THE BEGINNING OF RED WILLOW COUNTY
BY ALBERT WATKINS
Agreeably to an act of Congress passed
for the purpose of promoting a general celebration of the
centennial anniversary of our national independence,
Governor Garber issued the following proclamation:1
1 U. S. Statutes at Large, XIX, 211; Messages and Proclamations, Nebraska, 1866-1892, p. 155.
the Peoples Press and Herald, Nebraska City, and register of the land office at that place.2 The address was printed in a local paper. The following nearly entire part of it seems to deserve preservation and further publicity in the publications of this Society:
In the fall of 1871, moved by the fame which the Republican valley had achieved, a few citizens of Nebraska City conceived the idea of opening up a settlement in the valley, and the location of a county and town. In October of that year, a company was organized under the laws of the state with a capital stock of $100,000. Books were opened, and 15,000 readily subscribed, and 5 per cent paid in and the following gentlemen were elected as officers: President, Royal Buck; vice president, J. Sterling Morton; secretary, B. M. Davenport; treasurer, J. V. D. Patch; directors, Dr. J. N. Converse, W. W. W. Jones, John Roberts, John F. Black, Sam. Tate, J. H. Madison and V. C. Utley. [Name, Republican Valley Land Company.]
On the 4th of November the board of directors passed the following order:
Ordered, That the president of this company be directed to organize such an exploring party from the directors and stockholders, as will be necessary--not less than ten in number, with Lathrop Ellis as engineer, and proceed to the Republican valley at the earliest practicable day, and locate a town site, and report his doings to the board of directors for their action.
In accordance with this order, the party was at once organized, as follows: Royal Buck, president; John Roberts, John F. Black, and W. W. W. Jones, directors, and John Longnecker, L. K. Sitler, Wm. Byfield, Frank Usher, Wm. McKinney and J. M. Davis, stockholders; Lathrop Ellis, surveyor.3
Two wagons were loaded with supplies for a thirty days' trip and were started in advance to the end of the B. & M.
2 A biographical sketch of Mr. Buck may be found in the History of Nebraska, II, 346. His diary, in detail, of the Red Willow Expedition is in the possession of the Historical Society.
3 All the officers and other stockholders named in this and a foregoing paragraph were residents of Nebraska City, excepting Utley, who lived at Syracuse, Otoe county. Francis G. Usher, who was only twenty years old at the time of the expedition, now (1917) lives in Omaha, in good health. He did not settle with the colony but came back to Nebraska City. According to his recollection the settlers were Black, Sitler, Byfield, and Davis. Mr. Buck moved with his family to Red Willow in the spring of 1872. He acquired a large area of land and engaged in farming until 1889. He was the first postmaster of Red Willow. The records of the post office department show that he was appointed April 22, 1872.
railroad, then at Sutton, in charge of Messrs. Davis and Sitler. On the 9th the balance of our party left the city on the cars and joined our teams at Sutton on the evening of the 10th. on the morning of the 11th we were early on the road in the good old-fashioned emigrant style, following the grade of the B. & M. railroad to Fort Kearny. From here we turned south, crossing the divide, and reached the Republican valley at the present town of Orleans, where we found two settlers. At the present town of Melrose4 we found a few Swedish settlers with an adobe stockade, where they had the previous winter fortified against Indians. On the 17th we arrived at Arapahoe,5 which was then being occupied as a town site by its one settler, a Mr. Love and family. One or two Swedish bachelors were also located near.
At this point a severe snow storm overtook us, and we were obliged to go into camp on west side of Muddy Creek, where we remained until the morning of the 20th when we again ventured out for some point farther west. The snow being deep and drifted, our progress was necessarily slow. At Deer Creek--Burton's Bend--we found the irrepressible Ben
4 Melrose was situated on section 17, township 2, range 19 west, about a mile and a half west of the present town of Orleans. In August, 1870, a company of about forty men, among them General Victor Vifquain, undertook to establish a settlement in the Republican valley. A majority of them, led by General Vifquain, started a town called Napoleon, which was situated about a mile southeast of the present Orleans, and the rest laid out Melrose and at once built a defensive stockade on or adjacent to the site. The Napoleon project was soon abandoned, but a settlement was established at Melrose in the spring of 1871. At the first election in Harlan county, held July 3, 1871, Alma was chosen as the county seat by a vote of 37 against 5 cast for Napoleon; but because no consistent organization was maintained, Acting Governor James issued a call for an election of county officers and the choice of a county seat to be held May 20, 1872, at which Melrose won the contest for the county capital against Alma and Republican City; but after about two years of litigation the district court decided that Alma was the county seat by virtue of the first election. Thereupon Melrose, which had become a place of importance, declined rapidly, and by the end of the year 1876 it had been abandoned. See Centennial History of Harlan County in Harlan County Standard, April 25, 1879; speech by William Gaslin, at Alma, April 14, 1880; J. A. Piper, History of Harlan County, in The Alma Record, March 3, 1912; Andreas, History of Nebraska, 958-961; Nebraska State Historical Society, Collections, XVII, 230.
5 See footnote 4 to Incidents of the Indian Outbreak of 1864, this volume, for some account of the founding of Arapahoe.
with sonic fine ricks of hay. Supplying our horses with what we could carry at two cents per pound, we pushed on. At the Medicine we found an Irish family by the name of Foley.6 Heretofore we had found the streams either bridged or fordable, but here, no bridge, no ford, an ice bridge lacking strength to carry us over. We unloaded our wagons, carrying our freight across on our backs, taking our wagons across by ropes and our horses singly.
While we camp for the night, about twenty teams loaded with buffalo meat, killed near Red Willow, come in and cross as we did. In this party is a man by the name of Weber, badly frozen, having been lost in the late storm. He lived to reach Juniata, where he died from the effects of his injuries. On the afternoon of the 22d we go into camp in the grove on the bank of Red Willow, near the mouth. The next day we spend in making such an examination of the country, as the deep snow and cold weather will permit, and we unanimously agree that this is the "Eureka." We experience much difficulty in finding section lines and corners owing to the fraudulent manner in which the public surveys have been made, and the deepness of the snow--it now being about twenty inches on a level. But go to work in earnest, make the preliminary survey of our town site, it being section 17, town 3, range 28 west--select our homestead and preëmption claims, and on the evening of the 28th of November, 1871, we gather around our bright camp fire of dry ash logs, and hold the first political, and first religious camp meeting ever held in the territory comprising Red Willow. Mr. Jones is elected chairman, and Mr. Black is secretary. We offer prayer and thanksgiving to God for His kind care and protection of us during our almost perilous journey, for the blessing of health which we so fully enjoy, and for the success which has so far crowned our efforts, and then we proceed to name our town. Various names are suggested and discussed. On motion it was unanimously voted to call our town Red Willow, also that we will proceed to secure the organization of a county 24 by 30 miles to be called Red Willow county. Though this was the first organized effort to form a settlement thus far up the Republican valley, yet it was not the first settlement in what is now Red Willow county. That honor belongs to our fellow citizen John S. King, who had selected the claim, which he still occupies, about a month prior
6 Muddy Creek enters the Republican River not far south of Arapahoe, Deer Creek at a point seven miles farther west, and Medicine Creek seven miles still farther west, about half a mile below Cambridge. These creeks flow in a southeasterly direction, and their mouths are all in Furnas county.
to our coming, and had a small log house partially completed. While camped here we lived high. Wild turkeys, deer, antelopes and buffaloes are here in great abundance, and our nimrods bring a liberal supply to camp and we take trophies home with us.
It is proper to state, that while we have been here we had the company of three trappers, a Mr. Zink from Wisconsin, Mr. Win. Proctor, now residing twelve miles up Red Willow, and a Mr. White. On the morning of the 29th we break camp and commence our return journey, through intense cold, deep and drifted snow, and reach our homes on the 10th of December, but not until the report had reached our friends that we had all perished. As we crossed the then uninhabited "divide," between the Republican and the Platte, or between Orleans and Kearney, we saw abandoned wagons scattered the whole distance, some with loads of corn, some with loads of meat, some with trunks and baggage, and some empty. Some with wagon boxes nearly ate up by the famished and starving horses and mules which drew them. When the storm had subsided, drivers and teams had sought the nearest settlement as best they could.
On our return, our company approved our work, and published in pamphlet form our doings, together with a description of the country, followed by the publication of two or three numbers of the Red Willow Gazette--several thousand copies--and Red Willow became extensively known as the place where a colony would settle in early spring. Our state legislature met in January following, and we prepared a bill defining the boundaries and naming Red Willow county. The bill fell into the hands of a bad general, was delayed in its passage, and unfortunately did not reach Governor James for his approval, until a quarrel had sprung up between the legislature and that functionary, and he had prorogued them and refused to sign this and other bills. Thus we failed to secure the early organization of the county that we had planned. We were delayed somewhat in making our filings in the land office, then at Beatrice--waiting for the plates to be prepared by the surveyor general. On the 10th of January, however, we were able to make our filing. At the same time the first homestead entries were made by Messrs. Black, Longnecker, Jones, Wm. Byfield, Davis and Mrs. Shaw. Quite a number of others soon followed, many of which were never occupied. During the winter a large number of persons were enrolled as members of the Red Willow Colony. But there was some extreme bad management by the company, and those who should have started out in a body, under competent guides and help, were left to start alone, or in small groups, and when they arrived in the
valley, were beset by parties interested in other towns and counties east of us, and no story of Indian hostilities and prospective dangers were too great to imagine and tell as facts; and thus a large number of Red Willow colonists are settled all along the valley east of us.
Harlan and Furnas counties have reaped quite a heavy harvest from our sowing, notwithstanding every precaution possible had been taken to evade it. Anticipating not only the dangers, but the fear of them, as president of the company, I had secured from Gen. E. O. C. Ord, then in command of this department, the assurance that a sufficient military force should be thrown into camp at Red Willow as early in the spring as possible. Accordingly, early in May, two companies, one of cavalry and one of infantry, established a camp on the cast side of Red Willow, on section 16, where they remained until November following.
The first arrivals here in the spring
were Messrs. Hunter, Hill, Korn, H. Madison and W. Weygint
and son on the 29th of April. A few days later, Mr. L. H.
Lawton and family, Mr. Young and family, Henry Berger and
several other single men arrived. In May quite a number of
families came, also Mr. Thomas with his herd of cattle, and
others continued to drop in during the summer. In the Summer
of 1872, the Red Willow Town Site Company sent out a
surveying corps, under Prof. W. W. W. Jones, to survey and
make an authentic plat of the town. In the exploration and
survey, the company expended about $700. In neglecting to
follow up the settlement first made, the amount proved an
entire loss, and the land is now occupied by preëmptors
and homesteaders. On the Fourth of July, Mr. W. M. Hinman
came with his portable steam saw mill and made settlement
where his mill has remained until the first of May last,
when it was removed. While it remained it was a very great
help to the county, and all regretted its removal.
There may have been times when our
settlers have been in danger of Indian depredations. That
many had fears, is true. But one fact is remarkable, that
though this country has, up to this year, been the hunting
and camping ground of the Sioux, yet since the first settler
reached here, not a Sioux Indian has been seen in the
settlements, no depredations of any kind have been made, and
not a horse or any other animal has been driven off or
stolen by them. During the summer of 1872, the Pawnees
passed up on their annual hunt, loaded their ponies in
cock county and, returning, made a camp on the banks of the Republican just east of Red Willow, where they remained three days, giving us a chance to see something of Indian camp life and war dance. They came and went peacefully and were only a brief annoyance as most intolerable beggars.
While here there was not a herd of cattle in the settlement that could be kept in a corral even without being tied, so intense seemed the fear of these dumb brutes of the redskins.
In the summer of 1873 the same tribe again passed through the county, and while hunting in the western part of Hitchcock county, were surprised by their old time enemy, the Sioux, and near one hundred men, women and children were massacred and left to bleach in the sun. Their exit from the valley was in frightful haste, and their visits have never been renewed.
Our first year's farming was, on the
whole, quite satisfactory. Very few, if any, furrows were
turned before the first of May, 1872, and all planting had
to be done on the sod, and the latter part of May and most
of June being very dry, much of the planting did not
germinate until about the first of July. But those who were
fortunate enough to plant early in May raised very fair
crops of corn, potatoes and other vegetables, some of the
cornfields yielding from 15 to 30 bushels to the acre.
Our second year's farming was more
satisfactory. Only a few fields of small grain were sown,
and they gave a very fair yield. Corn did reasonably well.
Some damage was done by the grasshoppers, which came upon us
about the middle of September. Potatoes were badly damaged
by the bugs, mostly by the ash colored blister bug.
1874 will long be remembered as a
complete failure. The hot, blistering south wind commenced
to blow early in June. Comparatively, no rain fell during
June and part of July. Five straight weeks of drouth and
burning wind. The heavens over our heads seemed like heated
brass, and the wind like the breath of a furnace. All small
grain and garden vegetables were early ruined. Corn badly
damaged by the intense heat and drouth, and then, to add to
our calamity, about the middle of July the locusts settled
down upon our fields in clouds, and, in a few days, what was
left of our cornfields from the drouth, was stripped and
ruined, the bare and blistered stalks only stood up as if to
mock us in our desolation, and as we stood
still before the devouring hordes, we were made to fully realize how powerless is man to stay the ravages even of insects. From the best information that can be obtained, not a hundred bushels of grain of all kinds were raised in the county.
This was a severe blow to our citizens. Nearly all had come with limited means, which now being exhausted, it became a serious question to every one, What shall we eat, what shall we drink, and wherewithal shall we be clothed? It was indeed a trying time. Gloom settled over almost every household. If ample means had been at hand, nearly all would have left--some did leave--not only in disgust with the country, but with the spirit of murmuring which took possession of the children of Israel in the wilderness; while others, though humbled and prostrated by this stroke of providence, yet turned trustingly toward the source of strength, and believed the promises of holy writ. "Trust in the Lord, and do good: so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed."7 In the latter part of August a meeting was held at Red Willow, at which representatives were present from all parts of the county. At this meeting our circumstances were fully discussed, and this conclusion reached: "That we would make a canvass of the county, and ascertain the extent of actual and prospective needs of our people, to be reported to an adjourned meeting, and that we would advise our citizens to stand by their homes, and we would ask our eastern friends for aid." Accordingly, the county was divided into districts, and a canvassing committee appointed, and the meeting adjourned to meet at Indianola about the first of September. At this meeting a full report was made which showed that there were but few families having either supplies or means of purchasing beyond four or six months, and many in want of immediate assistance. A "Relief Society" was organized, and solicitors of aid appointed to present our needs to eastern friends. Dr. A. J. Shaw was appointed to represent us at Crete, where he was about to remove, Royal Buck at Nebraska City and other places. The latter place was visited late in September, and nearly a car load of flour, groceries, clothing, etc., secured, which was received late in October, it being the first aid received. Soon after this a "State Relief Society" was organized and an active canvass commenced in behalf of all devastated districts. Before much assistance had been afforded from this source, through the efforts of Dr. A. J. Shaw at Crete, much valuable aid was obtained and forwarded to this county. Soon after the war department made large donations of clothing, boots and shoes, and during the winter the State Aid Society was enabled to make large shipments to all the needy districts.
7 Psalms, XXXVII, 3.
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