NEGenWeb Project
Resource Center
On-Line Library

Part II




A new town is a great challenge. To it men give the very best of themselves tap their energies, exhaust their ingenuity, drain the hidden fount of courage which all human beings possess. Columbus was such a challenge. Conceived out of the wilderness, plagued by disaster and Indian strife, interrupted in its infant growth by the great Civil War, it slowly took on the form and semblance, the indisputable character of a community.

There was little promise of what was to come on that spring day in 1856, when thirteen men stopped in their march across the prairie and dedicated the ground on which they stood as the townsite of Columbus. These were the founders who built a city, beginning with their bare hands.

First, the crude sod houses began to appear. Then came the lean-to --- the lumber hauled across the plains for the rough frame dwellings, next came schools and churches in which to feed the deep spiritual hunger of the pioneers. Finally, the railroad stretched its great steel arms across the broad valley of the Platte, bringing with it the rest of the buoyant, expansive, nineteenth century world.

Soon the little community became the hub for all of Platte County. It grew rich in agricultural resources, and the citizens of Columbus made their contribution to the Machine Age in industrial know-how and a burgeoning system of water power whose great dynamos nourished the entire state.

List the component parts of any town. Classify and sort them out --- the schools and stores, the stations, cemeteries and houses of worship, the civic structures with their fine facades. Then add to these things the people. That is your community --- your town.




In the old Douglas House in Omaha, a little group of thirteen men met in March, 1856, to discuss what was, for them, the combination of a business venture and a dream. Ten of the men came from Columbus, Ohio, and three of them from Illinois. They had gathered there in the frontier hotel operated by Mr. Mills to make plans for the founding of a new settlement somewhere along the route of the proposed transcontinental railway.

These men believed that the logical road for the railway to follow was along the broad valley of the Platte. Therefore, they decided to locate the town at the confluence of the Loup and Platte Rivers about ninety miles west of Omaha, and dispatched five scouts --- four of their number and a hired surveyor --- into the region to find the most promising site. These five were: Fred Gottschalk, Jacob Louis, Adam Denck, Michael Smith and George Rousch, the hired surveyor.

Out across the Overland Trail they journeyed until they came to a point approximately eight miles east of the present site of Columbus. It was near McPherson's Lake that this scouting party set up a marker early in March, 1856, to establish the first location of a town.

It took days for them to carry word back to their companions that they had found the location for a new townsite. Finally the thirteen men were equipped and ready for the trip. Calling themselves the "Columbus Town Company," they set out for their new home. After several days of travel, toward evening on May 29, 1856, the tired, weary caravan of thirteen men with their ox teams, halted at a point on the north side of the Loup River near Buck Island.

These men, whom history will always remember as the far-sighted and intrepid founders of the city of Columbus, Nebraska, were: Jacob Louis, Frederick Gottschalk, Carl Reinke, Michael Smith, Jacob Guter, John C. Wolfel, Vincent Kummer, Henry Lusche, Charles Bremer, John Browner, J. P. Becker, Anthony Voll and John Held. May 29th was the birthday of John Peter Becker, as well as of Columbus, and in later years, the events were always celebrated together. Adam Denck and John Rickly, who joined the group in July 1856, were, also, considered members of the first group.

For the most part, the founders were natives of Germany and Switzerland, and one --- John Browner --- had been born in Wexford, Ireland. When they came to the open spot on the prairie where they intended starting a town, the eldest of the group was forty-one years old, two were only twenty-two. They were builders as well as dreamers, for they set about building log cabins and sod houses, planting groves and developing timber claims. Some ran ferries and freighted and put in crops. And, as Columbus began to grow into a full-fledged pioneer town, these were the men who erected sawmills, grist mills, and breweries. Most of them had received good educations in their native countries and, in addition, they possessed the pioneer's "knack" of carpentry, brick-laying and all the thousand odd jobs attendant upon building a home and a community.

Today, the D. A. R.Memorial stands near the spot where the first building in Columbus was erected. This early structure, known as the "Town Company House," was a primitive affair of rough logs, roofed with grass; but for many months it acted as dwelling, storehouse and fort for the thirteen men. Around this center the settlers gradually built their log cabins, and most of the early buildings were erected near the present site of Seventh Street. Along the route of Columbus's busy main street, also, the famous Overland Trail once passed. Out in Pawnee Park, the original log cabin, which was the first home of the Wolfels in Columbus, has been preserved by the American Legion. This house originally stood one block north of Buffalo Square on the southwest corner of the block.

It was not until 1860 that the population numbered enough children to warrant the erection of a school. In the beginning, many settlers from the southern states as well as from Europe felt it the prerogative of the churches to instruct the young; however, on December 10, 1860, the first

The Founding of Columbus

public school in Columbus opened in the original "Old Company House" with G. W. Stevens as teacher.

The original town plot of Columbus was one mile square. The grove of trees on the Jacob Louis farm property marked the eastern boundary, and the landscape, as far as one could see in any direction, was unbroken prairie. There were numerous trees on the banks of the Loup at that time. Nearly every member of the original Columbus Company had an ox-team, and during the first summer, they broke ground and planted. Grasshoppers later destroyed their crops, but in the winter of 1856-57, wild game was abundant and the pioneers kept from starving by eating deer and elk.

"The day on which Columbus was born was cloudless and calm" Mr. Louis said, when interviewed almost half a century later. He described a herd of one thousand elk he saw the first winter, driven before a prairie fire until stopped by the river which was running "bank full."

Only about sixteen people lived in the entire area of Platte County that first winter. Four of these resided outside the settlement of Columbus.


For many years the actual details of the founding of Columbus were lost beneath a welter of legend and anecdote. The descendants of many of the early settlers told stories, in turn, to their children; but no authentic documented version of that history-making era was known to exist. Then, a few years ago, in Julesburg, Colorado, Mrs. C. E. Courtright was sorting some long-stored effects that had been in the possession of her grandfather, John Rickly, when she found an ancient record.

Rickly, who came to Columbus in July, 1856, with Charles Turner, a hired surveyor, helped to survey the town. Both his name and that of Adam Denck are associated with the story of the founding of the town, although Rickly was forced to return to Columbus, Ohio, in the following winter due to the illness of his wife. Later he started the first sawmill in Columbus.

His granddaughter, Mrs. Courtright, discovered among the personal effects handed down in her family, five books, the original records kept by the Columbus Town Site Company and the first officials of the village. These she returned to the city of Columbus to be kept with their other historical records. Miss Martha M. Turner, for many years a member of the Nebraska State Historical Society's staff in Lincoln, did invaluable work in reviewing many of the early records at a meeting of the Platte County Pioneer Association, prior to her death in June, 1946.

The Minute Book clarifies many matters not previously understood by historians. For instance, the name Vincent Burkley, who located in Omaha in the Spring of 1856, is frequently seen among early papers. Although he was a personal friend of the first Columbus settlers and had invested in the enterprise of establishing the town, Burkley, himself, was not one of the founders. His nephew, Anthony Voll, is listed as one of the original thirteen men, although it is doubtful if he stayed in Columbus long. Members of the Burkley family have played a prominent role in the development of Omaha.

On page three of the early Minute Book are the "Articles of Consolidation made and entered into by and between the Elk Horn and Loup Fork Bridge and Ferry Company and the Columbus Company" in the fall of 1856. This appears to be the first record of the conflicting interests of two groups of men, both of whom anticipated development of Columbus as a future railroad town.

This second group was headed by James C. Mitchell, of Florence and Omaha, who had come to Nebraska in 1854 from Jackson County, Iowa. He was known as a banker, merchant and newspaper publisher, and was responsible for changing the name of the former Mormon community near Omaha from "Winter Quarters" to Florence.

It appears as if Mitchell tried to hold all of the transportation rights in the early territorial days. He owned a controlling interest in the steam ferry at Florence and was captain of the boat there. During the first Territorial Legislature in 1855, he succeeded in passing a law granting his group the privilege to run a ferry across the Loup River. This act, dated February 26, 1855, was the first law passed in the legislature which later referred specifically to Columbus, the first town on the Loup, and constituted, therefore, the first legal mention of the Townsite, then undeveloped.

Apparently Mitchell and his associates intended establishing a town at the fork of the Loup

The History of Platte County Nebraska

and the Platte Rivers, which would profit from the steady stream of emigrants passing through the Platte Valley. However, that their scheme was not entirely successful is evidenced in the Articles of Consolidation recorded in the early Minute Book.

"Know all men by these presents," the statement dated in November 1856 begins, "that whereas the Elk Horn and Loup Fork Bridge and Ferry Company, Mitchell's group have laid out the town of Pawnee on their claim at the cropping of the Loup Fork River, Nebraska Territory, adjoining the Town of Columbus and whereas the Columbus Company had previously laid out the town of Columbus in May 1856 on their claim near the said cropping and adjoining said claim of Pawnee.. . said companies have agreed... to consolidate their interests and make common stock of both claims and all the lands owned or claimed by both companies at said point ....

The document further reserved to the Bridge and Ferry Company the right of ferry landing and bridging anywhere on the lands. The city was officially named Columbus and the company was consolidated in the name of the Columbus Company. Stock was divided into two hundred shares, with one hundred of them remaining with the Mitchell faction and one hundred going to the Columbus Company under the presidency of Vincent Kummer.

It was also written into the agreement that the Consolidated Columbus Company should be ferried without charge on the Elk Horn and Loup Fork River ferry belonging to the Omaha group. Others from Omaha associated with Mitchell in his venture were A. B. Malcom, A. F. Smith and I. N. Fifield. A. D. Jones is also mentioned in some of the papers.

An agreement was later reached between the two factions --- one of them the original Columbus Company wanting to settle and build the community and the other interested only in procuring a franchise that would enable it to benefit financially. Under the terms of the pact, signed in 1856, the mutual stock was divided into two hundred shares. Each share was quoted at five hundred dollars. This left the holdings for each group worth one hundred thousand dollars.

Although the land was not formally surveyed until 1857, a meeting of the Columbus Company in July 1856, saw a motion passed to authorize a survey of Columbus. The directive provided that a town was to be laid out, containing one hundred fifty-five blocks. Ten shares of stock in the new company were offered to any person who would erect a steam mill at the Columbus townsite and the following month the contract was given to John Rickly & Company.

It was at the August 30, 1856, meeting of the founding fathers that the first mention of women settlers appears in the Columbus records. One of the company presented a motion to donate one share of stock to the first white woman who would locate and reside in the town. A motion also passed to donate two lots to anyone who would erect a house in Columbus worth not less than two hundred dollars within the following ten months.

Thus did the early settlers attempt to build a community where none had been before. When Columbus was one of the few settlements in the Nebraska territory, Platte County was considerably larger than it is today. Over ten years after the actual founding, the sheriff, John Browner, was given as his official west boundary, the western border of the state of Nebraska.

Much of the early development of the area around Columbus was due to the relatively peaceful nature of the Indians who inhabited that part of the country. Although previous to 1854 the Pawnee tribes had been very powerful and numerous, laying claim to all the land between the Rocky Mountains and the Platte, more than ten thousand Pawnees had died from smallpox, contracted presumably from fur traders in the region.

Therefore, Indians of several different tribes joined together for protection and, led by the Pawnees, they proceeded to make friends with the white man, unlike their more savage neighbors, the Sioux. This led a larger number of settlers to move to Nebraska where stories of Indian raids were fewer than in the other undeveloped regions of the West.

A fever of speculation had gripped the country about the time of the founding of Columbus thus some of the first settlers in this region came to Nebraska with the original idea of speculating in land. Principal trading was in claims and town lots, and lumber was in heavy demand (the average rate of cottonwood logs was one hundred fifty dollars for one thousand feet). However, not all of the speculators proved fortunate and, many of them, later turned to the soil as the only remaining way of making a living out of their capital investment.

The Founding of Columbus

Many of those who later moved on to Columbus stopped first in Omaha at the old frame structure known as the Douglas House, located at Thirteenth and Harney Streets. Stage coach travel. was uncertain and overcrowded and everyone along the Missouri River looked forward to spring as the beginning of navigation. When the first steamboat whistle sounded, every inhabitant of a "river town" used to turn out to bid the boat welcome. Nonetheless, this precarious mode of transportation with all its hidden sandbars and dangerous channels --- was the first introduction of many pioneers to the Territorial settlement of Columbus where frontier life awaited them.

On November 7, 1856, the second caravan arrived in Columbus. The first white woman, Mrs. John Wolfel, whose husband had been one of the original thirteen men in the Columbus Townsite Company, was in this group and she spent the following winter as the only woman in the new prairie community. The bravery of this young, eighteen-year-old bride is not to be underestimated, for so primitive was Columbus at that time that it offered none of the facilities which Doretha Wolfel had. left behind her in Columbus, Ohio.

All the settlers worked hard during those years. Vincent Kummer planted a grove south of Jacob Louis' property on the Eighth Street Road, which is no longer in existence. Carl Reinke, John Held and Henry Luesche moved out to Shell Creek, near the present location of the Christ Lutheran Church settlement. John Browner filed on his timber claim on Shell Creek and later purchased school land northeast of Columbus; and John Rickly donated the land where Frankfort Square now stands, to the city. Fred Gottschalk built a log cabin east of the house later built by L. Fred. Gottschalk. Adam Denck, who had been joined by his wife, Margaretha in 1859, died in 1860, and his widow married Frederick Gottschalk. As the little community grew, it was filled with many languages for Columbus was made up not of one nationality group, but of several. The new settlers in Platte County were English, Germans, Swiss, Irish, Scandinavians, Danes, Welsh and Poles and they worked and lived together in democratic harmony. Many of these first settlers sent back to their native lands for other members of their families and friends; and thus the first colony grew and stemmed into new settlements.

In the autumn of 1856, John Haney and the Quinn brothers came out from Omaha and built a cabin on what is now the county line between Platte and Colfax Counties. Another cabin was built a few miles east of the Haney-Quinn cabin by the two Hashbergers, father and son, who had also moved to Columbus from Omaha. Earlier that first year, in July, the town had been laid out by John Rickly and Charles Turner, a hired surveyor, although the government land surveys for Territorial Nebraska, later accepted by the government, were those conducted by Charles Manner and Captain Thomas J. Lee in 1855.*


The first winter at Columbus was long remembered for the deep snow. In December, 1856, snow drifts of forty feet were not uncommon on the prairie, and snowfall on the level reached depths of from three to five feet. Those who lived at the Old Company House that first winter were: J. C. Wolfel and Mrs. Wolfe!, J. P. Becker, John Browner and Charles Bremer. Already living in cabins near the townsite were Jacob Guter, John Held, Michael Smith, Jacob Louis, Fred Gottschalk, and Adam Denck. Henry Luesche's and Carl Reinke's claims were on Shell Creek. Charles Bremer, J. P. Becker and John Browner also filed on claims along Shell Creek that year.

In December, 1856, with their provisions dangerously low, four of the settlers set out for Omaha on snowshoes, drawing handsleds. They followed the meanderings of the Platte River through snow over three feet deep, and were almost frozen to death before the journey was completed. However, they reached Columbus safely.

The first doctor to come to the little community, Doctor Charles B. Stillman, walked to Columbus from Omaha with a man named Hewitt, in the spring of 1857, and the little population gained another member in James Haney, brother of John Haney. Two other well-known pioneers of their day, Pat Murray and Hugh McDonough, walked west from Omaha to Columbus, where they built a sod house and took out a claim northwest of town.

Although the famous "Old Company House" in which these first residents of Columbus spent their first winter was later sold to C. A. Speice for the sum of twenty dollars and twenty-five cents, the spirit of their sacrifice and the memory of the privations which they endured lived after them.

*According to A. E. Sheldon in his "History of Nebraska."

The History of Platte County Nebraska

One Platte County resident, whose childhood was spent on the frontier, tells of the countless families who journeyed over the almost trackless west:

"I see men watering tired animals out of the creek ... and a vision of their camp fires flickering in the early evening," he wrote. Many of his early recollections were of settlers who had become stranded on their way to Oregon or the gold fields of Colorado and California, and had paused to recoup before proceeding westward. Some sought gold, some adventure, others a new start in a new country where the confines of civilization were not yet to be felt.

Certainly it is true that the first settlers built their cabins along the river and on nearby Shell Creek because of the water supply, toughness of the prairie sod, and the pioneers' urgent need for timber to use in construction. However, after experience had proved the river land to be subject to seasonal floods and as desirable sites became scarce, the settlers discovered the excellent soil possibilities out on the treeless regions of the prairie.

Most of them worked their land by hand with a few crude tools. Although Columbus, itself, was a trade center where furs, skins, corn, beef, pork and grains were bartered, most of the responsibility for the growth of the area lay in the products of its own soil. It was an era of vigorous planning, paper cities, speculation and counter-speculation and, for those who made it their permanent home, hard work.

The first years of Columbus' existence antedated the passage of the Herd Law, when stockraisers permitted their horses, cattle and other animals to roam free. Hogs ran loose in Platte County and lived chiefly on acorns or rushes which grew thickly in the valleys. Harvesting and hunting occupied the farmer, but soon the cleavage between those who had settled on the prairie and those who lived along the streams was established. One faction wanted to raise stock, and the other wanted to raise crops. Thus, the dispute spread throughout the settlement as the first problems of community living made themselves felt, thousands of miles from capitals or legal council rooms.

But the human problems were slight compared to the hardships of nature. Many an early settler began to realize the import of his venture during that first bitter winter. For five months during 1856-57, the entire state was covered with snow while the temperature stayed below zero. In some places where people perished in the storm, their bodies were not found for months; and to keep from starvation, many settlers caught wild game in the snow drifts. A second trip to Omaha was made in February of that year by members of the Columbus colony. Taking a handsled to load provisions, the men covered the distance of almost two hundred miles in ten days.

One of the inexplicable facets of pioneer life in Territorial Nebraska at the time of the founding of Columbus is how the white settlers could take claims on land still owned by the Indians. The treaty with the chief of the Pawnees, in which the tribes ceded their land to the government, was not made until September 24, 1857, nor were the land surveys made official before June of that year. The Sixth Principal Meridian was established at Columbus in August, 1857, and the subdivided townships were dated October 15 and 20, 1858.

Inducements for production at the new townsite soon began to be offered. At the meeting of the Board of Directors of the Columbus Company on January 8, 1857, J. Baker and John Wolfel were offered three lots for every twenty thousand bricks which they could make at Columbus. The same year, a project was begun to build a hotel at a cost of between four thousand and five thousand dollars, and the Odd Fellows and Free Masons were assigned locations for their Halls. Provisions were made for the establishment of the first church and for a local school.

From the records of the Minute Book, it is evident that the Mitchell faction, representing Omaha interests, had not fulfilled its contract, for a resolution was passed by the Columbus Company to build a ferry boat provided "the Loup Fork Ferry boat is not replaced to Columbus." Further involved proceedings focused upon the problems of moneys belonging to the Columbus Company which were in the possession of the rival group.

At that time a point about one mile above Columbus on the Loup Fork, with only one house, was known as Cleveland, and it was this site which Columbus settlers believed Mitchell to be backing in the territorial legislature at Omaha. The feeling of the early Columbus residents is made clear in the resolution passed July 12, 1858, providing that at least three of the board members should be residents of Columbus.

The Founding of Columbus

Later the same company gave John Rickly the ferry charter with the notation that he was "to receive the rope and tackle belonging to the present ferry and the property of the Columbus Company as soon as they gain possession of same. . . "

Thus it developed that Columbus was built by those who sincerely believed in its future --- believed to the extent that they were willing to risk life and fortune in the struggle of the frontier --- is, perhaps, symbolic of the growth of all America that in this valley of the Platte, the thirteen, founding fathers had to battle not only the elements and the inevitable conflicts of a growing community, but the selfish interests of a rival exploitative faction, as well. However, in the end, the names of those who came and labored are the names Columbus remembered in her streets and parks and the landmarks established to commemorate this faith.


George Berney, though not one of the original thirteen, was typical of this hardy pioneer strain. coming to Omaha in May, 1856, he went to work for John H. Green, a stonemason. (Green later became a citizen of Platte County.) In December of that year, Green sent Berney along with Fred Gottschalk and J. M. "Fred" Becker to Columbus to cut logs for a sawmill which had just been started.

However, when the party was within three miles of Fremont, Nebraska, its two yoke of oxen became stuck in the snow. The storm turned into a blizzard and, although Gottschalk and Becker attempted to get help in Fremont (then a hamlet of three huts) all were forced to return to Omaha the following day.

A few months later, in March, 1857, George Berney walked back to Platte County, carrying, his few personal possessions and provisions in a knapsack. Although suffering from snow blindness, he managed to locate the cabins of his friends, Charles Reinke and Henry Lusche, who had preempted claims on Shell Creek. By following the creek, Berney avoided losing his way and soon after his arrival, he established a squatter's claim on a site two miles from the cabins of his friends, and eight miles northeast of Columbus in Bismark Township.

In the beginning Mr. Berney walked the distance from his homestead to Omaha and back for his supplies. To survive, he took the contract to dig a ditch two miles in length to serve as a fence for cattle. During the entire year he spent fulfilling this contract, his only food was ground corn and water.

Four years later, after selling his Bismark Township claim for one hundred dollars, he bought a yoke of oxen and started for Colorado to mine gold. This project was never completed, for when he was only thirty-five miles from Denver, he took a job haymaking. The hay was sold in Denver to the government at two hundred dollars a ton and used for cavalry horses. The reason for the price was the difficulty encountered in fording streams with the loads of hay. Berney's job was terminated abruptly when the spring floods covered the surrounding countryside with sand.

The next typically pioneer occupation of this early settler was freighting between Omaha and Denver in the days when Indians were aggressively hostile. Settlers were being massacred and property destroyed, therefore five hundred teams would travel in one wagon train together, dividing themselves into groups of fifty. Due to the high degree of danger attending this work, Berney was able to sell sacks of flour in Denver for fifty dollars which had cost him three dollars and fifty cents in Omaha.

His career of daring and frontier adventure ended, George Berney returned to Columbus to marry Rosa Henggeler, the daughter of Franz Henggeler, on February 27, 1860. They settled on a homestead five miles southwest of Columbus.

The first white girl to arrive in Columbus and make it her permanent home was Caroline Rickly (Dale). The daughter of John Rickly, she was ten years old when, in the spring of 1857, she made the trip by covered wagon across the plains with her father and brother. The Rickly family had come from Columbus, Ohio, but upon arrival in Omaha, it was found that the temporary quarters were not large enough to house all seven Rickly children. Thus Caroline was given the privilege of escorting her father to their new home.

The History of Platte County Nebraska

A hearty welcome was given the new settlers by the Columbus colony, and they started house keeping in a little sod shanty near the Loup River bank which Rickly had built the previous fall.

As a child, Caroline Rickly (Dale) amused herself on the prairie by picking wildflowers and visiting Mrs. John C. Wolfel, the only woman in Columbus at that time, at the Old Company House. She learned to skin animals and helped in the many practical tasks of pioneer housekeeping.

School, for Columbus children, was intermittent until 1860, when formal instruction was established. Occasionally a traveler on his way west would become stranded in town, and if the settlers considered him of sufficiently high intelligence, he would be hired by the company to teach for a time. Young Caroline gathered her practical education from watching the caravans as they moved along the Oregon Trail to Salt Lake City and the gold fields of California.

She spent much time around her father's store, located on the present intersection of Seventh Street and Twenty-third Avenue. Sometimes covered wagons would pull up in front of the establishment three abreast, waiting for the slow ferry crossing or the dangerous passage by pontoon bridge.

Her childhood reminiscences included numerous Indian stories, tales of burning arrows shot into the sky as a warning of trouble. More than once she sought shelter with the other pioneers behind log wall stockades.

The first white girl in Columbus soon found many friends among the other young people who moved to the settlement. At the first hotel in Columbus, opened in August, 1857, and operated by her uncle, Jacob Baker, she attended many parties. One of these was the neighborly celebration of the wedding in 1865 of Major Frank and Mrs. North at Hammond House, where James H. Galley and his sister, Sarah Ann Galley, led the party in serenade. When she was twenty-one, Caroline Rickly married William Dale of Omaha who had come to Columbus to work in her father's store, and she and her husband spent many years in the mercantile business. Her two sisters, Mrs. Frank G. Becher and Mrs. A. Toncray, were also active in the early community life of Platte County. Mrs. Dale and her daughter, Courtney, later moved to Omaha.

Gus Becher, Sr. who came to Columbus in 1857 probably had the first store. And J. P. Becker and John Wolfel had the second store. John Browner kept the books for these early business establishments. The year after the founding of Columbus, the Board of County Commissioners of Platte County met for the first time on December 28. Three local residents, Becher, Spaulding and Sarvis, were in attendance and Mr. Sarvis was elected chairman. County and territorial taxes were levied on real estate for roads and schools and the clerk was authorized "to buy a record book as soon as the county funds will admit."

In the beginning, the county, which was named after the river that marked twenty miles of its southern boundary, was divided into three districts. A road was badly needed at that time to run from the north end of Washington Avenue in Columbus to Shell Creek which would bridge the latter stream.

March, 1858, found C. B. Stiliman of Columbus ordered by the Board to draw lots for twelve grand and twelve petit jurors to be selected from "suitable persons from Columbus and Buchanan precincts." That same month an act was written to incorporate the Town of Columbus. The five members appointed trustees of the town until an official election was held were: John Reck, Vincent Kummer, John C. Wolfel, Peter Meyer and Frank G. Becher. Trustees were to be elected to office for a period of one year.

A three-month residence in the Territory of Nebraska was deemed necessary for male citizens to vote. Women, under the Constitution, had not yet been granted the ballot. Gustavus Becher, Michael Fry and C. B. Stiliman were appointed judges of election; Charles J. Stetson and John Siebert were appointed election clerks. As early as 1858, assessments were ordered on all property by the sheriff of Platte County.

The first supervisors of the two road districts were Jacob Guter and Daniel Hashberger, One of the duties of these men was to give notice to all persons "from whom road labor was due" to work on the road between Columbus and Shell Creek. Quit-claims were another item on the agenda of the early Board, for all persons owning lands through which the Shell Creek road passed were requested to deed to the county enough land for the building of the road.

Later the county was divided into five road districts and in addition to Jacob Guter, settlers

The Founding of Columbus

Joseph Skinner, James Jeffries, Alex Albertson and Charles Reinke were made road supervisors. Other business included the establishment of a road from Columbus to Buchanan in Platte County and the bridging of the intervening sloughs.

Some indication of the geographical boundaries of the county at that time may be gleaned from a June 15, 1858, report of a meeting in which an election precinct was established at the settlement of Grand Island to include all territory lying north of Platte ten miles and east of Wood River twenty miles. William S. Potts and William Haga were appointed justices of the peace for that precinct and George Schultz was made constable. A Shell Creek precinct was also established with William English as justice of the peace and A. B. Northrop as constable. The election was ordered held at the home of Charles Bremer, while Isaac Albertson's home was the location for the election in Buchanan precinct.

The store belonging to Gus G. Becher, Sr. was the scene of the Columbus election and Charles A. Speice, George W. Hewitt and C. B. Stiliman were appointed judges for the Columbus precinct. Another road supervisor, A. B. Northrop, was also appointed for District 5, Platte County.

In the July 5, 1858, Board meeting A. B. Pattison was requested to survey the county road from Columbus to Buchanan since another road was needed from the eastern boundary of Platte County along the north side of Shell Creek to the western county line.

The following year, the county granted a petition to permit George Spauling, John Reck and F. G. Becher to operate a ferry in the Platte River for five years. The location of the ferry was to be at a point opposite the residence of Joseph Skinner, and the service was to begin April 25, 1859. An annual license costing one hundred dollars was voted by the board to be paid by the operators of the service.

Criminal cases were already occurring in the county shortly after the founding of Columbus, for measures were introduced asking fees for warrant-serving, witnesses and the processing of papers in criminal cases. Also, a five hundred dollar bond, each, was demanded of those settlers who served as mayor, aldermen, recorder, marshal!, treasurer and assessor. Already the little colony was assuming the guise of a town.

In October, 1859, the first motion was introduced to elect one delegate to the congress of the territory. Also to be elected were one territorial auditor, one territorial treasurer, one librarian, one territorial commissioner and one district attorney, one representative, one probate judge, one county clerk, one registrar of deeds, one sheriff, one county surveyor, one county treasurer, two county commissioners and two justices of the peace.

Later measures passed included the establishment of a Genoa precinct and a road extending from Columbus through the town of Monroe to the ferry at Genoa. The Leander Gerrard Company presented a petition to establish a ferry across the Loup River, although this franchise was given to John Rickly in February, 1859.

However, Columbus one year after its founding still lacked many of the facilities of an established community. When Doctor Stillman arrived to be the first physician in the town, he set up a small stock of drugs in a little lean-to in a log cabin. There were not enough townspeople to require the full-time care of a doctor so for a while, he held the office of Registrar of Deeds and County Clerk in addition to his professional duties.

The first nucleus of the Shell Creek Township was established when four men from Ireland, Michael Kelly, Thomas Lynch, Patrick Gleason and John Dineen, moved to Platte County where they settled on Shell Creek west of the Meridian.

The year 1857 marked an amusing historical event for Columbus when John Rickly, the first Postmaster, carried the mail between Omaha and Columbus by ox-team. The first consignment of mail to the new Columbus settlement arrived July 4, 1857, in the middle of an Independence Day celebration (undoubtedly the first parade ever held in the town). A feast had been planned for the day to include a turkey stuffed with dried apples, but in the process of cooking, the apples swelled and the result was burst turkey.

It was a few months after this when Rickly's combination saw and grist mill first began operation and so frightened the Pawnee Indians that warriors and squaws alike fled to their village twenty miles distant. Their report that an evil spirit had conspired with the white men to build

The History of Platte County Nebraska

an instrument of torture for them was embellished by descriptions of its iron teeth which ate great logs and its spout which breathed fire.

Michael Erb, another native of Germany, arrived on Shell Creek with his wife in 1857, soon after their marriage in Columbus, Ohio; and Peter Meyer and his Irish wife, Ellen Sheehan, moved to Columbus in May of that year. Mrs. Meyer was the second white woman to take up permanent residence in Platte County. The town got its first blacksmith that year --- Jacob Ernst --- and the Town Company helped subsidize him with a seventy-five dollar loan to set up a blacksmith shop which he operated for many years before moving to a farm three miles north of town.

A shift in county lines that year saw the western part of Platte County become Monroe County, only to return to Platte in 1858. One of Columbus' prominent early citizens, Leander Gerrard, who organized the Columbus State Bank (the oldest state bank incorporated under the laws of Nebraska), homesteaded along the Looking Glass in 1857 and married Bettie Weaver, daughter of settler Michael Weaver, who was a carpenter and cabinet maker by trade. Michael Weaver later served on the first school board and thus became the first Platte County Superintendent of Schools.

In June of 1857, a singularly important conference was held in Omaha. From all over the United States, distinguished leaders in many fields met there to discuss the construction of the proposed Pacific railway through the Platte Valley. Although this dream did not become an entity for another decade, it was this initial meeting and others like it which pointed the way to Columbus' eventual emergence as a first-class city and the center of the strategically important Platte Valley.

The rival town of Cleveland, laid out about two and one-half miles northwest of Columbus, was the focal point of agitation on the part of those who wished to exploit the region while living in comfort and security behind the frontier. A pretentious hotel was started in Cleveland but never finished, and the building was later bought by George Francis Train and moved into Columbus, where it became the Hammond House. Today, only the stumps of cottonwood trees along "Shady Lake" Road remain to mark the site.

The Cleveland-Columbus controversy was not the only issue in 1857 on which men took bitterly divergent views. Already the fight raged as to the location of the territorial legislature. A bill was passed in that year to move the capital from Omaha to South Platte territory and locate it in a city (which existed only on paper) called Douglas on Salt Creek in Lancaster County. Governor Izard vetoed the bill, however, and Douglas never evolved out of its fictional state.

Although only one marriage was recorded for the year 1858 --- C. B. Stiliman, as Justice of the Peace, married John Will and Miss Marie Rickert on July 5. A novel ceremony on February 17th, 1859, was the first of four wedding services performed in Columbus that year, when James E. North, the groom, and Miss Nellie Arnold took their matrimonial vows on horseback, thereby staging the first "horseback wedding." C. B. Stiliman, acting County judge, performed the ceremony with John Browner and Mrs. Peter Meyer as witnesses.

Meanwhile, in the German settlement north of town, more pioneers were arriving. Erb, Held, Marohn, Will, Rickert, Ahrens, Henggeler, Mathis and the Losekes homesteaded in Bismark Township, while in Shell Creek Township, a band of Irish immigrants including Hayes, Doody and the Carrigs established claims.

In 1858, J. E. North, who operated the first local ferry across the Loup, moved to Columbus and C. A. Speice began to ply the trade of carpenter (later C. A. Speice took up law). Both men joined the growing Columbus community. A. J. Arnold also established a claim in that year, and took charge of the immigrant ferry. Martin and Chris Heinz, twin brothers, also arrived in '58 to join the Company.

It is appropriate that most of the business transacted by the County Commissioners in that year pertained to road districts, road supervisors and road building, for pioneers, as they arrived, were steadily pushing back the town boundaries, and transportation across the plains was of key importance that the settlers might survive.

The first flag was also made in Columbus in 1858, when Mrs. Peter Meyer and the few women in the community met to tear up their old dresses into scraps of fabric to be used for

The Founding of Columbus

Columbus' American flag. In addition to the national sentiment and civic progress, that year marked the introduction into the frontier town of its first religious figure. The Reverend Jacob Adriance a Methodist itinerant minister, jogged into town one Saturday on an old horse, with a pair of saddlebags containing his Bible and a hymn book, to preach the first sermon in Columbus, at the American Hotel dining room. The minister took up residence with J. P. Becker, John Browner, Judge Speice, Judge Pattison and others, in what was known as "Bachelors' Hail."

There were some who feared that Nebraska Territory would be depopulated at that time by the rush to the gold fields. Reports from the Columbus Ferry state that 1087 wagons, 20 hand carts, 5401 men, 424 women, 480 children, 1610 horses, 406 mules, 6010 oxen and 6000 sheep crossed the ferry at the Loup Fork on their way West.

Something of the optimism of these early pioneers was expressed by a Columbus man, Charles Bremer. In the spring of 1859, Bremer went to Omaha in a covered wagon for supplies. The wagon was drawn by four oxen, two yoke, and it made the trip in seventeen days (it was an eight-day journey each way and Bremer stopped one day in Omaha). However, painted clearly on the side of his wagon as it rolled with painful tedium across the flat and untilled prairie, were the words,

"Columbus and Omaha Express."

The year 1859 found Columbus in a peculiarly strategic position since it could profit from the steady stream of emigrants much the same as the tourist trade in contemporary times. The hotel and blacksmith shop, as well as the ferries did an excellent business, and hay sold to the travelers that fall at a price between forty and fifty dollars per ton.

This was the year of the Pawnee War when Governor Black called for volunteers and the men of Columbus responded with an infantry under the leadership of Captain Michael Weaver, Lieutenant William Grauman, and Sergeant John Browner. This organization with its thirty-seven men, four wagons and eleven horses, saw sixteen days' service in hostilities with the Indians. Only four men were left in Columbus, and less than a dozen in the county during this campaign.

Among those families arriving in 1859, were E. A. Gerrard, C. D. Clother and the Galleys. In the fall of the year, David Anderson, who later settled on a farm several miles east of Columbus, made a journey from Denver to Omaha. After following the Pike's Peak Trail to Julesburg, and thence along the California Trail to Fort Kearney, Grand Island and Columbus, he wrote:

"Columbus was the first real live town we came to. It was laid out on a grand scale and had a population of about two hundred. There were a large frame hotel called the American House, and ten or twelve sod houses and Rickly's sawmill."

Again in the winter of 1859-60, nature unleashed a season of record-breaking cold and blizzards upon the little settlements in Platte County. In January, 1860, James H. Galley, his brother, Samuel Galley, and his brother-in-law, William Draper, along with Tom French and Pat Malloy started for Fort Kearney, where they planned to market their corn. After crossing the Loup River on the ice, they camped for the night just south of Columbus and before morning, a fierce blizzard had started which held them snowbound for three days. The oxen, three yoke of them, were turned loose in the brush until the storm had passed, and the party proceeded through two feet of snow to its destination. The only way the men could cross the stream through the ice and water was by hitching the six oxen to one wagon at a time. In this way, it took an entire day to ford one stream

So the first four years of pioneering in the little Platte County community ended in 1860 as Columbus assumed a place of increasing importance on the territorial map. Many words have been written and many speeches made, extolling the bravery of those who struggled to exist and build a city where nothing but prairie dogs and wild animals had been able to survive before. Their descendants and those who came afterward have one solemn obligation to these men and women. They must not forget. It is not alone important that they remember the Sacrifices, the grasshoppers and the bitter, prairie loneliness --- but they must remember, too, the lesson learned by these builders of America . . . that by working together and making their communal life the honest outgrowth of their individual abilities and ambitions, they would find happiness in the fruition of their dream.

Prior Page
Table of Contents
Next Page

© 2005 for the NEGenWeb Project by Ted & Carole Miller