case, should be decided and adjudged by the court, and partition decreed according to law”
A few days after his arrival in Iowa, Francis Key crossed by ferry to Nauvoo as he had pressing business matters in Illinois. On the 13th of May, Francis Key again updated Hiram Barney and further commented, “The Mormons have great additions coming to them daily”. He also discussed Isaac Galland another agent for his client, the New York Land Company, who had converted to the Mormon Church and Mayor Bennett:
“This man is now in N. York or Vermont collecting funds for their temple (Galland). They have a Dr. Bonnet (John C. Bennett) with them. A man of no principle or character he is the Mayor of Nauvoo & commands their legion under Brigadier Genl. Joe Smith the prophet of the Lord. I heard Bonnet preach at Montrose & attended one of their baptisms…”
Key during his visit had crossed the River on to the Illinois side and likely observed Nauvoo personally. He likely was told they had armed their Nauvoo Legion with “cannon & small arms”. In another letter to Barney, Key referred to a revelation by Joseph Smith regarding the Half Breed Tract of land, “that the Lord has given them the reservation” and, “There is no limit to the knavery of the leaders & the folly of the led. They will believe any thing that Joe Smith gives out as a revelation & do any thing he commands them.”
Key had neither the time nor the inclination to meet with the Mormon leaders and understand their side of the story or to attempt to understand anything of their religion. Key had an understandable bias since the Mormons were in opposition to his client. He saw the many opportunities for his client in developing this land and that the great commercial center that it could become. The Mormons were perceived as a threat because of their growing numbers.
On his return trip home, Francis Key still highly charged of what he had observed and accomplished wrote to his wife Polly, “If I could…get $10,000 I would come back here & make a fortune at once. I am so sure of this that I should be almost tempted to sell Pipe Creek (their current home site)…”
Francis Scott Key died January 11, 1843. His family would receive very little from the principals of the New York Land Company for his successful plan regarding the partition of the lands in the Half Breed Tract.
In the recently renovated Church History Museum, the map of Nashville, Iowa shows the astounding results of the partition agreement. The pinkish highlighted areas on the map represent the allocated portions belonging to the New York Land Company for their 41 shares. The uncolored portions represent the lands allocated to the other 60 claimants. After extensive research it appears that the principals of the New York Land Company committed fraud in secretly taking the nearly 20,000 acres the Church leaders purchased in Montrose, Nashville and other areas in the Iowa Territory from Isaac Galland.

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