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One of the incorporators of the town of Columbus was Vincent Burkley who, with two companions, started out from Omaha, March 25, 1859, on his way to the gold fields of Cherry Creek. Michael Murphy and Joseph Early were the men who accompanied him, and on the second day of their trip, they reached the broad, flat plains of the Platte Valley where they forded the Elkhorn River and the Rawhide Creek.

The third day of their journey, the travelers came to Columbus, named for Columbus, Ohio, which had been Mr. Burkley's original home. The pioneer Nebraska community was very small at that time, and Burkley knew everyone in the town, although his own name does not appear as one of the incorporators because he had made out the official papers in the name of his nephew, Anthony Voll. The latter was one of the thirteen settlers who arrived in Columbus on May 29, 1856.

In those days the large tract of land between Columbus and Fort Kearney was the home of the Pawnee Indians, who were about to cede it to the government. Although numerous, the Indians were not unfriendly, and Burkley and his fellow travelers frequently gave them food. The Pawnees had few firearms but were equipped with bows and arrows, with which they hunted buffalo. One of the grafts of the time was to warn newcomers about mythical Indian atrocities, in order to persuade them to pay for the privilege of private camping, when a camp in the open was less expensive and equally safe.

With mules, Burkley and the others made from ten to twenty-five miles a day. Held up by blizzards, quicksand and other hazards, they shared the trail with hundreds of other gold-seekers from Columbus, Omaha,. and other settlements in Nebraska. Many of these people had read the accounts of mining fortunes that were made in 1858 and 1859. Men, women and children, foot, on horseback, pushing hand carts and wheelbarrows, had taken off across the plains and a continuous stream of emigrants flowed through the little settlement of Columbus and on to Fort Kearney and the gold fields. Most of these, like Burkley, proceeded along the north side of the Platte River.

Although Murphy, Early and Burkley were able to cross the Loup River on a rope ferry, they found it necessary to ford the Platte. This was a long and hazardous undertaking since the distance across --- including water, sandbars and islands --- was almost three miles. The men saw game in abundance, antelope, elk, deer, buffalo and rabbits. Buffalo herds were comparatively tame, and Burkley reports seeing several hundreds of them lying down. When the animals refused to move, they would have to circle around them.

Like other early pioneers, these three frequently joined with strangers they met on the road in localities where they feared the Sioux Indians, or where white marauders preyed on passing travelers. Burkley saw countless flocks of wild ducks and geese along the shores of the Platte River, and grass and rushes varying in height from four to twenty feet. The party found deep paths cut through much of the undergrowth which had been made by the buffalo in crossing.

These were the days when long wagon trains formed a circle every night as barricades against unfriendly Indians. Animals grazed loose near the camp while fires burned high in the prairie sky. Skeletons of dead buffalo were everywhere along the trail and their skulls were used as camp stools when the parties stopped for the night.

Burkley also remembered the early sod houses with their one door through which pigs, chickens and people sometimes passed when the rigors of the weather demanded that the animals have shelter. West of Columbus, they frequently found prairie wolves and coyotes and just as frequently passed other prospectors returning from the Pike's Peak country to the "civilization" of Columbus, Omaha, and other towns behind the frontier.

The History of Platte County Nebraska

After traveling five hundred thirty-seven miles, Vincent Burkley and his companions arrived at Auroria, the largest mining camp at the mouth of Cherry Creek. Others from Platte County later followed him, but Burkley was one of the first men known here to risk his life and fortune in the unknown mining country to the West.


When William A. McAllister and his parents and their family came to Platte County in 1858, the unbroken prairie extended in all directions as far as one could see. They settled near Genoa at first, but one year later moved to their homestead south of Richland, then a part of Platte County.

The country around Columbus was so wild at that time that once McAllister brought down two antelope with one shot. He had been stalking the animals for more than half a day in the area just east of Columbus.

He was living in the Platte Valley during the severe winter of 1867-1868, when the ice in the river was four to six feet thick. Great gorges were formed, and in some places the river was three to five miles wide. It flooded the homes of settlers near the McAllister homestead, drowning their stock and causing great suffering and damage.

In that year, the water from the ice gorge in the Loup River flooded the home of James Haney, east of Columbus. James Haney was away from home herding cattle when the floods broke. His wife, Mrs. Haney, and son Johnnie, were in the house with Mrs. Haney's sister, Nan Meaney. When the water rushed into the house, they put the baby's cradle on the table and waited, waist-deep in water, for two hours before rescue crews arrived, while their household goods and other possessions floated about the room


In 1870 John Walker and his family came overland from McGregor, Iowa, to settle in Platte County. There they settled on a homestead one and one-half miles south of the present town of Lindsay, Nebraska. The Walkers built a sod house on the homestead, but in 1873 they moved to a dugout in the bank of Shell Creek, in order to be near a water supply. Adjacent to his new dwelling, John Walker also built a small dugout for storage.

That summer a heavy rain fell in the vicinity of Lindsay, filling the ravines and small creeks leading into Shell Creek. The water rose rapidly until a depth of twenty feet was reached when, without warning, the deluge rushed in on the Walker family.

Two travelers from Antelope County, Charley Wilson and Jeff Guyer, had stopped at the Walker home for the night on their way home from Columbus. They helped John Walker get his family, along with some provisions, up a small ladder to a loft, from which the small children and household goods were loaded onto horses. Then Mr. and Mrs. Walker and the two visitors walked through the water, leading the horses to the sod house on high ground, where they formerly had lived. There they found William Connelly and his family, who also had had a narrow escape from the flood. Connelly's youngest sister, Mrs. Mogan of Lindsay, was near death when rescued. The two families remained in the sod house until the waters went down and they could return home in safety.


One of the earliest memories of Mrs. Nellie L. Meays, who was born on a homestead sixteen miles north of Columbus, was the cloud of grasshoppers so thick that it darkened the sun. Her next recollection was of a raging prairie fire which burned their home to the ground, destroying several horses, cattle and hogs. She and her parents were left with the clothes they wore, a team and a wagon.

Rufus Wells Young, Mrs. Meays' father, was born in Watertown, New York, September 9, 1842; her mother, Elvira Jane Jones Young, was born in Belleville, Ontario, Canada, May 1, 1843. In January, 1874, her parents came to Nebraska and settled on a homestead just outside Columbus.

When she was six years old, Nellie Young started school at the Third Ward School, under the instruction of Miss Sarah Fitzpatrick and Miss Emma Bauer. She later attended High School at the Second Ward.

With her parents when they immigrated to Nebraska were the M. H. Whites and the James Pearsalls of Canada. The Rufus Young family lived first on the Platte County farm of Dr. Bonesteele. Both he and M. H. White were cousins of Mrs. Rufus W. Young.

Some of Nellie Young's early years was taken up with watching the Indians, many of whom camped out on Shell Creek. They used to come down to the Platte and Loup Rivers to fish

In The Good Old Days

and hunt. She also remembers how the children would go out after school every day to watch Buffalo Bill rehearse his show. They were intrigued with the Indians who sewed beads on their moccasins and with the famed "Doctor" Carver who shot, with deadly accuracy, at the little glass balls.

Nellie Young Meays was the wife of Ernest Meays. They had a family of nine children.


Edith Keeler Johnson was a year and a half old when her people came by railroad from Orleans County, New York, in the spring of 1872 to settle on a farm near Columbus. Located on a much travelled highway used by immigrants for reaching their new homes in the West, the Keeler farm was west of the Patrick Murray farm about a mile and a half, and three miles west of Columbus. At that time, the Pawnee Indians also used this road to reach their reservation near Genoa.

Mrs. Edith Keeler Johnson's mother, Mary E. Bacon Keeler, was the daughter of William H. Bacon, a Civil War veteran. Her parents and brother, Eugene Bacon, came with her, her husband and their two children from Ridgeway, New York, in 1872.


Edith Ke!er Johnson

The longest stop made by the train on which these pioneers traveled was in Omaha, where they were forced to stay overnight. It was the custom then for the railroads to obtain hotel accommodations for families, and a young man was sent out from the Omaha railroad station with the Keeler and Bacon families to find rooms at one of the two hotels in town. Since both were filled to capacity, the immigrants slept in the depot. Several months after arriving in Platte County, Edith Keeler Johnson and her family moved from their home near Columbus to the Wattsville neighborhood near Monroe. This second home was located in Lost Creek Township, four miles north of Monroe. Mrs. Johnson's grandfather, William H. Bacon, filed on a homestead north of Monroe, where her father built a sod house. Later the walls of this dwelling were washed away by heavy rains. Next her father attempted a one-room frame house. Lumber was hauled from the sawmill some distance away, and a structure erected that was twelve by fourteen feet. However, the lumber was green, and when warm weather arrived the siding shrunk, leaving large cracks between the boards.

Shortly after their arrival in the region, a prairie fire could be seen approaching from the northwest. It came with lightning speed and the men wasted no time plowing a back furrow to act as a firebreak.

Edith Keeler Johnson's mother, Mary Bacon Keeler, was alone one day with her two small children when an Indian came to the door looking for food. She didn't hear his footsteps and when she turned around, the Indian was in the room. Mrs. Keeler told him she had no food, and when he still didn't leave, she placed her hands on his shoulders, pushing him back through the door. The Indian turned away, laughing at her courage, and Mrs. Keeler watched him return to the other Indians and report his experience.


As historian of the Wattsville Pioneer Association, Mrs. Harry E. Nicholson compiled the following background of School District 20, known locally as Wattsville.

In the spring of 1870, Joseph Watts and his family moved to that district from Illinois and established a home on the farm now owned by George Weber. With the Watts family were Ed Hoare and Robert Nicholson. The latter returned to Illinois in the fall of 1870 to bring back his family and homestead the farm later occupied by Ben Nelson.

The next few years saw a steady stream of settlers move into the region, among them Henry Clayburn, John Keeler, Hugh Hill, Frank Steinbaugh and John Sacrider.

Privation and hard work were the order of the day. In May, 1870, while working for Joseph Watts, Ed Hoare plowed the first furrow turned in this new land. He used a team of oxen; later he and Watts put up the first stack of hay, mowing it by hand with a scythe. The next year was not momentous, but in 1873 and 1874, the grasshoppers took gardens, crops, and everything in their wake --- leaving only bare fields, desolation and want.

The History of Platte County Nebraska

In 1872 Mr. and Mrs. Frank Steinbaugh settled on the farm later owned by Mrs. Thurston, and the Rev. A. W. Wright built their house for them. A straw shed was erected for a team of horses and a cow. When the blizzard came, the walls of the shed settled with the load of snow and ice, and the cow and one horse died. The cow was strung up for meat and the horse was brought into the house until the storm was over. For years the sagging floor in this room showed where the horse had occupied it during the fury of the storm. Still later, the Pawnee Indians came, cut down the body of the dead cow, and carried it away on their ponies. Mr. Steinbaugh died a few years later on April 5, 1875, in Monroe, Nebraska, and Mrs. Steinbaugh died in California, November 14, 1928.

The first white child born in Wattsville was Ed Watts, son of Joseph and Sarah Watts, in 1870. One year later the first religious services were conducted by the Rev. Wright at the Robert Nicholson home, and in 1873, he read the marriage service for his daughter, Anna, and Henry Clayburn.

Soon there was need for a school in this new territory. Robert Nicholson leased the land for the first school, and Ansel Wright and Joseph Watts built the building in 1871. It remained in use until 1918, when a new structure was erected. The school was built on the old Indian trail between the homes of two friendly tribes, the Pawnees and the Omahas; the Indians often stopped to peek through the windows and sometimes came inside to sit by the fire and get warm. Dana Magoon was the first teacher, and the members of the school board were Robert Nicholson, John Sacrider and Joseph Watts.

Church services, also, were held in the schoolhouse whenever a preacher was available. Later a church was organized, and services held continuously until 1927, when the Union Church was organized.

For a time, mail was relayed from Pete Kettleson's farm north of Wattsville. A post office was soon established at the Joseph Watts home, and Mr. Watts served as postmaster as well as justice of the peace.

The first cemetery was laid out on the Godfrey place, and the first resident to be buried there was Frank Steinbaugh. This location was later changed to the New Hope Cemetery.

The community was very small and well integrated. Lumber for the early homes had to be hauled many miles over the prairie, so many of the settlers lived in dugouts. Amos Brock and Henry Clayburn built on the line between their homesteads, each living on his own land, while one house temporarily served both families. A Negro family named Silvern settled in a dugout in the northern part of the district. Mr. Silvern was a carpenter, and helped to put up many of the local buildings.

The year 1888 was known as the year of the big blizzard in Wattsville. The storm came up suddenly on the afternoon of January 12th. Mary Mylet, who boarded at the George Alexander home, was teaching school. Alexander and Al Russell went to the schoolhouse and tied the children together, arm to arm, so none should stray. They were taken to the Alexander home, where they spent the night before being returned to their parents.

In spite of the hardships, the grasshopper plague, and the drouth of 1894, Wattsville prospered and many of its citizens rose to positions of great importance. One of these was Charles Magoon, brother of Dana Magoon, who served as Lieutenant-Governor of the Philippine Islands.

Among the early settlers was Robert E. Wiley, who came to Monroe Township in 1873, and became president of the Bank of Monroe. Mr. Wiley died in November, 1936. Others who died were Gus Tessendorf and Carrie Sacrider in 1937; Mrs. Charles Watts, Charles Watts and James Kerr in 1938.

Marriages of pioneers and their descendants included: Mrs. Eva Shuma and William Layton; Miss Dorothy Rankin and Austin Hill; Miss Lena Keeler and Fred Vette.

On November 10, 1936, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Dress celebrated their golden wedding at their home in St. Edward, Nebraska. Mrs. Dress was the former Miss Ellen Potter, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Potter, who came to Platte County in 1878.

The only one of the early pioneers to reach his one hundredth birthday was Hugh Hill, who came to the valley of the Platte in 1873 -- June 14, 1937, was the occasion of the celebration; two months later, on August 14, Mr. Hill died. Another settler, Lin Riley, died at his home in Longmont, Colorado, on June 7, 1939; and others of the Wattsville Community who died in this same period included Charles Kerr, C. W. Hollingshead, Thomas Dack and Louis Sacrider.

In The Good Old Days


A first-hand account of a grasshopper plague is recorded by Mrs. Peter Swanson of Walker Township. Mrs. Swanson, the former Nellie Anderson, married Peter Swanson in 1872, and moved to the farm he had homesteaded two years earlier.

One day as she looked out of the window, Mrs. Swanson noticed that some seed corn which she had planted looked black. She went outside and soon discovered that the entire stalk was covered with grasshoppers. Thinking that she could save some of it for the horses, she at once gathered an armful. So rapidly were the grasshoppers eating the corn, that the stalks grew shorter while she watched.

Mrs. Swanson took the armful to the stable and returned to get more, but when she reached the stable with her second load, the first was already covered with grasshoppers, and the stable had become full of them.

She gave up all attempt to salvage the corn then and threw a loaf of bread into the yard, watching while the hungry insects rolled it over and over on the ground until it entirely disappeared. The grasshoppers traveled with the wind and as soon as it ceased to blow, Mrs. Swanson saw them alight and eat everything in sight.

This insect plague returned repeatedly for a number of years, completely destroying the crops. Platte County farmers used to try various means of getting rid of the pests. One of the more effective was to build fires around their gardens in order to protect the vegetables on which they depended for food. The smoke would act as a barrier and as soon as the wind picked up once more, the grasshoppers were carried on.


It was 1886 when F. W. Falbaum, then a youth of eighteen years, came to Columbus from Chicago in order to get acquainted with his older brother, Gus, whom he had never seen.

Soon after his arrival, F. W. Falbaum found a job as bookkeeper and errand boy in the mill owned by Adolph Jaeggi and David Schupbach. After he had been with this concern for some time, Mr. Jaeggi sent young Falbaum into Iowa as a salesman. For three weeks he traveled from one town to another without getting any orders.

In a tribute to the pioneer miller, made when he visited Columbus in 1941, F. W. Falbaum told of what awaited him when he returned after having failed as a salesman. Jaeggi ordered him to take a few days off, and then come back to the office. When he returned, considerably uncertain of his job, he was told to go back into the same territory from which he had come, and try once more to sell flour.

This time F. W. Falbaum was a success, and partially due to his efforts as a salesman, the mill for which he worked more than doubled its output in the next two years.

"Adolph Jaeggi knew how to handle a young fellow," the former Columbus resident said, "he had given me confidence in myself."

Falbaum continued living in Platte County for forty years before he moved, first to New Orleans and later to Montana.


One day an early settler by the name of Mike Quinn "bushwhacked" a Pawnee Indian in the act of stealing wheat from his granary. The whole Pawnee Nation became enraged at Quinn for this deed and for days his house was surrounded by Indians demanding restitution for the dead brave. Finally James Haney and other Columbus citizens came to his aid, and an arbitration was agreed upon. The Indians received one colt and some flour as indemnification for their loss.

Only a few miles east of the present town of Schuyler, at Shell Creek crossing, many wagon trains were robbed by Indians and occasional atrocities perpetrated. In 1857, the Pawnees were supposedly residing in their village on the Platte. The exact location was on the high bluffs and tableland between the Elkhorn River and the present city of Fremont. It was here that a celebrated territorial politican (sic) conceived a scheme based upon the current speculation in town sites and "paper cities."

The speculator, with the assistance of his partner, who was a practical surveyor, proceeded to lay out and erect (upon paper) a large city on the site, of the actual Indian village. The town had broad streets with prominent names, public squares, trees, large business blocks and other attractions. He called it the city of Omaha, with an actual population of three thousand people (quite correct if one counted the Indians).

He then went to New York City and succeeded in disposing of the new town "site" at large figures, since buyers naturally supposed they were purchasing property in the large and already prosperous town of Omaha.

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