NEBRASKA IN THE FIFTIES
BY DAVID M. JOHNSTON
Soon after Secretary of State Cuming
became acting governor of the territory of Nebraska, he
issued a proclamation for an election to take place December
12, 1854, to elect one delegate to Congress and twenty-six
members of the House of Representatives and thirteen members
of the Council.1 There were four candidates who
hoped to represent the new territory in Congress--Bird B.
Chapman of Ohio, Hadley D. Johnson of Iowa, Napoleon B.
Giddings of Missouri, and myself of St. Joseph. I procured a
mule, saddle, bridle and a pair of spurs and thus equipped,
in November, 1854, something after the fashion of the
knights of old, started to seek my political fortunes in the
new territory. Here the issue was the location of the
capital. Two places were candidates for this honor, and the
waters of the Platte separated the interests and votes of
the contestants. As but few voters were living in the
territory at this time, the canvass, by common consent, was
transferred to the populous settlements on the east bank of
the Missouri River in the states of Iowa and Missouri.
1 Thomas B. Cuming, the first secretary of the territory of Nebraska--not secretary of state--took the official oath on August 3, 1854, at Washington, D. C. According to a provision of the organic act establishing the territory, the secretary became acting governor at the death of Governor Burt, which occurred at half past three o'clock in the afternoon of October 18, 1854. Governor Burt took the official oath at Bellevue on October 16, 1854.--ED.
Missouri at a place called Bennet's Ford2 and entered the new territory for the first time in November, 1854. Around me spread the silent forest stripped of its foliage, and the dry grass at my feet bore the somber tint of decay. I had traveled but a short distance when I heard the sound of voices from a ravine a few rods away. My mind for a few moments threw off the gloom that had settled upon it, and the prospect for making my first stump speech was at hand. But imagine my surprise and disgust when I found my prospective audience to be a score of Indians feasting on a slaughtered hog. Now I discovered my mistake in not having acquired some knowledge of the Indian language before venturing into the new country.
However, I pushed forward on my patient and jaded mule for old Fort Kearny, and, as I ascended the bluffs that overlooked the Missouri River, I saw to my surprise and pleasure a short distance ahead a log house, which proved to be the dwelling of a white man. I stopped, and the woman of the house invited me in, but to my surprise I again found about a dozen Indians who were seated on the floor, eying with close attention the cookstove in the center of the room. The cheerful fire was very comforting to my chilled limbs, and a frying pan full of meat sent forth an appetizing odor. While the woman, young and sandy haired, was kneading bread at a. small table with her back to the stove, an Indian would slip up, snatch a piece of meat from the pan, hide it under his blanket and retire from the house to devour his prize. This was repeated several times by the Indians before the unsuspecting eye of the hostess caught one of them in the very act, with his hand on the meat. In a moment she was in a storm of passion, and springing toward them ordered them out of
2 About 1854 Gideon Bennet established a ferry at Otoe City at or near the present site of Minersville, a station on the Burlington railroad six miles south of Nebraska City. As early as 1849 Otoe City was an important crossing for emigrants to Utah and California. In 1857 the traffic was sufficient to require a steam ferryboat.--ED.
the house. This was a trying time to me, and for a few moments my mind was filled with horrible pictures of Indian barbarities. But the brave little woman stood her ground with firmness, armed with a broom, and at last called on me to help her. I put on a brave front and, with as stern a look as I could assume and in a voice choked with fear, shouted the only Indian word I knew, when to my great astonishment and relief the thieves left the house and retired to their camp a short distance away.
After eating dinner with my hospitable hostess I continued my journey to Fort Kearny and arrived there without further adventure. I stayed all night with a Major Downs3 who had been in the regular army, in the old
3 For accounts of the career of Hiram P. Downs see Nebraska State Historical Society, Transactions and Reports, I, 38-41; Watkins, History of Nebraska, I, 224; ibid., II 168. Downs held various military offices, the highest that of lieutenant colonel of the First Regiment Nebraska Volunteers, organized in 1861. The Nebraska City News, January 18, 1862. August F. Harvey, editor, explains and defends the resignation of Lieutenant Colonel Downs in the following somewhat partisan fashion:
Some anxiety having been manifested to know the reason of Lt. Col. Downs' resignation, we state what we know of the matter. When the Regiment was organized, it was upon the distinct understanding, expressed in a letter from Mr. Secretary Cameron, that the Regiment was not to be ordered out of the Territory. Many of the officers and men repaired to the rendezvous, leaving their private buusiness unsettled, with the expectation of having an opportunity to return and arrange their personal affairs, before going into active service. This was especially the case with Lt. Col. Downs.--When the order came to go to Missouri, (an order obtained mainly through the anxiety of Col. Thayer to show himself,) Lt. Col. Downs, went with the 1st battalion; and he did not even have time to visit his family, much less to attend to any business. After six months of active service in the field, during which the Lt. Col. did not leave the regiment scarcely a day, and during which he bore, in fact, the responsibilities of the reputation of the regiment, he asked for a leave of absence, so that he could visit his family and arrange his private matters. The leave was denied him, and the only alternative left, whereby he could save his personal business from ruin, was for him to resign. His resignation was tendered for these reasons. The Lt. Col. as a brave soldier, has not sought to shirk any duties towards the Territory, his country or flag; and stands ready as ever to answer the call of the first or defend the honor of the last.
His friends are endeavoring to procure for him a commission as Brigadier General. Through experience, and ability, he deserves it, and we hope the President will appoint him. We should be glad to see him in a position where he may have for himself all the credit which attaches to a faithful and able performance of a soldier's duty.
blockhouse which he had converted into a hotel, and this, with the dismantled fort and five or six other buildings, constituted the town, which under the name of Nebraska City had recently been started by S. F. Nuckolls and some others.4 Next morning I met a few friends and showed
4The continuous occupation of what is now the site of Nebraska City began late in May, 1846, with the arrival of General Stephen W. Kearny and his command of one company of the First Dragoons and one of the First Infantry, with orders to establish a military post at the place then called Table Creek. The ground for the buildings was at once laid off and the plans for them decided upon. But the war with Mexico having been declared on the 13th of the same month, the dragoons left for Fort Leavenworth on the 30th, and the other company arrived there on July 13. Furthermore, by about the first of June the war department had decided to abandon the enterprise altogether and establish a substitute post immediately on the route to Oregon, which was done in May, 1848. Suspension of the work at Table Creek was ordered on June 22, 1846. But before Captain W. E. Prince and his company, the First Infantry, left Table Creek they built the blockhouse and one or two other buildings. Captain Prince left these buildings in the custody of a caretaker. On September 15, 1847, Lieutenant Colonel Ludlow E. Powell's battalion of Missouri Mounted Volunteers arrived at the abandoned post and remained there until April 28, 1848, when it proceeded on its way to establish new Fort Kearny. On or about February 1, 1854, Charles H. Cowles, who became a member of the Council of the first Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Nebraska, and two others, Green and Johnson by name, agreed at Linden, Missouri, forthwith to establish a town on the former site of old Fort Kearny and to name it Nebraska City. Cowles went at once to carry out the design and, finding Sergeant Hiram P. Downs in custody of the fort of two or three buildings, of the old post, gained his permission to squat on the premises by taking him as a partner in the enterprise instead of Johnson. There had been no regular military reservation made, so that the proposed town site belonged to the Oto Indians until March 15, 1854, when they ceded to the United States all their lands west of the Missouri River, excepting a reservation on the Blue River. But the president did not confirm the treaty until June 21, and it took a long time for news of the ratification to reach the Indian agent. In the meantime Stephen F. Nuckolls had bought an interest in the proposed town, and afterward other partners were taken in. The city of Nebraska City was not legally established until the Legislative Assembly passed the act of incorporation, March 2, 1855. The war department had forbidden settlement by whites upon the Oto lands, so the town site scheme was dropped; but Cowles had erected a dwelling house for himself and a
them my letters and revealed to them the object of my visit.
My next stop was at Omaha, the place selected by the governor for the meeting of the first legislature of the territory.5 Omaha was at this time simply a name; there were only one or two houses, but the site was beautiful and the town soon commenced growing rapidly. At the time of my first visit I staved all night on the town site and was kindly entertained by one of the proprietors, a Mr. Goodwell, at his home, a dugout, which he called "a hole in the ground No. 6." We played euchre and old sledge till a late hour.
The next morning I started back to old Fort Kearny and the southern part of the territory. I found a few
building for a store, and in June, 1854, he bought a stock of goods at St. Louis and soon proceeded with his business. Under instructions from Washington Major George Hepner, the agent of the Oto Indians, formally protested against his carrying on the business, but through dilatory tactics, including presents of money to the Indians, practical interference was put off until news of the confirmation of the treaty arrived. A new set of men afterward entered the town site.
For the accommodation of the Oto agency, of travelers, and of desultory traders, a post office, called Table Creek. was established at the old military post, and John Boulware, who had established a ferry on the Missouri River there, either in 1846 or 1847, was appointed postmaster on December 20, 1853; but the name of the office was changed to Nebraska City, March 14, 1855, as soon as practicable after the Legislative Assembly had granted a charter to the town under that name, and Mr. Cowles was then appointed postmaster. It seems fair therefore to give Mr. Cowles credit for having started the movement to establish or organize Nebraska City and originating its name. He told the story of his adventure in Nebraska State Historical Society, Transactions and Reports, I, 37. Hiram P. Bennet introduced in the Council the bill to incorporate Nebraska City; but he came there from Glenwood, Iowa, only just in time to be elected councilman. Mr. Cowles had preceded him by nearly a year and before the passage of the bill for the organization of the territory.--ED.
5 The choice was not made until December 20, 1854, when Thomas B. Cuming, the acting governor, issued a proclamation "convening said Legislative Assembly at Omaha City, Nebraska Territory, on Tuesday, the sixteenth day of January, next."--ED.
settlers on Muddy Creek, now in Richardson county. Here I selected a claim for my home. This was a very beautiful and attractive country, well watered and wooded, with a soil unsurpassed in fertility and supporting heavy and luxuriant grasses. Having seen the voters in Richardson county, about thirty in all, I crossed the river to try my hand at electioneering in Missouri and Iowa. Here I met, with splendid success, for I had enough votes promised me to beat all my competitors in the race, and the voters promised to be on hand on the day of election. But how uncertain are all the affairs of human life. On my way back I found that the Missouri was too dangerous to cross; it was full almost from bank to bank, and logs, trees, and ice floated down in wild confusion. No boat could be found to take me across; and now, standing on the east bank of the swollen stream, my patient mule by my side, for the first time I saw in the distance the horrible picture of defeat. However, in a few days I was able to cross, and saw my Richardson county friends. Then I started for Nebraska City; but again I found myself water bound by a freshet in the Nemaha. My long absence from Nebraska City was construed into a withdrawal from the race, and with this rumor my hopes for Congress expired. This was but a few days before the election, and my friends on Muddy Creek put me on the track for membership of the House of Representatives of the territory and I was elected. My election was celebrated, in the old-fashioned way, by a big dance. A boy on a fleet horse, with two empty jugs and fifty cents, was dispatched to Missouri and instructed to return with all possible haste. A log cabin twelve by fifteen feet, situated on the bank of the Muddy, near a beautiful grove, was the scene of festivities. One corner of the room was selected by the judge of election to count the votes, while the remainder was devoted to the dance, and an old-fashiond (sic) fireplace furnished both light and heat for the occasion. Seven couples occupied the floor and marched to the music of the violin. The harmony of the
dance was not interrupted until our messenger returned with the jugs and then only long enough to give the men time to inspect their contents. The revelry continued until a late hour, and its pleasures were terminated only by the exhaustion of our supplies.
The images of these good old days are still bright on the canvas of our memory, and furnish thought for amusement and reflection; and, though distance of over fifty years separates us from scenes I am describing, a faithful memory ever will retain the joy I felt at my election. This distinguished honor in a great measure healed the wounds of my defeat for Congress, and I cheerfully obeyed the call of the governor to take my seat in the first Nebraska legislature. This met at Omaha, January 16, 1855, with a full House and Council, and nearly every state in the Union was represented in that legislative body. Our meetings were held in a small brick building of two stories with an office for the governor on the first floor. Omaha then had less than a dozen houses, the greater number of which were saloons, but new ones were going up all the time, and the place was a scene of bustle and activity. The hotel, the Douglas House--landlord, Mr. Wells--was besieged by impatient legislators before it was completed, and in spite of the cold the unplastered rooms were soon filled. Here Governor Cuming and his wife had rooms, the best in the house.
In the legislature the great issue was the location of the capital of the new territory. Nebraska City on the south of the Platte and Omaha on the north were contending with great zeal for the prize, but not with equal success, for Omaha after a hard struggle was victorious and started on the road to prosperity and greatness. As very few of the members had been in the territory more than a few days prior to the election, it was amusing to hear them in the heat of debate address one another as "the gentleman from New York", "the gentleman from Iowa", or some
other state. The governor had divided the territory along the river into counties and had given them names, and the members claimed to live in those counties and to represent them; but no serious difficulty arose from this fact, for by general consent the question of settlement was not raised in any other way than what I have stated.
Among those who came to claim their seats was J. Sterling Morton, who was then a young man. I prosecuted his claim before the legislature, but was unsuccessful, and Mr. Morton was compelled to retire, though he and his wife remained in Omaha during most of the session. I claimed that the legislature had the right to go back of the returns and count the votes in disputed territory, but the legislature did not uphold my view.6
The first lawsuit in Nebraska was before a justice of the peace and came about as follows: The landlord of the Douglas House,7 Mr. Wells, had been robbed of a half cheese, and two men were charged with the crime. At this time no courts had been legally provided for and no criminal laws been enacted. The governor had been frequently importuned by a political friend of his living in Iowa to appoint him a justice of the peace for Omaha, so, partly as
6 Mr. Johnston's statement of the case is not clear. In accordance with a provision of the organic act, the acting governor established eight counties, and apportioned members of the first Council and House of Representatives among them. Four councilmen and eight representatives were alloted to Douglas county to be voted for at two places, Omaha city and Belleview. The voters of the Belleview precinct supported a set of candidates distinct from those of Omaha City. Acting Governor Cuming of course gave certificates of election to the Omaha candidates, who received more than twice as many votes as were cut for their rivals. With some hope that the anti-Omaha, or South Platte members might be numerous enough to seat them, the Belleview candidates contested for the seats of the Omaha candidates, but unsuccessfully. See Watkins, History of Nebraska, I, 198.--ED.
7The construction of this hotel, situated at the southwest corner of Harney and Thirteenth streets, was begun by Daniel Lindley in the fall of 1854, when the population of the town was about 100. It was for some time a general public rendezvous. Governor Cuming was one of its, owners.--ED.
a joke and partly to free himself of the importunity, the appointment was made. Armed with his Iowa Statutes, the justice opened an office and litigation was not long in coming. Wells filed a complaint against two men suspected of stealing his cheese, who were arrested and brought before the pretended justice for trial. They employed me to defend them, and the owner of the cheese appeared for the territory. When the case was called for trial the defendants demanded a jury, and though the judicial mind was not clear on that point, a jury was ordered by virtue of the Iowa statute. But now another difficulty still more serious than the first presented itself. There were few people in the county, and no statute had been passed prescribing qualifications for jurors. However, it was agreed, finally, to select the jury from the members of the legislature, and accordingly they were sworn with all due solemnity under the laws of Iowa, and the trial proceeded, being held in the office of the Douglas House. The landlord, who was both prosecuting attorney and plaintiff, introduced his evidence and proved the charge beyond all doubt. But the defendants challenged the authority of the governor to appoint the justice and denied his right to try the case.
The justice had maintained the dignity of his court, up to this time, with great propriety, but this was too much for him, and he flew into a most injudicial rage; but an apology from the defendants' counsel somewhat appeased his anger, the motion was overruled and jurisdiction sustained. The defendants, through their counsel, now asked for a subpoena for the governor. After some dispute as to whether a governor could be lawfully subpoenaed, he appeared and testified that he thought he had no right to appoint a justice of the peace; but, nevertheless, the justice held that he had a right to try the case and sent it to the jury, who, after a short time, returned a verdict of not guilty. Now the prosecuting witness and landlord flew into a rage and furiously ordered the jury out of his house.
This was a sore turn of the trial, for most of the jurors were boarders at the hotel, just opened, and there was no other boarding house in the town large enough to accommodate them. Finally, by the persuasion of friends, the landlord relented, and thus ended the first lawsuit in Nebraska.
It was whispered that some members of the Legislative Assembly had no constituents in the counties which they claimed to represent; and a report was current that one member took a few men in a two-horse wagon and went into the territory some ten or fifteen miles and then stopped and held the election in the wagon, not knowing whether or not he was even within the county he claimed to represent. However, no one challenged his right to his seat, and he was an excellent member.8 The country was full of emigrants and speculators, and many members owned or had an interest in town sites which existed on paper and nowhere else, but which they were exceedingly anxious to sell to strangers. With the purpose of expediting the sale of his shares in town sites one member got up a turkey roast and invited the governor, his wife, and myself, with a few other friends, to his boarding house to share the treat. He claimed that the turkey was killed on his town site; and we all agreed to praise it and boom his town site to the best of our ability. Accordingly, when the dinner was served, quite a number of strangers being seated at the long table,
8 Hascall C. Purple became a member of the House of Representatives by some such method as that indicated by Mr. Johnston. The story generally accepted is that Purple, who then lived at Council Bluffs, took a wagonload of men, nine in all, from that place, and when they thought they had come to Burt county, the boundary of which had been designated by Acting Governor Cuming, but, in fact, were in Washington county, they stopped and voted, that being the only election held for Burt county. The acting governor had designated two places for voting in Burt county, one of them at Tekamah, which a company comprising Mr. Purple had staked out on October 7. For the usual version of this election tale, see Nebraska State Historical Society, Proceedings and Collections, second series, II, 126; Watkins, History of Nebraska, I, 187.--ED.
the governor said: "General, the turkey is excellent; where did it come from?" The general replied: "It was killed on the town site by one of my constituents and presented to me." The truth was the turkey was killed in Iowa and sent to him by a friend.
There was a member of the House whose seat was near a west window which gave him a good view of what was going on in the town. A new saloon was opened nearly every day, and the custom was to treat at the opening. When this member from his post of observation saw the proprietor of the saloon come out and hang up his signal that he was ready for business, this signal being usually a red flannel shirt, there being no signs or sign painters in Omaha, he would say, "Mr. Speaker, I move we adjourn for a recess"; and of course the motion was seconded, and then most of the members would hasten to enjoy the hospitality of the new saloon. In a few minutes all resumed their seats and were ready for business. While a great many amusing things happened during the session, it passed a wise code of laws and laid the foundation of the future prosperity of a great state.
Occasionally the legislative halls were brightened by women from Council Bluffs and from the nearby Presbyterian mission of Bellevue. Mrs. Cuming, wife of the governor, was a beautiful and charming woman, and I can recall, even at this distance of time, delightful evenings spent with a few choice friends in her parlor at the hotel. A distance of over half a century has effaced from my memory many other incidents of those early days.9
9 Mr. Johnston sent these reminiscences from Otego, Kansas, January 23, 1908. He died at Kansas City, Missouri, on February 9, 1909.--ED.
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