THE EARLIEST ROMANCE OF JEFFERSON COUNTY, NEBRASKA
BY GEORGE W. HANSEN
One hundred and three years ago Hannah Norton was born "away down east" in the state of Maine. Hannah married Jason Plummer, and in the year 1844, seized by the wanderlust, they decided to move west. One morning their little daughter Eleanor, four years old, stood outside the cabin door with her rag doll pressed tightly to her breast, and watched her parents load their household goods into the heavy, covered wagon, yoke up the oxen, and make preparations for a long journey.
As little Eleanor clambered up the wheel and into the wagon, she felt none of the responsibilities of the long pioneer life that lay before her, nor did she know or care about her glorious ancestry.
Only a few decades previous her ancestor, Major Peter Norton, who had fought gallantly in the war of the Revolution, had gone to his reward. His recompense on earth had been the consciousness of patriotic duty well performed in the cause of liberty and independence. A hero he was, but the Maine woods were full of Revolutionary heroes. He was not yet famous. It was reserved for Peter Norton's great-great- great-granddaughters to perpetuate the story of his heroic deeds. One, Mrs. Auta HeIvey Pursell, the daughter of our little Eleanor, is now a member of Quivera chapter, D. A. R., of Fairbury, Nebraska, and another, Lillian Norton, is better known to the world she has charmed with her song, as Madame Nordica.
But little Eleanor was wholly unmindful of past or future on that morning long ago. She laughed and chattered as the wagon rolled slowly on its westward way.
A long, slow, and painful journey through forests and over mountains, then down the Ohio river to Cincinnati was at last finished, and the family made that city their home. After several years the oxen were again yoked up and the family traveled to the West, out to the prairies of Iowa, where they re-
NEBRASKA PIONEER REMINISCENCES
mained until 1863. Then, hearing of a still fairer country where free homes could be taken in fertile valleys that needed no clearing, where wild game was abundant and chills and fever unknown, Jason, Hannah, and Eleanor again traveled westward. After a toilsome journey they settled in Swan creek valley, Nebraska territory, near the present northern line of Jefferson county.
Theirs were pioneer surroundings. The only residents were ranchers scattered along the creeks at the crossings of the Oregon trail. A few immigrants came that year and settled in the valleys of the Sandys, Swan creek, Cub creek, Rose creek, and the Little Blue. No human habitation stood upon the upland prairies. The population was four-fifths male, and the young men traveled up and down the creeks for miles seeking partners for their dances, which were often given. But it was always necessary for a number of men to take the part of ladies. In such cases they wore a handkerchief around one arm to distinguish them.
The advent of a new family into the country was an important event, and especially when a beautiful young lady formed a part of it. The families of Joel Helvey and Jason Plummer became neighborly at once, visiting back and forth with the friendly intimacy characteristic of all pioneers. Paths were soon worn over the divide between Joel Helvey's ranch on the Little Sandy and the Plummer home on Swan creek, and one of Joel's boys was accused of making clandestine rambles in that direction. Certain it was that many of the young men who asked Eleanor for her company to the dances were invariably told that Frank Helvey had already spoken. Their dejection was explained in the vernacular of the time - they had "gotten the mitten."
The music for the dances was furnished by the most energetic fiddlers in the land, and the art of playing "Fisher's Hornpipe," "Devil's Dream," and "Arkansaw Traveler" in such lively, triumphant tones of the fiddle as played by Joe Baker and Hiram Helvey has been lost to the world. Sometimes disputes were settled either before or after the dance by an oldfashioned fist fight. In those days the accepted policy was that if you threshed your adversary soundly, the controversy was settled - there was no further argument about it. At one dance on the Little Sandy some "boys" from the Blue decided to
ROMANCE OF JEFFERSON COUNTY
"clear out" the ranchers before the dance, and in the lively melee that followed, Frank Helvey inadvertently got his thumb in his adversary's mouth; and he will show you yet a scar and cloven nail to prove this story. The ranchers more than held their own, and after the battle invited the defeated party to take part in the dance. The invitation was accepted and in the morning all parted good friends.
On August 6, 1864, the Overland stage, which had been turned back on its way to the west, brought news that the Sioux and Cheyenne were on the war-path. They had massacred entire settlements on the Little Blue and along the trail a few miles west, and were planning to kill every white person west of Beatrice and Marysville.
For some time the friendly old Indians had told Joel Helvey that the young men were chanting the old song:
- "Some day we shall drive the whites back
- Across the great salt water
- Whence they came;
- Happy days for the Sioux
- When the whites go back."
Little attention had been paid to these warnings, the Helvey family believing they could take care of themselves as they had during the past eighteen years in the Indian country. But the report brought by the stage was too alarming to be disregarded; and the women asked to be taken to a place of safety.
At this time Mrs. Plummer and her daughter Eleanor were visiting at the home of Joel Helvey. They could not return to Swan creek, for news had come that all Swan creek settlers had gone to Beatrice. There was no time to be lost. The women and father Helvey, who was then in failing health, were placed in wagons, the boys mounted horses to drive the cattle, and all "struck out" over the trail following the divide towards Marysville, where breastworks had been thrown up and stockades had been built.
During the day Frank found many excuses to leave the cattle with his brothers while he rode close to the wagon in which Eleanor was seated. It was a time to try one's courage and he beguiled the anxious hours with tales of greater dangers than the impending one and assured her, with many a vow of love,
NEBRASKA PIONEER REMINISCENCES
that he could protect her from any attack the Indians might make.
The first night the party camped at the waterhole two miles northwest of the place where now an imposing monument marks the crossing of the Oregon trail and the Nebraska-Kansas line. Towards evening of the next day they halted on Horseshoe creek. In the morning it was decided to make this - their permanent camp. There was abundant grass for their stock, and here they would cut and stack their winter hay.
A man in the distance saw the camp and ponies, and mistaking the party for Indians, hurried to Marysville and gave the alarm. Captain Hollenberg and a squad of militia came out and from a safe distance investigated with a spyglass. Finding the party were white people he came down and ordered them into Marysville. The captain said the Indians would kill them all and, inflamed by the bloodshed, would be more ferocious in their attack on the stockade.
The Helveys preferred taking their chances with the Indians rather than leave their cattle to the mercies of the Kansas Jayhawkers, and told the captain that when the Indians came they would get to Marysville first and give the alarm.
Their camp was an ideal spot under the grateful shadow of noble trees. The songs of birds in the branches above them, the odor of prairie flowers and the new-mown hay about them, lent charm to the scene. Two of the party, at least, lived in an enchanted land. After the blistering heat of an August day Frank and Eleanor walked together in the shadows and coolness of night and watched the moon rise through the trees. And here was told the old, old story, world old yet ever new. Here were laid the happy plans for future years. And yet through all these happy days there ran a thread of sorrow. Father Joel Helvey failed rapidly, and on September 3 he passed away. After he was laid to rest, the entire party returned to the ranch on Little Sandy.
The day for the wedding, September 21, at last arrived. None of the officers qualified to perform marriage ceremonies having returned since the Indian raid, Frank and Eleanor, with Frank's sister as chaperon, drove to Beatrice. On arriving there they were delighted to meet Eleanor's father. His consent to the
ROMANCE OF JEFFERSON COUNTY
marriage was obtained and he was asked to give away the bride. The marriage party proceeded to Judge Towle's cabin on the Big Blue where the wedding ceremony was solemnly performed and "Pap" Towle gave the bride the first kiss.
And thus, just fifty years ago, the first courtship in Jefferson county was consummated.
EXPERIENCES ON THE FRONTIER
BY FRANK HELVEY
I was born July 7, 1841, in Huntington county, Indiana. My father, Joel Helvey, decided in 1846 to try his fortune in the far West. Our family consisted of father, mother, three boys, and three girls. So two heavy wagons were fitted up to haul heavy goods, and a light wagon for mother and the girls. The wagons were the old fashioned type, built very heavy, carrying the customary tar bucket on the rear axle.
Nebraska was at this time in what was called the Indian country, and no one was allowed to settle in it. We stopped at old Fort Kearny - now Nebraska City. In a short time we pulled up stakes and housed in a log cabin on the Iowa side. Father, two brothers -Thomas and Whitman - and I constructed a ferry to run across the Missouri river, getting consent of the commandant at the fort to move the family over on the Nebraska side; but he said we would have to take our chances with the Indians. We broke a small patch of ground, planting pumpkins, melons, corn, etc. The Indians were very glad to see us and very friendly in fact, too much so. When our corn and melons began to ripen, they would come in small bands, gather the corn and fill their blankets. It did no good for us to protest, so we boys thought we would scare them away. We hid in the bushes close to the field. Soon they came and were filling their blankets. We shot over their heads, but the Indians didn't. scare they came running straight toward us. They gave us a little of our own medicine and took a few shots at us. We didn't scare any more Indians.
When word came in the fall of 1858 that gold had been discovered Pike's Peak by the wagonload, that settled it. We got the fever, and in April, 1859, we started for Pike's Peak. We went by the way of Beatrice, striking the Overland trail near the Big Sandy. An ex-soldier, Tim Taylor, told us he believed the Little Sandy to be the best place in southern Nebraska. We built a ranch house on the trail at the crossing of152
EXPERIENCES ON THE FRONTIER
Little Sandy and engaged in freighting from the Missouri river to the Rocky Mountains. This we did for several years, receiving seven to eight cents per pound. We hauled seven thousand to eight thousand pounds on a wagon, and it required from seventy-five to eighty days to make a round trip with eight and ten yoke of oxen to a wagon. I spent about nine years freighting across the plains from Atchison, Leavenworth, St. Joseph, and Nebraska City to Denver, hauling government supplies to Fort Laramie. In 1863-64 I served as substitute stage driver, messenger, or pony express rider. I have met at some time or another nearly every noted character or "bad man" that passed up and down the trail. I met Wild Bill for the first time at Rock Creek ranch. I met him often after the killing of McCanles, and helped bury the dead. I was well acquainted with McCanles. Wild Bill was a remarkable man, unexcelled as a shot, hard to get acquainted with. Lyman, or Jack, Slade was considered the worst man-killer on the plains.
The Indians did not give us much trouble until the closing year of the civil war. Our trains were held up several times, being forced to corral. We were fortunate not to lose a man. I have shot at hundreds of Indians. I cannot say positively that I ever killed one, although I was considered a crack shot. I can remember of twenty or more staying with us one night, stretching out on their blankets before the fireplace, and departing in the morning without making a move out of the way. The Pawnees and Otoes were very bitter toward the Sioux and Cheyennes. In the summer of 1862 over five hundred Indians were engaged in an all-day fight on the Little Blue river south of Meridian. That night over a hundred warriors danced around a camp-fire with the scalps of their foes on a pole, catching the bloody scalp with their teeth. How many were killed we never knew.
My brothers and I went on one special buffalo hunt with three different tribes of Indians - Otoes, Omahas, and Pawnees - about one thousand in all, on Rose creek, about where the town of Hubbell is situated. We were gone about four days. The Indians would do all the killing. When they got what they wanted, then we boys would get our meat. There was plenty, for all. The prairies were covered with buffalo; they were never out of sight. On the 4th of July, 1859, six of us with two
NEBRASKA PIONEER REMINISCENCES
wagons, four yoke of oxen to a wagon, went over on the Republican where there were always thousands of buffalo. We were out two weeks and killed what meat we wanted. We always had a guard out at night when we camped, keeping the wolves from our fresh meat. We came home to the ranch heavily loaded. We sold some and dried some for our own use.
I homesteaded, June 13, 1866, on the Little Blue, five miles northwest of Fairbury, and helped the settlers looking for homesteads locate their land. My father, Joel Helvey, entered forty acres where we had established our ranch on Little Sandy in 1861, the first year any land was entered in this county. I was the first sheriff of this county; served four years, 1867-1870. No sheriff had qualified or served before 1867. County business was done at Big Sandy and Meridian, and at the houses of the county officers. We carried the county records around from place to place in gunny sacks,
I am glad I participated in the earliest happenings of this county, and am proud to be one of its citizens.
MRS. ELIZABETH C. LANGWORTHY
Seventh State Regent, Nebraska Society, Daughters of the American Revolution.1905-1906
BY GEORGE E. JENKINS
Looking backward forty years and more, I feel as Longfellow so beautifully expresses it,"You may build more splendid habitations,
Fill your rooms with sculpture and with paintings,
But you cannot buy with gold the old associations,"
for in that time I have seen Fairbury grow from a little hamlet to a city of the first class, surrounded by a country that we used to call "the Indian country," considered unfit for agricultural purposes, but today it blossoms as the rose and no finer land lies anywhere.
I have read with great interest of the happenings of ten, twenty, thirty years ago as published each week in our Fairbury papers, but am going to delve into ancient history a little deeper and tell you from personal experience of the interesting picture presented to me forty-odd years ago, I think in the year '70 or '71, for I distinctly remember the day I caught the first glimpse of Fairbury. It was a bright and sunshiny morning in July. We had been making the towns in western Kansas and had gotten rather a late start from Concordia the day before; a storm coming up suddenly compelled us to seek shelter for the night. My traveling companion was A. V. Whiting, selling shoes, and I was selling dry-goods, both from wholesale houses in St. Joseph, Missouri. Mr. Whiting is well and honorably known in Fairbury as he was afterwards in business there for many years. He has been a resident of Lincoln for twenty-three years.
There were no railroads or automobiles in the country at that time and we had to depend on a good pair of horses and a covered spring wagon. We found a place of shelter at Marks' mill, located on Rose creek fifteen miles southwest of Fairbury, and here we stayed all night. I shall always remember our introduction there, viz: as we drove up to the house I saw a large, portly old man coming in from the field on top of a load of hay,
NEBRASKA PIONEER REMINISCENCES
and as I approached him I said, "My name is Jenkins, sir -" but before I could say more he answered in a deep bass voice, saying, "My name is Clodhopper, sir," which he afterwards explained was the name that preachers of the United Brethren church were known by at that time. This man, Marks, was one of the first county treasurers of Jefferson county, and it is related of him that while he was treasurer he had occasion to go to Lincoln, the capital of the state, to pay the taxes of the county, and being on horseback he lost his way and meeting a horseman with a gun across his shoulder, he said to the stranger, "I am treasurer of Jefferson county. My saddle-bags are full of gold and I am on the way to Lincoln to pay the taxes of the county, but I have lost my way. Please direct me."
Returning to my story of stopping over night at Rose creek: we were most hospitably entertained and at breakfast next morning we were greatly surprised on being asked if we would have wild or tame sweetening in our coffee, as this was the first time in all our travels we had ever been asked that question. We were told that honey was wild sweetening and sugar the tame sweetening. I cannot refrain from telling a little incident that occurred at this time. When we had our team hitched up and our sample trunks aboard, we asked Mr. Marks for our bill and were told we could not pay anything for our entertainment, and just then Mrs. Marks appeared on the scene. She had in her hand a lot of five and ten cent wax shinplasters, and as she handed them to Mr. Marks he said, "Mother and I have been talking the matter over and as we have not bought any goods from you we decided to give you a dollar to help you pay expenses elsewhere"; and on our refusing to take it he said, "I want you to take it, for it is worth it for the example you have set to my children." Politely declining the money and thanking our host and hostess for their good opinion and splendid entertainment, we were soon on our way to pay our first visit to Fairbury.
We arrived about noon and stopped at a little one-story hotel on the west side of the square, kept by a man by the name of Hurd. After dinner we went out to see the town and were told it was the county seat of Jefferson county. The courthouse was a little one-story frame building and is now located on the west side of the square and known as Christian's candy shop. There was one large general store kept by Champlin & McDow-
ell, a drug store, a hardware store, lumber yard, blacksmith shop, a schoolhouse, church, and a few small buildings scattered around the square. The residences were small and widely scattered. Primitive conditions prevailed everywhere, and we were told the population was one hundred and fifty but we doubted it. The old adage reads, "Big oaks from little acorns grow," and it has been my privilege and great pleasure to have seen Fairbury "climb the ladder round by round" until today it has a population of fifty-five hundred.
THE EASTER STORM OF 1873
BY CHARLES B. LETTON
Spring opened very early in the year 1873. Farmers plowed and harrowed the ground and sowed their oats and spring wheat in February and March. The grass began to grow early in April and by the middle of the month the small-grain fields were bright green with the new crops. Most of the settlers on the uplands of Jefferson county were still living in dugouts or sod houses. The stables and barns for the protection of their live stock were for the most part built by setting forked posts in the ground, putting rough poles and brush against the sides and on the roof, and covering them with straw, prairie grass, or manure. Sometimes the bank of a ravine was made perpendicular and used as one side. The covering of the walls and roof of the structures needed continual renewal as the winds loosened it or as the spring rains caused it to settle. Settlers became careless about this early in the spring, thinking that the winter was over. The prairies were still bare of hedges, fences, or trees to break the winds or catch the drifting snow.
Easter Sunday occurred on the thirteenth of April. For days before, the weather had been mild and the air delightful. The writer was then living alone in a dugout seven miles north of Fairbury in what is now the rich and fertile farming community known as Bower. The granary stood on the edge of a ravine a short distance from the dugout. The stable or barn was partly dug into the bank of this ravine; the long side was to the north, while the roof and the south side were built of poles and straw in the usual fashion of those days. On the afternoon of Easter Sunday it began to rain and blow from the northwest. The next morning I had been awake for some time waiting for daylight when I finally realized that the dim light coming from the windows was due to the fact that they were covered with snow drifts. I could hear the noise of the wind but had no idea of the fury of the tempest until I undertook to go outside to feed the stock. As soon as I opened the door 1158
THE EASTER STORM OF 1873
found that the air was full of snow, driven by a tremendous gale from the north. The fury of the tempest was indescribable. The air appeared to be a mass of moving snow, and the wind howled like a pack of furies. I managed to get to the granary for some oats, but on looking into the ravine no stable was to be seen, only an immense snow drift which almost filled it. At the point where the door to the stable should have been there appeared a hole in the drift where the snow was eddying. On crawling into this I found that during the night the snow had drifted in around the horses and cattle, which were tied to the manger. The animals had trampled it under their feet to such an extent that it had raised them so that in places their hacks lifted the flimsy roof, and the wind carrying much of the covering away, had filled the stable with snow until some of them were almost and others wholly buried, except where the remains of the roof protected them.
Two animals died while I was trying to extricate them and at night I was compelled to lead two or three others into the front room of the dugout and keep them there until the storm was over in order to save their lives. It was only by the most strenuous efforts I was able to get to the house. My clothing was stiff. The wind had driven the snow into the fabric, as it had thawed it had frozen again, until it formed an external coating of ice.
I had nothing to eat all day, having gone out before breakfast, and when night came and I attempted to build a fire in the cook stove I found that the storm had blown away the joints of stovepipe which projected through the roof and had drifted the hole so full of snow that the snow was in the stove itself. I went on the roof, cleared it out, built a fire, made some coffee and warmed some food, then went to bed utterly fatigued and, restlessly tossing, dreamed all night that I was still in the snow drift working as I had worked all day.
Many other settlers took their cattle and horses into their houses or dugouts in order to save them. Every ravine and hollow that ran in an easterly or westerly direction was filled with snow from rim to rim. In other localities cattle were driven many miles by this storm. Houses, or rather shacks, were unroofed and people in them frozen to death. Travelers caught in the blizzard, who attempted to take refuge in ravines,
NEBRASKA PIONEER REMINISCENCES
perished and their stiffened bodies were found when the drifts melted weeks afterward. Stories were told of people who had undertaken to go from their houses to their outbuildings and who, being blinded by the snow, became lost and either perished or nearly lost their lives, and of others where the settler in order to reach his well or his outbuildings in safety fastened a rope to the door and went into the storm holding to the rope in order to insure his safe return. Deer, antelope, and other wild animals perished in the more sparsely settled districts. The storm lasted for three days, not always of the same intensity, and freezing weather followed for a day or two thereafter. In a few days the sun shone, the snow melted, and spring reappeared; the melting drifts, that lay for weeks in some places, being the only reminder of the severity of the storm.
To old settlers in Nebraska and northern Kansas this has ever since been known as "The Easter Storm." In the forty-six years that I have lived in Nebraska there has only been one other winter storm that measurably approached it in intensity. This was the blizzard of 1888 when several people lost their lives. At that time, however, people were living in comfort; trees, hedges, groves, stubble, and cornfields held the snow so that the drifts were insignificant in comparison. The cold was more severe but the duration of the storm was less and no such widespread suffering took place.
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