Abraham Lincoln to Thomas Meharry, 21 April 18571Urbana Ills. April 21 1857Thomas Meharry, Esq[Esquire]Dear Sir.
Owing to absence from home your letter of the 6th was received only two days ago–2 The land in question, as I suppose, is the two dollar and a half land,3 and my opinion is that there can be no lawful preemptions on those lands, based on a settlement made after, the allotment of those lands, in 1852 or 3 I think– If I am right in this opinion, your entry is valid, and you can recover the land–4
I suppose yours, and your brothers’ adversary, are in possession; and if so, I would advise suits in Ejectment to be brought in the U.S. court, at Springfield–5 I can not tell in advance what fee I would charge, because I can not know the amount of trouble I may have– If the pre-emptioners have had patents issued to them,6 the cases, as I think, can still be managed, but they will be a good deal more troublesome–
If you conclude to have suits brought, & to engage me to bring them, call and see me at Springfield, from the 5th to 10th of May, at which time you will probably find me at home– I mention this, because I am absent a good deal–7Yours, trulyA. Lincoln–
2Lincoln was traveling on legal business throughout mid-April 1857. In his letter to Lincoln, Thomas Meharry solicited Lincoln’s legal opinion on lands he owned in Champaign County, Illinois, as well as some land his brother, James Meharry, owned in the same county. Other individuals were claiming ownership of the same lands.
The Lincoln Log: A Daily Chronology of the Life of Abraham Lincoln, April 1857, http://thelincolnlog.org/Results.aspx?type=CalendarMonth&year=1857&month=4.
3The U.S. Government divided public lands still open for settlement into two classes. The first class carried a designated minimum price of $1.25 per acre. Land in the second class, being alternate sections reserved for grants to railroads, had a minimum price of $2.50 per acre.
According to Thomas Meharry, the land in question consisted of land that he purchased in November 1855 in section thirty-three of township number eighteen north, range nine east in Champaign County as well as land that his brother James owned in the west half of the west half of section fifteen of township eighteen north, range nine east in Champaign County. Public land sales records confirm James Meharry’s ownership of the land that Thomas specified, and shows the land was valued at $3.55 per acre. However, public land sales records do not contain an account of Thomas Meharry having purchased any lands in section thirty-three of township number eighteen north, range nine east in Champaign County. Yet there are records that Thomas purchased more than 500 acres of land in sections five, seven, and nine of township number seventeen north, range nine east of Champaign County in November 1855. This land was valued at between $5.31 and $5.53 per acre. It is also possible that records for some of his purchases of public lands are no longer extant.
J. Scott Keltie, The Statesman’s Year-Book (London and New York: MacMillan, 1894), 1084; Thomas Meharry to Abraham Lincoln; Illinois Public Domain Land Tract Sales, Champaign County, 238:146, 238:147, Illinois State Archives, Springfield, IL.
4Pre-emption relates to the right of a person who settles upon a tract of public land to purchase that land before other applicants. Lincoln references legislation that the Illinois General Assembly passed on February 14, 1853, which granted settlers on public land the right of pre-emption to any forty or eighty-acre tract of land provided that they had settled upon and made improvements to the land prior to the time when the state made entry upon or selection of said land. In his letter to Lincoln, Meharry asserted that no improvements had been made upon the land in question in his case, but that two individuals claimed pre-emption rights to the land.
“Pre-emption,” Reference, Glossary, Martha L. Benner and Cullom Davis et al., eds., The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition, 2d edition (Springfield: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, 2009), http://www.lawpracticeofabrahamlincoln.org/Reference.aspx?ref=Reference%20html%20files/Glossary.html; “An Act to Provide for the Sale of the State Lands and Liquidation of State Indebtedness, and to Grant the Right of Pre-Emption to Settlers on State Lands,” 14 February 1853, General Laws of Illinois (1853), 233.
5In American law, “ejectment” relates to an action to recover land or other real property and to collect damages. Originally, in the English common law, only tenants could use this action to recover possession of land from which they had been unlawfully ousted. Because of the simplicity and swiftness of the ejectment procedure, landowners began to use this action to recover land.
“Ejectment,” Reference, Glossary, Martha L. Benner and Cullom Davis et al., eds., The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition, http://www.lawpracticeofabrahamlincoln.org/Reference.aspx?ref=Reference%20html%20files/Glossary.html.
6In American law, a patent refers to an instrument which a state or government uses to grant public lands to an individual.
Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, MN: West, 1891), 877.
7Lincoln actually traveled on legal business from at least May 6 to May 8. He did not return home to Springfield, Illinois until May 9.
No further correspondence between Meharry and Lincoln has been located. No records are extant which indicate that Lincoln filed a suit on behalf of either Thomas or James Meharry.
The Lincoln Log, 6 May 1857, http://thelincolnlog.org/Results.aspx?type=CalendarDay&day=1857-05-06; 7 May 1857, http://thelincolnlog.org/Results.aspx?type=CalendarDay&day=1857-05-07; 8 May 1857, http://thelincolnlog.org/Results.aspx?type=CalendarDay&day=1857-05-08; 9 May 1857, http://thelincolnlog.org/Results.aspx?type=CalendarDay&day=1857-05-09.
Copy of Autograph Letter Signed, 1 page(s), Abraham Lincoln Association Files, Lincoln Collection, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (Springfield, IL).