NEGenWeb Project
Resource Center
On-Line Library






Cottonwood Springs. -- First buildings. -- Dick Darling -- The rush to California. -- Travel along the Platte Valley. -- Trains of freight wagons. -- First marriages in Lincoln County. -- Indians come to trade. -- Indian hostilities. -- Fort McPherson built and garrisoned. -- Soldiers killed in Cottonwood canyon. -- Other atrocitities. -- Indians wreck freight train. -- Dutch Frank. -- John Burke. -- Buffalo Bill and his Pawnee scouts. -- Pawnee soldiers on parade.


      As Cottonwood Springs and Fort McPherson were intimately associated with North Platte in the early part of the city's history, it will be well to peer into what is fast becoming the misty past, and rescue



from oblivion the little regarding them that lingers in the memory of people still living.

      The at one time scattered village of Cottonwood Springs was a place of considerable importance up to the cessation of Indian hostilities and the abandonment of Fort McPherson. In its palmy days it was the county seat, had attained a population of nearly four hundred, and had a post office, but after the Union Pacific railroad reach North Platte and the fort was demolished, it dwindled into insignificance, and houses were sold, torn down, or moved away until nothing was left to indicate that a village had been there.

     The name the village bore is that of the precinct of today, and is derived from some springs that were in a slough east of the site of the fort, but the slough and springs have long since dried up, and the cottonwood trees by them have disappeared.

      In 1858, the first permanent settlement in what is now Lincoln county was made at Cottonwood Springs in the fall of that year by Boyer, Boyer & Robideau. They erected a log building for a trading post, and traded with the Indians, but in the fall of 1859, a typical plainsman named Dick Darling came



along and began the erection of another building, which was the second. Few equaled Dick at horsemanship, and it was during the Morman war, while employed by the government as dispatch carrier that he made his famous ride from Fort Bridge to Fort Leavenworth in four days, during which he never slept, but ate his food as he best could while riding at full speed, and only stopped long enough to change horses at relay stations.

      Dick sold to Charles McDonald, who completed the building, and put in a stock of supplies for freighters and emigrants. At the time a great rush of emigrants and gold seekers to the Rocky mountains and California was on, and the south side of the Platte river valley was lined with long trains of emigrant and freight wagons heading for the land of promise and hope. Ranches were soon established along the route by parties who kept supplies for the pilgrims. These ranches were a long distance apart at first, but increased in number until they came to be from ten to twelve miles distant from each other.

      Mail and stage lines were also established along the railway, a constant stream of travel poured along the



valley, and it was a novel sight to see those trains moving across the prairie, some going east and others west as the case might be, and occasionally the scene would be varied by a picturesque band of Mormons on the march, some with mule and ox teams, and others with their worldly possessions loaded on hand carts often hauled by women, while men walked leisurely alongside. During the summer months, it was nothing unusual for from 700 to 1,000 wagons to pass through Cottonwood Springs in one day. This seems incredible, but when it is taken into consideration that the Russell, Majors & Waddell Company were transporting millions of pounds of freight for the government at the time, and it was but one of several companies engaged in the freight business, and that they employed 2,000 men, operated 6,2500 wagons with a team force of 75,000 oxen, and had $2,000,000 invested,  t (sic) will be convincing.

      A freight train in those days was composed of twenty-five large sized wagons made to haul 6,000 pounds or more each, and each wagon was drawn by six yoke of large oxen. The crew consisted of a wagon master, who acted as captain, then the assistant wagon master, the extra hands, the night herder



and the cavall, whose duty was to attend to the extra cattle. Beside these, was a driver for each team, making a complete force of thirty-one men for a train. The wagon master was called the "bull wagon boss," the teamsters or wagon drivers, "bull whackers," and a train a "bull outfit." Every man was expected to be thoroughly armed, and know where to "fall in" when an attack was made by hostile bands of Indians. Such attacks frequently occurred, and many a bullwhacker poured out his life blood on the prairie, and died, "unwept, unhonored and unsung."

      As stated, Charles McDonald opened an overland general store at Cottonwood Sprngs, which in time became an important depot for supplies for emigrants and place of shelter. Despite business interests, Mr. McDonald found time to look after the welfare of the settlement, and aid in the organization of Lincoln county, which at first was called Shorter county. He was the first county official, being elected judge for the county, immediately after its organization and in his time, he held the office of county clerk, and county commissioner, and was the first county superintendent of schools.

      The first marriage that took place in what is now



Lincoln county, occurred on June 10, 1861, at Cotton wood Springs, which was the county seat in those days. Charles McDonald being probate judge, issued the license and performed the ceremony, the con-




tracting parties being Camille Pettier and Malinda Hall. The second marriage did not occur until May 21, 1863; and the third couple married were Robert Rowland, and Dolly Grooms. Shortly after this wed-



ding, the marriage of Washington Hinman and Virgina Hall occurred, Mr. McDonald tying the nuptial knot.

     Mrs. Charles McDonald joined her husband shortly after his settlement at Cottonwood Springs, and was the first white woman to permanently locate in Lincoln county and probably on that account she was considered the best looking lady in the district. She was called Milla Huska by the Indians, which interpreted, means white squaw. In a sense, she came from the haunts of civilization to those of savagery, for Cottonwood Springs was infested by Indians more or less hostile, but she was a woman of strong personality and not easily intimidated and adapted herself to circumstances. Her son, W. H. McDonald, is said to have been the first white child born in Lincoln county. Mrs. McDonald died at North Platte, December 28, 1898, and rests in the family lot in the city cemetery.

      It could always be told by the howling of the wolves when Indians were coming to Cottonwood Springs, and they frequently came by the hundred, braves and squaws to trade, and indulge in a feast of bread and coffee, and the merchant who feasted



them most was generally awarded their trade. Buffalo, beaver and other furs were exchanged for ornaments and merchandise, and as the ordinary price of a buffalo robe was about one dollar, traders made immense profits. Fire-arms and ammunition were always in demand, and Indians would pay an enormous price in furs and ponies to procure them.

      Indians were always hungry, and occasionally, forward and menacing, and would come about houses and peer through the windows, and by times, seek to pry a sash open with a tomahawk, and even squaws would make themselves objectionable by covering panes with their faces to an extent to exclude the light.

      In 1862, the settlement was disturbed by rumors that the Indians were on the war path, and watch was kept day and night to guard against surprise. Hostilities between Sioux and Cheyennes were in progress at the time, and many depredations were committed. A number of white people were killed and scalped, and as life and property ha been insecure for a lengthened period, the government conconcluded to restrain the Indians by military supervision. For this purpose, Fort McPherson was built



at the mouth of Cottonwood canyon in 1863. The buildings were constructed of logs procured by cutting down trees in the canyon and neighborhood.

      The fort was first occupied by Captain Hammer, Company G, Seventh Iowa Cavalry, and a detachment of troops; but Captain Bedford arrived from Brownville the same year with one company of soldiers. At that time, or shortly after, an Indian was killed by a squad of soldiers from Fort Kearney, and in imitation of the manner in which the Sioux Indians disposed of their dead, the body was placed on a framework of poles. This incident greatly offended the Indians, and increased their hatred of the white.

      Fort McPherson was built none to soon, for Indian atrocities in its vicinity became alarmingly numerous and frequent. On August 8, 1864, the Cheyenne Indians killed eleven men and two women near Plum Creek (now Lexington) and "On the 9th," says the Omaha Nebraskan of August 17, 1864. "a hundred Indians attacked a wagon train, killing, sacking, and burning with characteristic savagery."

      Col. Summers of the Iowa Cavalry, found that be-



sides thirteen men killed, there were five men, three women, and several children missing. "At Plum Creek," says a man giving evidence, "I saw the bodies of eleven other men whom the Indians had murdered, and I helped to bury them. I also saw fragments of wagons still burning, and the dead body of a man who was killed by Indians at Smith's ranch, the ruins of the ranch which had been burned."

      Lieutenant George P. Bellen stated that the men killed at Plum Creek were first wounded and kept lying on the ground while the savages had a war dance around them. They were finally tortured to death and scalped, and two women were taken into captivity.

      This massacre was the most atrocious of all Indian raids in Nebraska, but it did not suffice, for on the following day, they killed two men three miles east of Gilman's ranch, and shot Bob Carson as he was mowing east of Cottonwood Springs.

      On September 16, 1864, General Robert B. Mitchel and several soldiers, while gathering plums in Cottonwood canyon were surprised by a band of hostile Indians who attacked them without warning.



The general miraculously escaped by dashing into the thicket, and creeping unperceived to a safe distance, reached the fort by a circuitous route, but when he returned with aid, it was found that every man had been murdered, scalped and mutilated.

      That same day four stage drivers going west were killed by Indians on the road between Kearney and Cottonwood Springs.

      Troops at the fort were kept busy endeavoring to control the Indians, but despite their vigilance, stock was run off and depredations committed, and so matters went on.

      In the spring of 1867, the popular Major Frank North then stationed at Fort McPherson, was commanded to enlist four companies of Pawnee Indians to serve as guards for the construction gangs of the Union Pacific railway. The experiment proved satisfactory, but they were discharged in the winter of 1868, and other two companies enlisted, of which more hereafter.

      In the fall of the latter year, a freight train was wrecked and plundered by Indians west of Plum Creek. It seems they demolished a culvert, and after tearing up the rails, watched a train approach,



and waited results. The train was ditched, and some of the crew killed by the Indians, among them was the engineer who, when dying, called to the fireman to tell the superintendent to look after his wife and children. The Indians were too busy plundering the train to pursue the very few who saved themselves by flight. Everything was taken from the cars the red men cared for, and many ornamented themselves with things found, while others unrolled bolts of calico, and securing the ends to their ponies, rode about at breakneck speed and high glee with the cloth fluttering behind the wind. After enjoying themselves, they fired the train and danced round while it burned.

      Along in 1868, some ten companies of cavalry and infantry were garrisoned at Fort McPherson and kept busy guarding emigrants, settlers, stage coaches and construction gangs of the Union Pacific railway from Indian attacks.

      Despite military vigilance, white people at times were murdered and depredations committed; the men working on the Hinman farm in the vicinity of Cottonwood Springs being attacked and five killed.

      About this time a popular engineer called



"Dutch Frank" had a starling adventure when coming from Grand Island to North Platte with his train. Upon rounding a curve a few miles east of the Platte river, he observed an unusually large band of Indians crowded on the track to all appearance intent on mischief. There was no time to reverse the train, and to stop, meant certain death, so, pulling the throttle wide open, he went plowing through them, killing some and maiming others. The train received a volley of bullets from the rifles of the Indians, but escaped injury, and when it reached the depot, the front of the engine was found to be bespattered with blood, and the wonder was that it escaped being ditched.

      Among several who lost heavily by Indian raids was John Burke of blessed memory. On his way to Pikes Peak, he reached Cottonwood Springs early in 1864, but owing to serious Indian trouble along the route, concluded to abandon the trip and locate. He built a road ranch on the California trail some seven miles west of Fort McPherson, and did some farming by irrigation, bringing water by ditch from the Platte river which flowed about a miles north of his place. He was energetic, and secured mail con-



tracts, and contracts with the Union Pacific railroad to supply ties and telegraph poles, and also with Fort McPherson for hay and wood. He prospered, but one day in the fall of 1868, the Indians swooped down on him, burned his ranch, drove off his stock, and appropriated whatever they fancied, and he and his family, after narrowly escaping death, reached Fort McPherson in an exhausted condition.

      Mr. Burke afterwards purchased the old Ben Holladay stage station, located about two miles west of the fort, and to facilitate the fulfillment of his contacts, he built a wagon bridge across the Platte river, some mile and a half west of the fort. In June, 1872, high water took out several spans of this bridge, and as he had a consignment of government freight to deliver at the fort, he constructed a boat and loaded it, intending to cross the open channels and gain the opposite bank. All seemed favorable, but through some unaccountable accident, the boat sank, and Mr. Burke went down with it. His body was recovered, and interred in the family plot on the old homestead, and his decendants are esteemed citizens of North Platte.

      Mr. Burke was a man of determination, and



neither obstacles nor danger detered him from carrying out his plans, and it was not easy to turn him aside from a purpose. On one occasion, a small band of Indians drove off some of his stock, and so determined was he to recover the animals, that he followed the trail alone for nearly two hundred miles, and did not succeed, and returned weary and disappointed.

      On another occasion he was more fortunate. It was on the morning of January 7, 1870, while a small herd of cattle belonging to him were grazing near Fort McPherson, that a band of roving Indians rounded it up, and hurriedly drove it off. An alarm was given, and Lieutenant Thomas with a portion of Company I, of the Fifth United States Cavalry started in pursuit of the red skins without breakfast or rations. After a hard chase of about sixty miles across a rough country, they, on the morning of the 8th, succeeded in surprising the Indian camp and recapturing all the stolen stock and about thirty head of Indian ponies. Three Indians were killed and quite a number wounded. The entire camp was captured, including blankets, buffalo robes, saddles, and other artcles and what could not be brought away



was burned. The famous Buffalo Bill accompanied the party and did valuable service.

      During 1868, the enmity of the Indians towards the whites seemed more virulent, and it was wholly owing to the presence of military at Fort McPherson and North Platte, they were kept in anything like subjection. The garrison of the fort had been increased, and General Carr put in command, and besides the regular soldiers was a band of some three hundred Pawnee Indians under command of the popular Major Frank North, and a band of scouts under command of Buffalo Bill, who was chief, and noted for his persistency in following a trail until the quarry was run to earth. At the time, the Sioux Indians were somewhat on the warpath, and revelling in unretricted freedom, were committing depredations in the Republican Valley, and when opportunity afforded, were not slow to do likewise in Lincoln county. As the Pawnees and Sioux were inveterate enemies, the Pawnees rejoiced at having an opportuneity to square matters with their ancestral foes, and fought with such zeal, that their services were invaluable in a campaign against the Sioux. The band organized by Major North under orders from General



Auger, were so thoroughly drilled as to understand what was required of them, and any command given by Major North was obeyed with alacrity, for he spoke their language fluently. To show how they appeared on parade when showing themselves to advantage, it will be well to quote from the autobiography of W. F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) chief of scouts.

      "The Pawnee scouts were also reviewed, and it was very amusing to see them in full regulation uniform. They had been furnished regular cavalry uniform, and on parade some of them had their heavy overcoats on (in summer); others their large black hats, with all the brass accoutrements attached; some of them wore pantaloons, and others only wore breech clouts. Others wore regulation pantaloons, but no shirts, and were bareheaded; others again had the seat of their pantaloons cut out, leaving only leggings. some wore brass spurs, but had neither boots nor moccasins. With all this melange of oddity, they understood the drill well for Indians. The commands of course, were given in their own language by Major North, who could talk it as well as any full blooded Pawnee."

     The Pawnees were bold and reckless in battle,



and performed numerous deeds of daring, and heroically endured hardship. On the other hand, the Sioux, although far from being cowards, were natural born thieves, desirous of securing property without trading or recompence, and to them, a majority of the depredations were traced.

Prior page
General Index
Next page

© 2003 for the NEGenWeb Project by Cris Geis, Ted & Carole Miller