Not much is known about Polly Lemon—where she was born, who her parents were, how she lived. Even the spelling of her surname is unknown—was it Lemon or Lemmons? But research into an 1833 petition filed in the official records of the House of Representatives opens a small window onto the life of an early female settler on the Louisiana frontier. Although women could petition Congress and single women were permitted to own land during the early 19th century, few exercised these freedoms as Polly did.
With the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the United States added approximately 827,000 square miles of land to the young and growing country. The treaty outlining the acquisition failed to define the western boundary of the territory, leaving the United States and Spain to squabble over the exact location of the dividing line between American Louisiana and Spanish Texas. At the convergence of their common border, the two countries’ military troops were left to find a temporary solution. While waiting for a permanent diplomatic resolution, both forces agreed to remove themselves from the contested area.
The Spanish moved westward, beyond the Sabine River. The Americans retreated further eastward, creating the Neutral Strip, a land devoid of any law enforcement. Although the agreement prohibited new settlers in the region, rogues, squatters, and criminals took advantage of this no-man’s-land.
More than 15 years after Congress approved the Louisiana Purchase, the Adams-Onís Treaty, signed by the United States and Spain in 1819 and ratified two years later, officially recognized the Neutral Strip as American land and designated the Sabine River as the border between Louisiana and Texas. Tasked with monitoring the area and policing this border, Lieutenant Colonel Zachary Taylor’s forces constructed Cantonment Jesup, a group of log buildings that would later be renamed Fort Jesup, in 1822.
At some point before 1828, the exact timing does not appear in House records, Polly Lemon carved out a homestead in the Neutral Strip about 23 miles from Natchitoches, Louisiana. On May 24, 1828, Congress passed an act confirming land claims to the settlers in the region who committed to improving the land through “habitation and cultivation.” Included in this legislation, Polly retained her 640 acres, or one square mile, of land. A couple of years later, Deputy Surveyor W. B. Jackson recorded on a plat map that Polly’s homestead was located just northwest of Fort Jesup.
Maintaining order among the criminals and rogues of the Neutral Strip proved challenging for the forces of Fort Jesup. By 1832, the fort’s commander requested that the area surrounding the fort be cleared of the unsavory locals, some of whom were “keeping grog-shops or other establishments calculated to interfere with the proper discipline of the garrison.” The issue eventually landed on the desk of President Andrew Jackson, who designated 25 sections—about 16,000 acres—of surrounding land for use by the fort. All settlers—the upstanding and the unsavory—residing in this area would need to relocate further away from Fort Jesup.
The commander of the southwestern frontier, Colonel Henry Leavenworth, advocated for these landowners to receive compensation, particularly those whose presence did not interfere with the operations of the fort. Before he could finish negotiations with the upstanding locals, Leavenworth died, leaving behind no written contracts. If he had cut a deal with Polly regarding payment for her land, he left no record of it.
Having met the habitation and cultivation requirements for the land that Congress had confirmed to her in 1828, Polly was eligible to receive full ownership of her land by 1833. Unable to write, she sought out the local justice of the peace in Natchitoches Parish to communicate her request for a land patent. Her letter to the register and reviewer of the Land Office at Opelousas outlined the exact location of her plot and her improvements. Looking closely at her request, the land office discovered that her property existed within the land recently reserved for Fort Jesup. They denied her request.
Determined to continue her life on the frontier, but with limited options for action as an uneducated woman, Polly petitioned Congress. In an undated letter to the House and Senate, she again explained her plight and asked “to be allowed to locate her claim to as much as 640 acres elsewhere upon other vacant lands in the state of Louisiana.” The House Committee on Private Land Claims, created in 1816 to handle these types of settlement issues, reviewed her petition and favorably reported a bill for her “prompt and ample relief” in 1836. Louisiana Representative Rice Garland, a member of the committee, asserted that “it was not the intention of the government to take the property of individuals without compensation.”
Unfortunately for Polly, who had been displaced from her land since 1833, relief was anything but prompt. Congress did not pass H.R. 294, “a bill for the relief of Polly Lemon,” until March 1839. This legislation entitled her to 640 acres of “any unappropriated public land in the north-western district for the sale of lands in the state of Louisiana.” Certain to settle far beyond the reaches of Fort Jesup, Polly claimed her new land in Caddo Parish—the northwesternmost corner of Louisiana—within a few months.
Sources: RG 233, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Bills and Resolutions Originating in the House, 1789–2015, 27th Congress, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration; An Act to Confirm Claims to Lands in the District between the Rio Hondo and Sabine Rivers, Founded on Habitation and Cultivation, 6 Stat. 382 (24 May 1828); An Act for the Relief of Polly Lemon, 6 Stat 780 (3 March 1839); On a Claim to Land in Louisiana, 24th Cong., 2nd sess., H. Rept. 29 (1836); H.R. 294, 25th Cong., 2nd sess. (1838); Office of the Surveyor General of Louisiana, TVIIIN. RXW. Southwestern District Louisiana, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1835; Strother Madison Stockslager, Annual Report of the Commissioner of the General Land Office for the Year 1888 [enclosed with 2626 H. Exdoc. 1], 50th Cong., 2nd sess., H. Exdoc. 1/14 (1888) 147-148; Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Richard Campanella, “Neutral Ground,” 64 Parishes, accessed 4 September 2020, https://64parishes.org/neutral-ground; John V. Haggard, “Neutral Ground,” Texas State Historical Association, accessed 14 July 2020, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/neutral-ground; Keagan LeJeune, “Western Louisiana’s Neutral Strip: Its History, People, And Legends,” Folklife in Louisiana, accessed 13 July 2020, http://www.louisianafolklife.org/LT/Articles_Essays/nslejeune1.html; J. Edward Townes, “The Neutral Strip,” 64 Parishes, accessed 13 July 2020, https://64parishes.org/entry/the-neutral-strip; “Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings: Fort Jesup,” National Park Service, accessed 14 July 2020, https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/founders/sitec15.htm.Follow @USHouseHistory