Sunday, November 29, 2020

Alexander Shute and no-good, very bad, horrible lawsuit - and what he did about it


Alexander B. Shute

The other day, I was poking around some Minnesota records, trying to add some details to the lives of my Shute ancestors who lived there in the mid-1800s. I knew my ancestor Alexander B. Shute had served in the Civil War (the only ancestor of mine to serve and survive) and was originally from New York. That was about all I knew of him. I decided to try and find some newspaper articles, as they often record details not found in other record types, and I was hopeful (since I couldn't remember searching for his family before in newspapers) that I'd find something good. 

Boy was I right! One of the first things I found were a few mentions of family members going to court against each other. Alexander's wife Letitia (Sanford) Shute sued her likely first cousin Mahlon Mitchell, over what I don't know. Alexander and his brother-in-law Gilbert Sanford went to court over something else. There were also statements of a judgment against Alexander, for which some of his land was confiscated and sold at auction. That had to have been awful, watching something you'd worked so hard to obtain be taken from you and sold to pay off a debt or judgment. But that's not the lawsuit mentioned in the title of this post. 

That lawsuit was found mentioned first in 1891, where he and his son Adoniram were mentioned as suing the town of Princeton, Minnesota, where he lived. I wondered what could have happened that he'd sue his own town? The case was a civil case, not a criminal one, but nothing further was said about what it was concerning. The jury agreed to disagree, and apparently that was the end of it. Alexander took the case to court again in the next term, and the original sentence (whatever it was) was upheld. Alexander then took his case to the state supreme court. This was in 1894, so he'd been at getting resolution for whatever this issue was for several years. Talk about persistence. 

Then, in July 1894, an article finally revealed what the issue was. Apparently about 1889, the town of Princeton had contracted with some men to clear brush and trees to make a road. The men were apparently careless with the fires they used to clear that brush, and didn't extinguish it properly, according to Alexander. The fire spread, and eventually Alexander's house took fire and was completely destroyed. Alexander apparently felt the town of Princeton, who'd hired the contractors, was responsible for the damage, and sued them but lost. He took it up again, and lost when the town was held not liable for the fire. The state supreme court then took it up and, once again, sided with the town of Princeton in holding them not liable for the damage done by the contractors. I can't imagine surviving something as horrific as a house fire that destroys everything you have, and then for the court to dismiss charges against those ultimately responsible for that fire happening. It must have been maddening to have it fall apart like that. 

What really got me is what happened two months later. A group of 31 men petitioned the county for a road to be constructed in the county that would lead to more than one town. The county granted the petition and put together a committee to examine the route of the proposed road. And guess where that committee was planning to meet? In the new home of Alexander Shute! It boggles my mind that he allowed his home to be used for a committee to plan to do the same thing that had cost him his home in Princeton, and which he spent five years (and probably a good amount of money) on seeking redress for, but never received any. If anyone had reason to give up on the system, withdraw and seek isolation, I would think it'd be him. Yet he apparently stayed involved and engaged in his community. I have a whole new respect for this ancestor of mine, the maturity and likely forgiveness he had to muster and display is inspiring. He didn't give up seeking what he felt was right. And when that was apparently ultimately denied him, he kept on living and being a part of his community. 

Sadly, a couple years after this, he was injured in an accident, and never fully recovered. Alexander Shute died in Princeton, Minnesota, on 16 April 1897. He likely had no idea his life was about to be cut short when he was going through all those court proceedings, and later helping to work out the county road. I'm glad he didn't allow those circumstances to ruin him, embitter him, or cause him to withdraw. That's a lesson I hope I can take to heart when things don't go my way.