Frontier Justice

Time Frame: 1834

With no laws or legal authority the people of Dubuque tried, convicted, and hung Patrick O'Connor for murdering his business partner in 1834.
Previous The Court System Image      
“The Path to Statehood,” The Iowa Heritage: Program # 3, Iowa Public Television, 1978.

Return to The Court System



You have no laws in this country and cannot try me.

During the first few years of white settlement in Iowa, there were no laws.

(banging on a desk) This court will come to order, sit down…

Legally the Iowa land wasn’t even opened for settlement, but Congress made no moves to expel them. In place of formal laws, these squatters lived by an unwritten code of justice designed to protect landholdings. This frontier justice did have other uses as Patrick O’Connor was about to find out.

Patrick O’Connor, you are accused of the willful murder of your partner, George O’Keaf, on the 19th of May, in the year of our Lord 1834. How do you plead? Guilty or not guilt?

I’ll not deny that I shot him, but you have no laws in this country and cannot try me.

People of Dubuque organized themselves into a court and selected a judge and a prosecutor and they even allowed O’Connor to selected his own jury. The case was tried and O’Connor was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang. He made numerous applies to the United States Government, including the President. But there were no laws in the newly settled land, so the Government officially avoided a decision. Hardly mattered. In O’Connor’s case of the crude frontier justice had been quite affective.


The O’Connor case and others like it proved there was a need for formal laws in the area.


Iowa Pathways: Iowa History Resources for Students and Teachers
Home ~ My Path ~ Artifacts ~ Timeline ~ Quest ~ Teacher Resources ~ Project Information ~ Sponsors
Iowa Pathways © 2005 - 2016 Iowa Public Television