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Niobrara River located north of Ainsworth


History of Brown County

A few facts worth noting!!!

Area: 1,214 square miles
Distance Wide: East amd West is 26 miles
Distance Long: North and South along east county line is 44 miles.
Distance North and South along west county line is 52 miles.
Population:3,657. The county seat is Ainsworth.
Towns and Population: Ainsworth,1,870; Johnstown,48; Long Pine,396, according to the 1990 census.
The first child born in Ainsworth was a son to Leroy Hall and his wife on Dec. 4, 1882.
The first child born in the county is reported to be a son born to Mr. and Mrs. G.W. Kirkpatrick, Aug.24,1880 on a ranch near the Niobrara River.
The first pair of twins were Lee nad Lou Migill, born to the W.H.Magill's August 24,1882 on Pine Creek.
The first marriage license was issued to L.D.Bates and Miss Columbia L. Mills on Sept. 8,1883.
Charles N. Sett was granted the first patent for land now included in this county. His patent was dated Aug. 3,1883.
C.H.(Charles) Moore, a colored man had a barber shop in Ainsworth in 1885.
The first term of court was held November 27,1883 with F.B.Tiffnay presiding.
Dr. Alfred Lewis was the first doctor to located in the couonty. He came to Long Pine in 1881.
Martha A. Leonard, the first and only women doctor, filed for practice in Ainsworth, Nov. 1,1883. Her office was one door east of the postoffice on Second St.
Amos Harris, the colored cowboy who used to make things lively in the early days, spent a few days in his old stomping grounds dury July,1894.
The first woman dentist was Cora L. Eichar, whose certificate was registerd Jan.10,1902.
Brown County was organized in 1883 from unorganized territory lying west of Holt County. At that tinme the County also consisted of present day counties Keya Paha and Rock. Keya Paha was organized in 1884 and Rock in 1888.

It will probably never be definitely known just who the white men were who saw the land now included in Brown County. After the settlements along the Atlantic coast became established, several nations of Europe sent exploring expeditions into the middle west. Some were searching for gold, some wished to claim the land for their governments and others were led by the love of adventure.

One expedition was led by a Scotsman, James Mackey(French Jacques Mackey) who reached the region of the North Loup river in 1795-96. He continued westward to the sandhill lakes of Cherry county , then traveled northward to the Niobrara River which he followed down to where it joins the Missouri River. Mackey made an accurate map of the regions that he had explored which was published in Paris in 1802. On this map in the region of Long Pine creek is this inscription: "Mountains of sand, underlain by subterranean and invisible streams in the midst of which is a great canyon, two hundred fifty feet across and one hundred fifty feet deep, formed by the washings of the mountains." This map entitles Mackey to the honor of being the first known white man to explore the sand hill region of Nebraska.

Next came explorers, hunters of wild game, gold seekers, and devout missionaries, but most left slight traces of their travels. In time these dim traces of travel were followed by others, making a well marked route, known by name to direct other travelers. The earliest of these is probably the "Sawyers Trail". It was begun in 1865 by a United States government expedition for the use of freighters taking supplies and mining machines to Virginia City, Montana, where gold had been discovered. Its eastern terminus was Niobrara(at the mouth of the Niobrara River) and passed across Brown County a few miles south of that river.

The "Calamus Trail" entered Brown County near the southeast corner. Its eastern terminus was Fort Hartsuff, near Ord. It followed up the North Loup river, then the Calamus river to its source in Moon Lake, then on west through the sandhills to the forts in the western part of the state. It was used chiefly as a military route for United States troops passing from one post to another. In later years a government post was maintained on the north shore of Moon Lake, affording a stopping place for travelers and also a place for securing supplies. Moon Lake was at first named Post Lake from the fact that a government post was located on its shores. Branches from the Calamus Trail led to other places.

The "Gordon Trail" was made in the spring of 1875 by a large company of gold seekers from Sioux City, Iowa who were trying to reach the Black Hills against the orders of the government. The expedition kept to the south side of the Niobrara River in order to evade the United States troops from Fort Randall, South Dakota, who had been ordered to prevent them from entering the Black Hills. The troops over took the Gordon Party near the present site of Gordon, NE., and destroyed the wagons and other property of the miners who were all placed under arrest and taken to Fort Randall. There were 29 wagons with four horse teams, so their trail was well marked. It passed north of Long Pine, then followed quite closely the present route of U.S. Hiway Number 20, across the county, passing just north of the courthouse and crossing Bone Creek northwest of Ainsworth. This trail and other routes followed by early freight wagons are sometimes called "Black Hills Trails".

In 1857 Lieutenant G.K. Warren of the U.S. Army was sent to explore the Niobrara river. He was equipped with a few wagons drawn by eight mule hitch and a small force of men. The object of the expedition was to find a practical route for freighting army supplies from Fort Randall to Fort Laramie. That he did not find such a route is a matter of history, though his reports show that he made a thorough exploration of the country adjoining the Niobrara and Keya Paha Rivers.

Another class of men sometimes came into this new country. They planned their travels carefully that they might leave no trails for other to follow. They were the outlaws. Perhaps the best known is the notorious "Doc" Middleton and his gang, about whom much has been written. Although no records were kept, the early settlers in this area said that the rains were plentiful and that harvests were abundant, especially wheat which was of excellent quality. Garden products grew with almost no cultivation and were of excellent quality also, during 1884 and as late as 1888. By 1890 crops were starting to fail and many families failed to raise enough to feed their stock and families.Persistent droughts began in 1890 and many farmers lacking food for their families and stock appealed to the county for help. The state offered some assistance. Each year more families were forced to ask for aid. Banks and business firms failed and by 1895 half of the population had left the county.

All the northwestern portion of this state was at one time know as "unorganized territory" and was given the general name of "Sioux County" though there no county officers. The only government it had was administered from the military posts. The Nebraska state government gradually took this over after 1867 when the territory was admitted to the union. As scattered settlements were made the "unorganized territory" was divided up and counties were established. Large companies of settlers came to O'Neill in 1874-75. Holt county was organized in 1876 and for a few years the land which later became Brown County was attached to Holt for purposes of taxation. To make the journey to O'Neill on county business was very inconvenient and expensive and all filings needed to be done at O'Neill.

Cattle ranches were the first settlements. Stocked with Texas longhorn cattle that were driven over the old Chisholm Trail and turned out to fend for themselves. The cattle men were attracted by the rich, abundant prairie grasses which offered excellent range for their herds. Water, shelter and firewood was found in the canyons. As a rule these ranchers held a "water front" on some running stream and had no legal title to the land since it had not been thrown open for settlement. Among the early comers were Cook and Tower ranch on Bone Creek, A.M.Brickerhoff at the mouth of Pine Creek, George W. Kirkpatrick, J.W.Roselle, James Abernathy and G.W. Howenstein.

Government surveyors had been at work for several years blocking out the land in sections, townships, and ranges so that records of each person's land could be kept. They began near the Missouri River in the southeast part of the state and each year pushed a little further west and north.

Fort Hartsuff near Ord, Nebraska, was built in 1874 to protect settlers of the Loup Valley from Indians and outlaws, but is was too far away to afford any protection to the country along the Niobrara.

Fort Niobrara was established April 22,1880, near present time Valentine. Immediately after the troops were sent to Fort Niobrara, a government mail stage made regular trips twice a week. John and George Berry had the contract for the stage line. The Bassett home in Long Pine Canyon was a stage station in charge of John Danks. Bone Creek post office at the Cook and Tower ranch distributed mail for a large area. The ranch house was located near the present city limits of Ainsworth on the northwest, where the Gordon trail crossed Bone Creek.


Early Sodhouse


The cattlemen were followed by farmers, with a few doctors, lawyers, preachers, and merchants, all seeking the free land which could be obtained under the homestead law. The head of a family, or anyone twenty-one years old, could obtain one hundred sixty acres of land by living on it for five years and making a few improvements such as building a small house and plowing a few acres of prairie. There were also fees to be paid amounting to approximately eighteen dollars.

There were two other methods of obtaining a quarter section of land; the timber claim law which required that ten acres must be set into living tree's and the preemption claim which required six months residence and the payment to the government of $1.25 per acre. Passage of the "Kinkaid Law" in 1904 stimulated many families to move to northwest Nebraska. The law granted 640 acres to anyone who lived on the land for five years and added improvements worth $800.00. The population increased and so did the value of grain, livestock and personal property. It doubled in just a short time.

The following were the four Congressional Acts or Laws that the settlers had access to for making claims and enlarging holdings:
1. The Preemption Act of 1841 gave title to 160 acres to the head of a family over 21 years of age, who was a citizen of the United States. The rules of the general land office required that a house be built, at least 10 acres of ground broken before making final proof and in order to take a preemption, a settlement on the land was required to be made within 60 days from the time of filing, on payment of $1.25 per acre for land outside the railroad land grant and $2.50 per acre within the railroad land grant. This act was repealed in 1891.
2. The Homestead Act, signed by Abraham Lincoln, May 20,1986, was effective January 1,1863, and gave title to a 160 acre tract upon five years occupancy and cultivation. "Liberal provisions were made by which the soldier, his widow and his orphans were permitted to receive enlarged privileges...thus adding to the national recognition of the principle that every citizen ...was entitled to the rights to make himself a home upon the public domain". Small fees(about $18.00) were paid in the transactions. The first homestead in Nebraska was filed on by Daniel Freeman on January 1,1863. It is situated near Beatrice, on Cub Creek, in Gage County.
3. The Timber Culture Act, or Tree Claim, passed by Congress in 1873, offered land free to settlers who would plant trees in 40 acres (later reduced to 10) of each 160 acre claim. Only one tree claim was permitted on each 640 acres and only on prairie land devoid of timber. This law was repealed in 1891.
4. Moses P. Kinkaid was a Republican Representative from the old Sixth District in Congress (later the 12th). He came from O'Neill, Nebraska. In 1904, during his first term in Congress, Kinkaid brought before the House a bill, the Kinkaid Act, which permitted a settler to have a homestead of 640 acres instead of the usual 160 acres, acquired after five years residence and improvements at a minimum of 800 dollars. Persons who had already homesteaded 160 acres or less, could file again and bring their holdings to a full section or 640 acres. The Kinkaid Act opened up the Sand Hills that had proved unsuitable for small farms.


Winter scene of Kinkaid Homestead in the Sandhills of Brown County




The first travelers arrived in pioneer style. Some drove the entire distance from their homes by covered wagons, with a few cattle and chickens and their household necessities, ready to begin living on their "claim". Others came by rail to Oakdale or Neleigh, then took transportation from there with freighters or others who kept suitable outfits for such travel. The first survey for a railroad was made on the north side of the Niobrara River. Perhaps accounting for the early settlements along the Niobrara and Keya Paha rivers.

The Fremont, Elkhorn and Missour Valley railroad began building westward in the late 1870's. Each year, it pushed farther in the the new regions. To supply the needs of the new settlers, the railroad carried freight, mail, express and passengers to its western terminus, Oakdale. The road was extended to Neleigh in 1880.

The railroad, then called the Sioux City & Pacific, reached Long Pine in 1881. The town was named for the beautiful stream and canyon through which it winds, and the creek was so named because of the high symmetrical pines on its banks. The first settlers, in order to be sheltered and to be near food and water, made their homes in the canyon.

Several settlers came in the late 1870's: Reverend Irving H. Skinner, Mr. Bassett, James Graham, Seth Bates, Mike Kernan, F.E. Stockwell and family and the Donoher family. Another was John Coleman, who had been employed earlier on the Cook and Towar ranch on Bone Creek. Other early residents in and near town were Carleton Pettijohn Sr., Isaac Mills, Theron Ford, Abe Bailey, John W. Vargison, Nels Ringsrud, Henry Tabler, Ed Ryan, Dr. Lewis, Sergeant O'Leary, W.H. Magill, Henry Danks, John and Henry Leadis, Granville Butler , John Hill, Charles & Thomas Glover, J.D. Whittemore, Z.B.Cox, J.H. Spafford, J.C. Pettijohn, Rich Severence, Thomas Moore, T.H. Warren and the Upstills.

The first residents to occupy ground where the town now stands was"Dirty Smith". Who with his family homesteaded the former grounds of the depot and yards of the Chicago and Northwestern Railway company.

The Methodist Church of Long Pine was the second church in Brown County. It was organized 11-30-1883 by the Rev. I.H. Skinner, Cornelius B. Morefort, Charles R.Clover, W.E.Davis, Joseph E. Dunn and Benjamin Elliott. One of the earliest Methodist pastors, Rev. W.W. Thomas often walked to Ainsworth and Johnstown to conduct services. The earliest school in Long Pine was held in a building on Main street. Dr. Learn, one of the first dentist in Brown county was the teacher. In 1882 a small frame school house was built.

On 01-09-1884, the county commissioners granted a petition signed by Long Pine citizens making it an incorporated village.


Watermelon feed at Long Pine, NE


The first train arrived in Ainsworth 06-11-1882. Two preliminary surveys had been run, one north, and one south of where the railroad was built. A townsite was surveyed about a mile north of the present site of Ainsworth, but was abandoned when the rail line was changed. The town was named for Capt. J.E. Ainsworth, who was in charge of construction. O. B. Rippey was the first depot agent.


Ainsworth early 1900's


That portion of Ainsworth lying west of Main street was platted on the homestead of Mrs. Nannie J. Osborne. Leroy Hall, on the east side of Main street, platted an addition extending as far north as Fourth street. North of that was Henry Woodward's addition. The Woodward store was the first business house in the town. It was a log building erected in 1880, and was located on the freighter's trail.

Among the early business houses were Tracy and Glover's store managed by J.D. Crawford, Munson and Secor, later Munson and Ackerman, John Brown, George Reed, general stores; Frank Sellors, real estate; H.J.Sutton, jewelry; Dr. O.H. Crane, drugs; W.D.McCord, elevator; L.K. Alder, Alex Altschuler and S.E. Benton, lawyers; Ed Enders, Frank Gillette and the Davisons, physician; Hall and Chaney, hardware; Merithew's restaurant; Ainsworth Lumber Co, Grave and Co., lumber; Leroy Hall, Journal proprietor, Morgan and Miller, publishers; P.P. Shade, livery owned by E. Loeb; Bridgeford's saloon.


Main Street of Johnstown, early 1900's


In late summer of 1882 the railroad was completed across the present boundaries of the county. A station was established on the homestead of John Berry, for whom Johnstown is thought to have been named. Following the establishment of the new station, the Evergreen postoffice was moved from its location about two and one half miles north of Johnstown, to the section house and Mrs. Parsons, wife of the section foreman, succeeded Harrison Johnson as postmaster.

Early settlers in this part of the county were Frederick and Gottlieb, Ed Fancher, John Brill, Charles Cowley, W. G. Townsend, B.M. Chase, George and D.D. Carpender, Casper Lochmiller and sons, William, Casper , Fred, Phillip and Henry; H.C. Stone, J.W. Terry, Max Rauscher and Jackson Billeter.

The first store in Johnstown was opened in 1882 by W.H. Marriner in the railway depot. Later it was moved to a building north of the railroad and operated by Scattergood and Marriner. Dr. Farleigh was the first physician in the town and W. G. Townsend conducted the earliest school, which was in the Harrison Johnson home.

In December, 1882, Frank Sellors and Merritt Griffiths circulated a petition asking that the coming legislature pass an act establishing a new county from the unorganized territory lying west of Holt county. The boundaries, as set forth in the petition, included what is now Brown, Rock and Keya Paha counties, and was a tract forty eight miles from east to west and sixty four miles north and south.

Two bills were introduced. One in the Senate by Moses P. Kinkaid of the twelfth district; the other in the House by Frank North of the twenty third district. The bills were practically the same and both were introduced on 01-09-1883. Kinaid's bill passed the Senate on January 24th without a dissenting vote, but was lost in the House, as that body had already passed the North bill. The Senate bill was approved by Governor Dawes on February 19th. From the fact that there were five members of the legislature in 1883 with the last name of Brown, and the petition mentioned no name, it was decided to call the new county "Brown".

The historical roster of the State Legislature was as follows: Charles H. Brown, Omaha,in the Senate; David J. Brown, Seward, in the House; E.E.Brown, Lincoln, in the Senate; Ezra Brown, Harvard, in the Senate; and O.B. Brown, Lyman, in the Senate.
On march 17, Governor Dawes named D.B.Short as County Clerk and D.D. Carpenter, Thomas Peacock and I.N. Alderman as Commissioners. In May the following precincts were organized: Kirkwood, Bassett, Thatch, Long Pine, Griffiths, Ainsworth, Johnstown and Keya Paha. These were the original precincts.

A special election was held 07-09-1883, and the following county offers were elected. For Clerk, C.W.Spannard; Judge, S.C.Sparks;, Treasurer, John Staley; Sheriff, John Sullivan; Superintendent of Schools, W.G. Townsend; Coroner, Albert Palmer; Surveyor, R. Strait; and Commissioners were for the first district, P.A. Morris; second district, D.B.Short; third district, D.D. Carpenter.

At this same election Ainsworth was made the permanent county seat. On August 9, the commissioners rented the east ten feet of Reed's hall for the use of the county offices for the sum of ten dollars a month with the privilege of using the balance of the hall, if necessary, for a courtroom. John Sullivan failed to qualify as sheriff so Jasper Stanely was appointed sheriff in his place. John Sullivan and Ed Cook were appointed stock brand inspectors.

Reed's hall was the second story of the old Snell building on the east side of Main street. This hall was found to be ill adapted to use as a court house. In June 1884, the main hall of the Ainsworth Opera House, later the Osborn Hotel, was rented for $25.00 per month until Brown County could build a court house. The rent was reduced to $20.00 a month.

At the General election of 1883 the special officers were re-elected with the exception of: Clerk, B.H.McGrew; Treasurer, J.A. Plympton; Sheriff, H.J. Simpson; Coroner, J.H.Spafford. J.F.Burns was appointed County Attorney at a salary of $100.00 per year. It was during the summer of 1883 that the Commissioners authorized S.G. Sparks, the County Judge to "accompany the Clerk to Holt County to assist in taking a transcript of the records pertaining to the county of Brown."

Shortly after the county's organization, agitation for division began. On November 4,1884, Keya Paha county was formed from that portion of Brown lying north of the Niobrara river. Rock county was organized from the eastern portion of the original Brown county and was made a separate commonwealth in 1888.


Original Courthouse at Ainsworth


A petition was presented in 1886 asking the county commissioners to call an election to approve issuance of $10,000.00 in bonds to build a court house in Ainsworth. After an irregularity nullified the first election, a second vote gave the bond a majority approval. The building was constructed at a cost of $9,750.00 and $1,000.00 was allowed to purchase furniture. The commissioners accepted the court house November 22,1888. Nannie J. Osborne had deeded to the county the block of ground where the courthouse was built. It was stipulated that the area was to be used as a court house site or would revert to Ainsworth precinct.

Lighting struck the courthouse in July of 1889, necessitating a few repairs and a few changes had been made over the years. The main building, had been altered very little, before being destroyed by fire April 6,1958. Temporary county offices were located in buildings on Ainsworth's main street until February 6,1960 when the various offices were moved to permanent quarters at the present location, along with all the county records.

Brown county today is a farming and cattle raising community. A fine highway has superceded the old Gordon Trail. Maintained county roads are numerous; rural free delivery has replaced old country post offices.

Johnstown-is located 10 miles west of Ainsworth, Long Pine-is located 9 miles east of Ainsworth. Ainsworth is known as the Country Music Capitol of Nebraska and also Middle of Nowhere.

This story was compiled and written by Brown County Historian Marilyn A. Calver and used on this website with her permission. Pictures courtesy of Cindy Turner.