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History of Western Nebraska and Its People



Owing to its isolation, the county has never taken any important part in the wars which have occured since its organization. The first military unit formed in the county was a troop of cavalry organized at Nonpareil during the summer of 1888 and named in honor of the then governor of the state, John M. Thayer. This consisted of forty-two members. Temporary organization was formed by electing, A. L. Field Captain; F. M. Sands, First Lieutenant; Fred A. Shonquist, Second Lieutenant; and Michael Shindler, Third Lieutenant. There was really no place for third lieutenant, but as Mike was the only man in the company who had any cavalry experience, this honorary position was created in order to give him authority. After a sergeant major and other sergeants numbering up to the eighth with a corresponding number of corporals, musicians, saddlers, and farriers were appointed, there were just two left as privates. These were James H. Danskin and Ira E. Tash, who, because they could not have any office, refused to be sworn into service. This broke up the company, as the officers did not have anyone to command, but all of the members retained their sabers and several of them still have them as souvenirs of their first experience as warriors.

   The Spanish-American war of 1898-99 did not effect the county as there was no company formed and no one from the county enlisted for service in that conflict. Since then a number of those who participated in that war have become residents of the county and maintain a Spanish-American war veterans organization or camp in Alliance.



The nearest Box Butte county ever came to war was in the winter of 1890-1, when the Sioux Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation, seventy-five miles north became crazed over what they believed to be the coming of the Messiah, whom they thought would, with their help, drive all the white settlers from the western county, bring back the buffalo and the game, and organized for a general massacre of the white settlers in the surrounding county. Fortunately there was a deep snow at this time which delayed their movements until the United States Army, commanded by General Nelson A. Miles, could throw a cordon of troops around the reservation, and after the battle of Wounded Knee, fought between the Seventh United States Cavalry and a band of Indians commanded by Chief Big Foot, in which one hundred and fifty Indians and about twenty officers and soldiers of the cavalry were killed, the uprising was ended. The Nebraska militia was called to arms and patrolled the state border north, of Hay Springs, Rushville and Gordon. At Hemingford a company for protection was organized, armed with Winchester repeating rifles and held themselves in readiness to defend the inhabitants of the county from threatened extermination at the hands of the blood-thirsty Sioux-Indians.



   This county did its full share in furnishing men and the sinews of war for the World War of 1917-1819. A volunteer company was formed at Alliance, known as Company "G" of the Fourth Nebraska National Guard which entered the federal service and became later Battery "D" of the 127th United States Field Artillery. This organization spent nearly a year at Camp Cody, New Mexico, and was a part of the 34th or Sandstorm Division which reached France in September, 1918, but as an organization, they did not participate in active fighting. However, many of its members, by being assigned to other divisions, took part in the closing months of the fighting in the Argonne Forest and on other fronts; the company returning to Alliance in the spring of 1919. This company was commanded by Captain John B. Miller.

   There were seven hundred and ninety-five young men of the county, between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-one, enrolled in the selective draft. Of this number over three hundred were actually called into service, while there were many enlistments from this county, of which there is no record. No roster of the soldiers from Box Butte county, who were in the service of their country, has as yet been compiled.

   Four Box Butte county boys are known to have given up their lives for their country while serving in France. They were W. C. Herman, Charles Martin, Richard Haugh, who were killed on the field of battle, while Dean Harris died of injuries received in the service.


History of Western Nebraska and Its People


  The young men who served from Box Butte county, upon their return, immediately organized a Post of the American Legion, which is No. 7 in the state. It is quite active and has a membership of about two hundred. Its first commander was Earl L. Meyer, who was succeeded by J.B Miller, and upon his removal from the city was succeeded by Joseph J. Dixon, its present commander.

The people of Box Butte county were very patriotic during the period of the war. The oversubscribed their quota of every liberty loan, practically doubled the quota for the Red Cross, Y.M.C.A., Knights of Columbus, Salvation Army, and finally in the combination drive for funds. They maintained a local chapter of the American Red Cross and an active and efficient Home Guard of uniformed and armed men, strictly enforced the food regulations, and as a whole rendered valuable services to the country.



The first white men, other than the French trappers and traders to see Box Butte county, was that great flood of gold seekers who, in 1878 to 1880, traversed its extreme width from south to north over the old Sidney trail from Sidney, Nebraska, to Deadwood, South Dakota, following the discovery of gold there in 1876. These men told the story of the level plains which they crossed between the Platte River on the south, and the Niobrara river on the north. These stories attracted the attention of the owners of the great range herds farther to the eastward.

   The next people to visit it were the big cattle owners, their foremen and cowboys. The used the Box Butte plains as a summer range for the cattle which fattened on the nutritious grass with which the plains were thickly covered.

   The federal government surveyed the lands in 1879 and 1880, after which they were thrown open to settlement. A few of the earliest settlers came in over the Union Pacific as far as Sidney and then traveled overland following the Sidney trail, and took up homesteads in the southwestern part of the county. On the completion of the Northwestern railroad to Chadron in 1885, the railroad company advertised the rich lands tributary to it throughout the east, and there was a great in rush of settlers most of whom came over the railroad to Hay Springs, which was the nearest railroad point.

   The first filing made in Box Butte county was in 1881 by A.H. McLaughlin, who filed on a preemption and tree claim on the Niobrara river about four miles west of Marshland. Mr. McLaughlin has the distinction of being the oldest living settler of this county. During the time of his residence on this place, which he still owns, he was a resident of Sioux county, unorganized, which comprised the north half of the panhandle of Nebraska, and Mr. McLaughlin transacted his official business at Sidney, the county seat of Cheyenne county, to which Sioux county was attached for administrative purposes. The line between Sioux and Cheyenne counties running east and west in the south line of the present Box Butte county. Later, Sioux county was divided into three equal portions - the western part named Sioux, the central part Dawes, and the eastern third Sheridan county. Sheridan and Sioux still retain their original boundaries. Mr. McLaughlin, without changing his residence, then became a citizen of Dawes county and served as one of its county commissioners. Chadron was the county seat. Upon the division of Dawes county into Dawes and Box Butte county, he then became a resident of Box Butte county, without changing his residence.

   The early settlers of the county were mostly of American birth, with a sprinkling of nearly all the principal nationalities. The Bohemians apparently were clannish and located in large numbers and were the dominant factor in Running Water, Lawn and Liberty precincts. There were a great many of German birth scattered over the county, without there being a sufficient number to be called a German settlement in any one particular place. This was

Note: A photo originally on this page could not be reproduced satisfactorily. The caption read: "Oscar O'Bannon and S. Avery (Right) was one of the Old Time Trappers in North -Western Nebraska"



History of Western Nebraska and Its People

true of the Irish, except that a number of families - the Collins, Mahoneys, Shays, O'Maras and Silks settled in one neighborhood in Box Butte precinct. There was quite a settlement of Norwegians east of Hemingford. There were five families of Danes congregated together a few miles west of Nonpareil. Four of these families are still residents of the county and with the increase in the families can boast of being the only nationality which now has more representatives than they had at the time the county was organized.

   The pioneers probably endured more hardships than fell to the lot of their brothers who settled the middle and eastern states. While they had no forests to clear or stones to remove in order to make a home they had but little to build that home with. Ninety-seven percent of the houses which sheltered the first settlers were erected out of native sod. The typical settler usually arrived in a covered wagon, with a crate of chickens tied on behind, leading a cow, together with a breaking plow, a spade, axe and a few primitive tools. Upon arriving at the place he had selected for his homestead, he usually unloaded his wagon, removed the wagon box, left the wife and children to get along as best they could there while he, with the running gears of the wagon, went to the Pine Ridge, fifty miles away, to secure ridge poles, some rough boards and fire wood. Accompanied by one or two neighbors, who assisted in loading the logs and doubling teams up steep hills, they returned after a few days. Then, hitching on the breaking plow he turned a quantity of sod which he cut into three foot lengths with the spade, carried and erected the walls of their future habitation, placing the ridge poles upon this, covered with a layer of boards or poles, upon which he placed a layer of sod with the grass side down, thus forming a rude shelter from the elements. The same process was followed in a sod stable erected to shelter the team and cow. He usually had to travel several miles to a spring or neighboring stream and haul water in a barrel for household use until such time as a well could be put down.

Practically all of the supplies had to be hauled from Hay Springs. Of course, the first year no crops could he produced, except a small amount of sod corn; but later the first settlers were able to earn some money by breaking out, tending and planting tree claims for non-residents and erecting houses for those who happened to have more money than muscle. They were compelled to depend wholly for their supply of fresh meat upon antelope and jack rabbits, which were abundant, with now and then a deer; but fresh pork was an unknown quantity, there being no corn or other fattening food produced upon which hogs could be raised. There was also a scarcity of material with which to make enclosures for the hogs. One settler tried the expedient of building a pig pen out of sod, but on leaving home one Sunday for a call upon a neighbor some miles distant and returning after dark, found that the family pig had rooted a hole through the sod, invaded house and crawled into the family bed.

   The settlers managed to find some social enjoyment by being mutually helpful to each other, organizing Sunday schools, holding prayer meetings, and sometimes religious services with a sermon delivered by an itinerant minister, and in the more thickly populated settlements by having dances and parties during the long winter evenings.

   Notwithstanding the hardships, the health of the early settlers was very good, very few deaths occurred from diseases and not many from accidents. Among the accidents of the early days, which were singularly free from fatalities, was that which occurred at the home of Charles Schilling, northeast of Hemingford. He with his large family lived in quite a large sod house with a lean-to kitchen in the rear, back of which was a cave cellar. An eighteen hundred pound horse belonging to his neighbor, Frank Porter, got out of his stall one Sunday night, wandering over to Neighbor Schilling's, first walked on the cave cellar and from that to the lean-to and from there to the main part of the house. His weight was too much for the ridge pole, which broke, and precipitated him bottom side up, down among the soundly sleeping Schilling family. The kickings and squealings of the horse led the rudely awakened family to believe that the world had come to an end. Mr. Schilling finally succeeded in getting the horse onto his feet, led him out of the front door, and lighting the lantern discovered that the damage was one hole in the roof, the complete wreck of two bedsteads, two partitions knocked out, and one boy with a scalp wound and a skinned heel. The neighbors turned out the next day and put a new sod roof on the house, and Mr. Potter paid the doctor for coming out and attending to the boy's wounds, and the incident was soon forgotten.

   Another accident which resulted fatally occurred at the home of Allan Bearss, in the western part of the county. While the family were surrounding the breakfast table one morning, the ridge pole of their house, which was not of sufficient diameter to support the weight


History of Western Nebraska and Its People


of the sod roof, suddenly snapped asunder, precipitating tons of sod and roof boards down onto the family. Their little five year old girl was instantly killed.

   Another accident occurred when two Bohemians of unpronounceable names had taken a contract to dig a well on the homestead of William Wilmot six miles west of Hemingford. They had reached a depth of about sixty feet, were hoisting the earth out with a horse and rope which passed over a pulley, this pulley supported by three poles forming a triangle. The horse backed up and tumbled down the well on top of the digger, but as the horse filled the capacity of the well quite completely, did not descend very rapidly and the digger was enabled to take advantage of what space the horse did not take up and escaped with his life. He was brought to the surface and the neighbors gathered to rescue the horse from the well. The fall had not killed him, so a strong rope was secured. Mr. Wilmot owned a large gray team. A rope was placed about the horse, the team attached to the other end, and he was hoisted to the surface; but, through some miscalculation, he did not get into the clear. The gray team commenced to back up when Mrs. Wilmot, thinking they would be drawn into the well, and being one of their most valued possessions, seized a sharp butcher knife, rushed out and drew its edge across the taut rope, severing it, which precipitated the old horse to the bottom of the well a second time. This was his finish. The injured man raised himself on his elbow and said, "Dot was a horse on me."

   Another and fatal accident occurred in putting down a well northeast of Hemingford, when a colored man named Lewis, while placing some curbing in a strata of sand at a depth of about a hundred feet, the curbing gave way, precipitating him to the bottom of the well, a further distance of fifty feet, with tons of the caving earth burying him there. It was too dangerous to attempt the rescue of the body, so the surviving wife mortgaged the homestead for about four hundred dollars, made a contract with some experienced well diggers, who sank a new well some ten feet away from the old well, tunneled from the new to the old, rescued the body, brought it to the surface, and it was given decent interment.



   The county derives its name from a large butte, located in the east central part of the county, which rudely resembles a box. The early French trappers named this Box Butte, pronounced "bute," butte being French for hill or elevation. The early cattle men called the country contiguous thereto the Box Butte country, to distinguish it from the White Clay country, and similarly named localities. It naturally followed that this should be selected as the name of the new county.

   There is no record of any battle ever having been fought in the county between the Indians and United States troops, the nearest being when a band of Indians left their reservation in Colorado and started to return to the country from which they had been taken in the Dakotas. They were followed up by a company of soldiers under the command of Major Thornburg, who followed the trail to Bronco Lake near Alliance; and the trail seeming to scatter there, the command left their wagons, camp equipage, etc., while they scouted the sand hills to the south, believing the Indians were hidden in some of the canyons. Upon their return to camp, they found the Indians had visited it, carried off what provisions they could, and burned the remainder, together with the wagons, tent .s, and the rest of the outfit. This band was under the leadership of Chief Little Hog. They were later captured and imprisoned in a stockade at Ft. Robinson, sixty miles to the northwest. The soldiers got tired of guarding them and one night left the gate to the stockade open and the Indians started to escape during the night, when the soldiers opened fire with their carbines and practically exterminated the entire band.


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Contributed by Sandy Smith

© 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 for NEGenWeb Project by Sandy Smith, Ted & Carole Miller