Two famous overland trails, the Oregon and the Mormon, converged in the state of Nebraska during the middle of the last century. These trails followed the Platte Valley and separated at its western border.
Soon after the Mormon leader, Brigham Young, settled his followers on the land around the Great Salt Lake, the church council began sending groups of pioneers abroad to promote migration to the "Promised Land." But the cost of the journey across the Atlantic was high, and the Utah "Saints" were forced to set up an emigration financing fund. When the crops failed and the church was left without enough money to buy ox-teams and outfits for the many Europeans who had already sailed, it was decided to try to move them on foot from the Missouri.
Thus the actual Mormon trail, established in 1847 by Brigham Young, left Florence on the Missouri River and followed up the north bank of the Platte, passing through Columbus. At Fort Laramie, in the territory of Wyoming, it joined the Oregon trail.
Many of these Mormon pioneers were Danes, Welsh, Swedes and English, and the carts were generally drawn by one man and three women each. They traveled in trains of thirty or fifty hand-carts and early Nebraskans reported that frequently, "the road was lined for a mile behind the train with the lame, halt, sick and needy." Some of the groups were dispatched too late in the season, and had not reached the Continental Divide when winter overtook them. Many died enroute.
After having been driven out of Illinois and Missouri, the Mormons had sought a land in which they would be free to practice their own religion. When Joseph Smith and several other leaders were killed by an anti-Mormon mob, the real move toward the West began. Oregon and California were the destinations at that time, since the latter belonged to Mexico and Oregon was a subject of dispute between the United States and England. Brigham Young wished to settle his flock beyond the jurisdiction of the United States government.
The chief camp of the Mormons was at Florence, now a part of the city of Omaha. This was called "Winter Quarters," and here the converts built dugouts and cabins, planted crops and established a flour mill and council house. At Florence the Mormons began to have their first experience with the Indians, and their records show that they treated the tribes fairly and were well treated in return.
When the main Mormon company, led by Brigham Young, got under way in 1847, it contained one hundred forty men, three women, seventy-two prairie schooners, ninety-three horses, fifty-two mules, sixty-six oxen, plus cows, dogs, cats and chickens. The men were picked to include blacksmiths, carpenters, wheelwrights and others who would be useful on the trip.
On this first journey, the early Mormons devised a cyclometer which they used throughout Nebraska and on the rest of the trail. Every ten miles they set up a guide post, leaving messages marked on buffalo skulls and placed conspicuously along the way. This helped the later trains that followed.
During this period, the Mormon church transported seventeen thousand emigrants from Europe, in addition to many from the eastern states of America who made the long trip. Passage from England to Utah cost fifty dollars, and this was later raised to sixty-five dollars.
In their long trek, called by some historians "the greatest march since that accomplished by the children of Israel," the Mormons spent an average of one hundred eleven weary days crossing mountains, streams and prairies, and meeting countless hordes of dubiously friendly Indians. The middle division (there were three major wagon trains, the first under Brigham Young) was led by Elder Heber C. Kimball, who left "Winter Quarters" on April 5, 1847. The last section of Kimball's train did not start until April 14, although they were all assembled before reaching the Platte River, forty-seven miles from Florence.
On April 21 they approached the present site of Columbus, where they took an observa-
tion on the left bank of the Platte, ten miles west of Shell Creek. Here, according to the journal kept by the "Saints," an anvil and bellows were set up and "a number of wagon tires set before dark." Advance scouts who had gone fishing about two miles beyond the camp, caught nearly two hundred fish which were distributed among the members, according to the number of persons in each wagon. The horses were then fed on the bark of cottonwood trees cut down for that purpose. Each horse also received two quarts of corn each day.
At about this point in their journey, the Mormons encountered a Pawnee village, situated on an open spot on the south bank of the Loup Fork, between two bodies of timber. About seventy-five Indians, including the Chief of the Pawnee nation, visited the wagon train, and presented certificates to the effect that the Pawnees were friendly toward white men. They then asked for presents, and the Mormon brethren took up a collection of powder, lead, tobacco, salt, flour, fish-hooks and trinkets.
In spite of these gifts, the Pawnee Chief became angry because he had heard that the Mormons were rich and could afford to give many more presents to the tribes. He said the pioneers would drive away the buffalo, and he wanted them to turn back instead of going on. Put on their guard by this attitude, the leaders of the church realized that traders and others had previously used their influence with the Indians against the Mormons. No attacks, however, were forthcoming at that time.
The following day the pioneers arrived at the Pawnee missionary station, formerly occupied by the Reverend J. Dunbar. This settlement was located near the point where Plum Creek empties into Loup Fork. The Mormons found considerable land under cultivation, a good quantity of hay and fodder, two stoves, several plows, a drag, and lots of old and new iron -- apparently left to rot.
Some time before the Mormon settlers had passed through, the Sioux had come down and burned the government station houses, blacksmith shop, and most of the other structures except the missionary station, which they did not touch. After seeing this, President Young called the camp together and told his followers that they might use the hay and fodder for their teams, but forbade anyone carrying anything away "even to the value of a cent." The camp of the Mormons at the Pawnee Mission was deduced to be latitude forty degrees, twenty-four minutes and twenty-four seconds. The site was the left bank of the Loup River in a region partly surrounded by bluffs.
Not only did the early Mormons traverse the broad valley of the Platte on their way to Salt Lake City, but a few years later, pioneer families of the Church of Latter Day Saints of Jesus Christ returned to locate in Platte County near Columbus. Among these were the Galleys, in 1859. H. J. Hudson was delegated by the church in 1856 to establish colonies in Nebraska, and on April 28, 1857, he-with his wife and one hundred and ten Josephite Mormons --- settled near Genoa.
Two years earlier Hudson, with a large number of others, revolted against the teachings of Brigham Young and formed at Amboy, Illinois what became known as the Reorganized Church, under the leadership of Joseph Smith, Jr.
One mile west of Niobrara, Nebraska, on a small, slightly elevated plateau, is the Mormon monument erected in 1908, by descendants of the original pioneers who, in 1846, were forced to leave their homes and move West. Inscribed on it are the names of Mormons who are known to have died during the winter of 1847.
The entire stretch of country covered by the Mormon trail is populated by a. large number of the progeny of those who started to make up the trip and settled along the way. Excavations in many parts of Nebraska, notably around Florence -- the "Winter Quarters," have brought up skulls and skeletons of these early religious pioneers and brought back memories of their travail -- the scurvy, the "black cancer," and the long winter when there were not enough well Mormons to bury the dead, nor enough lumber for coffins in which to place them.
Prior to 1862, nearly all immigrants bound for California and Oregon traveled along one or the other bank of the Platte, and many used the route thereafter. Pony Express riders as well as early overland stage travelers went through the valley also, and the course of the trails was determined by one of two objectives, Fort Laramie and South Pass. Supplies and protection were available in the former, while the latter led through the lowest and broadest break in the Continental Divide.
In 1843 a great wave of Oregon fever swept through the country. Word went out that the Oregon trail was open for wagons from the Missouri River to the Pacific and each succeeding year immigration increased until the Hudson's Bay Company was finally compelled to
The History of Platte County Nebraska
pay taxes to the new government. The treaty of 1846 followed, under which the British government relinquished its claim to all territory north and west of the Columbia River and retired to the forty-ninth degree of north latitude. Of the fifty thousand pioneers who followed the Oregon Trail in 1852, five thousand remained along the way in unmarked graves.
Literally, one branch of the old Oregon Trail entered the state of Nebraska near the southwest corner of Gage County, followed to some extent the Blue River, and crossed the divide to the Platte River near old Fort Kearney. It followed the south bank of the Platte to a point east of Big Springs, where it crossed over the divide to the North Platte, followed this branch to a point near Henry, Nebraska, where it entered Wyoming.
It was almost one hundred years ago that the noted pioneer, Ezra Meeker, passed over the historic Oregon trail through Columbus. He later said:
"As a highway of travel, the Oregon Trail is the most remarkable known to history. Considering the fact that it originated with the spontaneous use of travelers; that no transit ever located a foot of it; that no level established its grade; that no engineer sought out the fords or built any bridges, or surveyed the mountain passes; that there was no grading to speak of nor any attempt at metalling the roadbed, the general good quality of this two thousand miles of highway will seem most extraordinary."
The trail bore different names at different periods in history. After 1848, both the Mormon and Oregon Trails were sometimes referred to as the California Trail; after Ben Holladay's stage line was in operation, part of the Overland Trail was called "The Overland."
The history of the old trails in Nebraska is marked by four separate and distinct phases. The first was the trail-blazing period, which began in 1813, when the eastbound Astorians journeyed down the Platte. The second was the period of the major Oregon migration which started in 1841. The third, of course, was the world-renowned period of the California gold rush in 1849, while the fourth was the more general era of western settlement in the late 1850's, when this road was "the greatest traveled highway in the world, wider and more beaten than a city street, with hundreds of thousands of people passing over it."
The trail ran well back from the bank of the Platte to avoid sandy swampy ground, led to the mouth of the Loup River near the present site of Columbus, and continued up the bank of the Loup to a point near the present Palmer. Then it crossed the Loup and proceeded south, reaching the Platte at about the point where Wood River is now.
In 1858 the first wagon trains of the Salt Lake Express crept over the trail. The following year, those lumbering, awkward vehicles were replaced by the swifter coaches of the line that became famous under the management of Ben Holladay, who provided transportation between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. For eighteen months, in 1860-61, until the transcontinental telegraph was completed, the spectacular relay race of the Pony Express was run on the Oregon Trail.
Although the jerry-built coaches of the new Union Pacific superseded the Overland stages in 1868, the back country continued to be served by coaches until approximately 1900. Today in Nebraska, a few ruts remain, outlined each summer by wavering lines of yellow sunflowers the natural marker of a century-old panorama of wagon trains.
A typical day's journey along the Oregon Trail covered from ten to twenty miles. Some pioneers, like the Mormons, learned to estimate the distance they covered by counting the revolutions of their giant, creaking wagon wheels. Everyone traveled on horseback or in covered wagons, and both men and women pioneers along these famous trails carried guns ready for use in case of raids from the Indians.
When large streams were reached, the wagons were floated or hauled and, where it was convenient to do so, rude bridges were constructed over small streams. Often there would be long delays for hunting lost cattle, waiting for swollen streams to subside, or scaling the sides of mountains. It was not uncommon to see from ten to thirty yoke of cattle hitched to a single wagon, working slowly up the mountain.
At the time the Oregon Trail was most used, the Territory loosely known as Nebraska was part of the "Great American Desert," extending north to the border of the British possessions and west to the boundary line of Oregon. This is the country about which the Edinburgh Review of 1843 carried a story as follows:
"There lies the desert, except in a few spots on the borders of the rivers, incapable, probably forever, of fixed settlements."
And the noted American author, Washington Irving, wrote in Astoria:
"Such is the nature of this immense wilderness of the far west, which apparently defies cultivation; and the habitation of civilized life. It is to be feared that a great part of it will form a lawless interval between the abodes of civilized man like the wastes of the ocean or the deserts of Arabia."
Washington Irving and the other learned men, however, were proved permanently wrong by the great pioneers who risked their lives to settle this "desert," passing in a weird but triumphant column through the broad valley of the Platte River, and past the landmarks which were later to grace the city of Columbus.
Ezra Meeker, who first drove a team of four oxen over the Oregon Trail and lived to fly across the continent in an airplane, is typical of these early men. "The pathos of the Oregon Trail is beyond my power of expression," he once said in describing this highway of skeletons, the pitifully crude stones and headboards that marked the last remains of once brave settlers.
Doctor Howard R. Driggs, Oregon Trail Memorial Association president, later announced a series of monuments to mark historic points along the old Oregon Trail, beginning with a large monument in Washington, District of Columbia. But more important even than monuments is the spirit germinated by these forefathers of present-day prairie families. The aged trailblazer, Meeker, also said:
it is fitting we acknowledge ourselves only the instruments in the hands of an overruling providence that has vouchsafed the advancement of the nation to its present giddy height; that we should beware lest we become vain and puffed up, and not note signals of danger that cause us to pause and read the lesson of history; that nations as well as individuals that become wealthy too often become effete, and finally degenerate, and that it is for the present and succeeding generations to WILL by their actions whether the seed planted by the fathers who founded the nation and fostered the pioneers, shall continue to grow to greater heights . . . "
After the trappers and traders, the missionary priests and the other newcomers to the wilderness, rude frontier stores began to arise, and the thousands upon thousands of prairie miles ceased to be a wild desert of nothingness. It became an entity, a region, a territory -- with problems and a purpose of its own.
These new merchants of the frontier were of varied types. Some traded on guile and deception, exploiting the country rather than developing it. One man, an early resident of Nebraska, referred to a Platte Valley community as "Sock-it-to-'em," because of the habit of some unscrupulous traders of raising prices whenever the settlers were marooned at the mercy of Indians, winter weather, or other hazards of the frontier.
Yet, the real merchants traded on confidence. They had patience with the new country because they believed in its future and, years later, when the wagon trains rolled in, the settlers found in these little stores --- amid the tinware and the calico --- a bit of the home they had left behind.
Roughly, the region referred to as the "plains" constituted the land extended from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains. During the early 1850's, politicians and statesmen in Washington grew increasingly concerned over the delayed legislation on the new Territory to the West. Government order had kept all settlers out of the frontier country prior to relinquishment of title to the land by the Indians. This negotiation was handled by treaties, which first began between the United States government and the Pawnee Indians in 1852, and continued for several years.
One of the first steps toward opening the new Nebraska Territory was a meeting in the fall of 1853 of a group of interested men at Bellevue, now part of Sarpy County. The oldest trading point in Nebraska, Bellevue was founded in 1820, one year after Fort Atkinson (which was later abandoned). At that time Bellevue was virtually the only town in Nebraska, and held the honor of being a fur trading post and the only missionary settlement in the territory. The Indian agent, in charge of Indian tribes in the Nebraska region, lived at Bellevue, and it was generally supposed that this would be the capital of Nebraska.
As a result of the 1853 meeting, those eager for recognition of Nebraska appointed Hadley D. Johnson of Council Bluffs to represent them. Iowa settlers anxious to move westward were also pressing the government in Washington to take action.
As early as 1848, the subject of the organization of a new territory west of the Missouri River had been mentioned, and a bill was introduced in that year, but did not become a law. Again, in 1852, another bill was introduced but with no better results. Finally, on December 14, 1853, after the railroad question had aroused general interest, Augustus C. Dodge, senator from Iowa, introduced a bill "to organize the Territory of Nebraska." The boundaries outlined embraced the present states of Kansas and Nebraska.
This bill, which was referred to the Senate committee on territories, carried no reference to the interdict on slavery as laid down by the Missouri Compromise.
A few earlier and unofficial efforts had been made to obtain recognition by informal elections of a delegate who should attend the coming session of Congress, and urge passage of the territorial bill. Newspapers as far away as Missouri carried notices of the "election" and public meetings were held at Sarpy's Landing, in Council Bluffs, St. Mary's, Glenwood, and Sidney.
It was in 1854 that Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois introduced the momentous Kansas-NebraskaBill. A long and bitter political controversy raged, as a result of which slavery was outlawed in the new Territory. On May 30, 1854, President Franklin A. Pierce affixed his signature to the bill, making the Territory officially a part of the map of the United States.
This period was one of great struggle to overcome the obstacles in the way of passing the
|Territory of Nebraska||
bill. Slavery was a vital issue, for southerners were demanding the right to emigrate, bringing their slaves with them to the new territory along with their personal possessions and livestock. It may be counted a major victory for Nebraska that these people were over-ruled even before the Civil War made their social structure a violation of the Constitution.
The other subject of controversy in the signing of the bill was the question of the railroad to the Pacific. This road was to be built from the Mississippi River at Clinton, Iowa, to the West Coast, and both the North and the South were eager for it to cross their land. Many surveys were made to determine the best route across the mountains, and the consensus was that the broad valley of the Platte would be best. It was as a result of this that the first settlers came into Nebraska, and in March, 1854, the Omaha and Otoe Indians ceded to the United States their land along the Missouri River.
No surveys had been made and this property was open to those who got first claim. Many people from Iowa crossed the river, picked out a tract, and built log cabins to establish their right to it. Then they returned to their homes to make their living. The year 1855 was a year of slow territorial expansion when a few little settlements and bases grew up along the Missouri River across from Council Bluffs. Bellevue, with its first government Indian agency and Sarpy's Ferry, began to expand; Florence, the Mormons' "Winter Quarters," had sprung into existence in 1846.
But it was not until 1855 that a group of Council Bluffs men started a new town eight miles from Bellevue, in the woods fronting on the Missouri River. They named the community Omaha.
When the first territorial governor of Nebraska, Francis H. Burt of South Carolina, arrived in Bellevue, a grand reception had been arranged in his honor. The affair was never held however, because Governor Burt died two weeks later in the old Presbyterian Mission House, and Thomas B. Cuming, the Secretary of the new Nebraska Territory, became the governor.
Almost his first act was the issuance of a proclamation for a census of the inhabitants of the territory to be taken within four weeks. Election of a delegate to Congress, and the territorial legislature was to follow.
"In no case would names be enrolled except of actual and permanent residents of the territory," it was announced. The census was completed November 20, 1854, and showed a total of 2,732 persons in the territory, excluding the Indians. Thirteen slaves were listed among this number.
Governor Cuming first offered to locate the capital at Bellevue in consideration of the donation of one hundred acres of land. This offer was refused, and the governor then designated Omaha as the site of the first territorial legislature. This move was the occasion for much resentment among early settlers, since it was the land owned by the Presbyterian Board of Missions at Bellevue which Cuming had wanted for the capitol. The Reverend Mr. Hamilton, in charge of the missionary house, had refused to give his consent to the purchase of the property for less than fifty thousand dollars. Although one of the parties interested in locating the capital at Bellevue had offered twenty-five thousand dollars, this was not accepted. The early settlement thus failed to obtain this important political "plum."
In Omaha, meanwhile, residents had been building the two-story Ferry Building, which they offered the first legislature. The offer was accepted, and the initial body held its initial meeting there on January 16, 1855. Angry sympathizers with Bellevue's side in the issue had arrayed themselves in the red blankets of the savages, and filled the meeting hail, agitating to break up the assembly.
However, resolutions assembling the two houses in a joint session were passed and the governor at once delivered to each member-elect the certificate of his election, and directed each house to withdraw to complete its organization. Within half an hour, every attack either upon himself or the new legislature had been vanquished, and a near-anarchy in the new Territory averted.
In his inaugural address, the governor referred to the important issue of a Pacific railroad and the possibilities of promoting the construction of such a road up the valley of the Platte. "It is fitted by nature for an easy grade . . . central and convenient to a great majority of grain-growingstates," Cuming said. He urged immediate action in the selection of routes and concluded with the plea that a legislative memorial be issued to Congress to help decide the momentous issue.
Most of the representatives of the first legislature were non-residents who had acquired their legal right to be legislators by one night's
The History of Platte County Nebraska
sleep in the district they represented. One man, D. M. Johnson of Ohio, "the member from Archer," had such success in the newly organized Territory of Nebraska, that he asked for ten days' leave, hurried to Kansas where he also ran for representative, and was defeated only by a very close vote.
From January 16th to March 17th, of 1855, the new legislature debated the all-important issue of the location of the territorial capital. Some time also was devoted to location of county seats, granting of toll-bridge and ferry privileges, and passage of a code of laws for the Territory. However, so strong was the feeling among the first representatives on the capital issue that the lobbies were often filled "with respective parties to the contest, armed with bludgeons, brickbats and pistols."
Among the contestants for the capital were Omaha, Fontenelle, Florence, Bellevue, Plattsmouth, Nebraska City and Brownsville, with most of the South Platte country strongly hostile to Omaha. In the verbal fracas which followed, the Council was the more dignified of the two bodies, and the House the more turbulent.
The joint resolution locating the capitol building at Omaha was officially passed February 22, 1855, as a result of much political maneuvering between the two main factions thosewho represented the North Platte Territory, and those sympathetic to the South Platte District. At the time of this opening session, Omaha was hardly a village. Approximately a dozen houses were standing, although new buildings were being constructed constantly. Estimates of its probable population varied from fifty to several hundred, not including the Indians who camped on the lowlands near the river.
That dissatisfaction would have been evident regardless of the capital site chosen was obvious, since speculators were operating in the Territory then, and many fortunes were made or completely lost through the outcome of the decision. Having secured the capital, Omaha representatives continued to fight for its retention at every session of the legislature until 1858. A period of almost ten years followed when the capital question was permitted to rest, before the seat of government was moved to Lincoln.
The Omaha building in which the first territorial legislature met was a brick edifice, costing three thousand dollars, and erected under the direction of the Ferry Company. It was thirty-three by seventy-five feet and, in comparison with other buildings of the day, a model of architectural excellence.
© 2005 for the NEGenWeb Project by Ted & Carole Miller