Early Settlement | Organization | County Seat Troubles
Part 2: Investigation of Treasurer Van Sickle
The Agricultural Society | Progress of the County | Storms
Prosperity of the County | Schools | Public Buildings
Part 3: Kearney Junction: Troubles with Cowboys
The Murder of Milton M. Collins
Part 4: Kearney Junction (cont.): Criminal | Bank Failure
Religious | Lodges and Societies | The Press | Education
Business Interests | Buda (Kearney Station).
Part 5: Kearney (cont.): Biographical Sketches
Part 6: Kearney (cont.): Biographical Sketches (cont.)
Part 7: Kearney (cont.): Biographical Sketches (cont.)
Part 8: Gibbon: Biographical Sketches
Part 9: Shelton: Biographical Sketches
List of Illustrations in Buffalo County Chapter
Buffalo County Names Index
Buffalo County is located nearly in the central part of the State, and on the north side of the Platte River. It is thirty-six miles in length from east to west, and averages about twenty-six miles in breadth from north to south. On all sides except the south, the county is bounded by straight, lines. On this side, it is bounded by the somewhat winding Platte River, which separates it from Kearney and Phelps Counties.
The area of the county is about nine hundred square miles, and containing 576,000 acres. The Union Pacific Railroad extends the entire length of the county up the north side of the Platte River, on which are located the following stations and towns: Shelton, Gibbon, Buda, Kearney Junction, Stevenson and Elm Creek.
There are two bridges across the Platte River, each nearly a mile in length, one located at Kearney and the other at Gibbon. Besides, there are numerous other bridges of considerable length and importance across the other streams of the county.
The Platte River, which forms the southern boundary of the county, is all the way from three-fourths of a mile to one and a half miles in width, shallow, flowing over vast beds of white sand, with the channel ever changing. Viewed from any point in the county, the Platte presents an appearance that is truly picturesque and beautiful. Viewed from the adjacent bluffs, it appears, as it is, a broad and placid stream, literally dotted with little islands of white sand, which are only temporary: and what is an island of sand one day is liable to be a deep channel the next. Besides these sand islands are many permanent ones having a rich and fertile soil, some of these being several miles long, and all the way from a few rods to two miles in width.
The most of these are covered with a thick growth of brush and small trees, with a few exceptions, where the trees have attained considerable size. Everything in their appearance goes to show that they are all of comparatively recent formation.
Another peculiarity of the Platte River is that many times when the wind blows hard from the north, the deep channels and greater flow of water is on the south side, and when the wind blows hard from the south, the great volume of the water in on the north side.
The county is intersected by many streams. The most important of these is Wood River, which enters the county from the west some eighteen miles north of the Platte River, and flows in a southeasterly direction to within about two miles west of Gibbon, from which it flows nearly in an easterly direction, and parallel with the Platte, at a distance therefrom of from three to five miles, until the eastern boundary of the county is reached, when it takes its course more to the northeast, but still in a direction nearly parallel with the Platte, until it enters that river a little west of Grand Island, in Hall County. This is one of the most beautiful streams of the county, and, with its abundant and rapid flow of water, it affords some of the very best water-power privileges that can be found in the State.
The stream next in importance is the South Loup River, which enters the county from the northwest, making a curve toward the south for several miles, then flowing to the northeast, entering Sherman County a few miles west of the eastern boundary of Buffalo County. This stream, with its many branches that permeate the county, adds much to its appearance, and affords an abundance of water for farming and stock purposes.
Besides the streams named are many "drawers" and smaller streams that are of no importance except to afford water for farming and stock-raising purposes. But, utilized even for these pursuits alone, they add much to the wealth of the county.
The surface of the land is about as follows: First comes the broad, fertile and level valley of the Platte, which varies from two to six miles in width, after which comes a narrow belt of hills, some of which are sandy, and termed the sand hills of the Platte. These sand hills, however, are not numerous on the north side of the Platte. Next after leaving these hills comes a fertile and gently undulating upland prairie, which extends to the South Loup River, broken and diversified only by occasional drawers and very small streams, and nearly every acre of which is suitable for farming purposes. The South Loup Valley is also very fertile.
The streams of the county are skirted with narrow strips of timber, which add much to the general appearance of the country, but are not of sufficient extent to add materially to the wealth of the county. In some places, there is a considerable growth of trees along the Platte and its islands. It is said that there was once a heavy growth of timber along this river in the vicinity of Fort Kearney, which was located on the south side of the river, south of the present station of Buda. If this is true, the greater portion of it has since been cut off; but the truthful historian must state that the indications are that there was never a very heavy growth of trees along the Platte anywhere in this county. Forest trees, however, when planted out and cultivated for a few years, thrive and grow rapidly. There are now in the county several hundred thousand trees that have been planted and are doing well. It is a very easy matter for every farmer or land-owner to start a grove that will in a few years afford an abundance of fuel for his own use and, some to spare, and in a few years longer, the trees will have attained sufficient size to afford abundance of lumber for building purposes.
It is but little more than a decade since this was the home of wandering savages, with no settlements by white men except by a few on Wood River, in the eastern part of the county, who had settled there at the time the old overland freight road extended up the Platte Valley.
What is now Buffalo County was the home and hunting grounds of the once powerful Pawnee Indians. The country of the Sioux was only a little farther west, and over the intervening territory, claimed by both tribes, disputes and quarrels arose that led to a continued war between them, which rapidly decreased the numbers of each tribe. The Sioux, however, proved the better warriors, and, after repeated victories over the Pawnees, the latter, who were at first the more troublesome, were only too glad to be on friendly terms with the white settlers. The Pawnees, finding themselves unable to cope successfully with their enemies in a fair fight, sought to cripple them by stealing their ponies, and were frequently retaliated upon by attacks from the Sioux, who many times succeeded in slaughtering entire bands of Pawnee warriors. But, during all this time, there were no settlers in Buffalo County except the few on Wood River, and toward these both the Sioux and Pawnees were perfectly friendly until the war with the Cheyennes and Sioux began, in August, 1864.
The first settlers in the county were Mormons, who made a settlement on Wood River in 1858. The first of these settlers, Joseph E. Johnson, settled on the present town site of Shelton, on a bend of Wood River. He was soon surrounded by several others, among whom were Mr. Huff and a man named Page. These men established ranches and raised vegetables and other crops, with which venture they were remarkably successful. This was made a general stopping over and resting place for the Mormons on their way to Utah. Sometimes large trains remained here for several months. This was also on the old overland freight and emigrant road to California and to Pike's Peak, and, shortly after the settlement of Johnson, a stage station was started about a mile farther west. With the immense overland travel, many hundred wagons sometimes passing daily, this settlement was continually the scene of activity, and great indeed was the amount of business done by these traders and ranchmen. In 1858, Joe E. Johnson started a newspaper called the Huntsman's Echo, the publication of which he continued for about two years. This paper was undoubtedly the first one published west of the Missouri River towns. Johnson was a fluent writer, and pictured out in glowing terms the beauties and advantages of this country, and this doubtless did much toward the settlement of the country in after years, his paper circulating, as it did, among people from all parts of the globe who traversed this freight road. This newspaper was published about one hundred yards east of the present newspaper office at Shelton, and there are still standing on that town site many large trees that were planted out by its editor. The largest of these trees was struck by lightning during the summer of 1881, but it still lives, and is a monument to the memory of the first man who ventured to publish a newspaper in Central Nebraska, as well as the first to venture crop-raising in the county. It is said also that Johnson had here the largest and finest flower garden ever planted west of the Mississippi River. He remained here, however, but a few years, when, in 1863, he and his associates removed to Utah, where he continued his paper; but his name will ever be remembered by the citizens of Buffalo County as first to demonstrate the adaptability of the soil to crop-raising, purposes.
The old overland road spoken of extended up the north side of the Platte River between that and Wood River, the most of the ranches being on the latter-named stream, up which the road extended until the bend was reached, where Boyd's ranch was located, from which point it diverged to the south and crossed the Platte River to Fort Kearney, from where it extended on up the south side of the river. Boyd's ranch, of which we write, was owned by James E. Boyd, now the Mayor and one of the leading capitalists of Omaha, and was located almost two miles west of the present town of Gibbon.
There were some changes in the proprietorship of these ranches, and but few of the early ranchmen have remained here. Among those now here are the Olivers, who located in Wood River in 1860. All was quiet with the Indians until the Indian war broke out, in August, 1864, with the Plum Creek massacre. As soon as the news of this event, and the information that the Cheyennes and Sioux were on the war-path prepared to slaughter all that came in their way, reached the ranchmen and settlers on Wood River, preparations were made to be ready to leave the country at any time. As the frightened settlers and ranchmen came pouring down the road from farther west with their reports of the vast number of Indians along the route, and stories of the dreadful atrocities committed, nearly all of the Wood River settlers joined and fled to Omaha and other points on the Missouri River. Though the danger was great, the fleeing settlers, in their excitement, greatly exaggerated the real dangers, and every little occurrence excited their fears. Every little herd of cattle, party of horsemen, or moving wagons in the distance, was easily transformed into bands of Sioux or Cheyennes coming down upon them, and of course no time was lost in getting into a safe place without stopping to investigate moving objects in the distance very closely. Mr. Ed Oliver relates some very interesting incidents of those scares, among which is the following: James E. Boyd had near his ranch a small herd of cattle. Another party from the west was coming down the road with a herd of cattle, and the two herds becoming mixed, the travelers were engaged in "cutting out" their own stock, when they were discovered by some of the Wood River settlers and mistaken for Indians, whereupon great haste was made to secure places of safety, and telegraphic dispatches were sent stating that the Indians were upon them. As soon as the mistake was discovered, it of course resulted in a good laugh all around. While some of those events may seem trivial to the citizens of the present day, and it may appear that these early settlers were unnecessarily frightened, or that they did not possess great courage, it must be remembered that the Indians were all about them, and, should an attack be made, it could only result in all who were discovered falling sure victims of the scalping-knife, or to suffer death in still greater torture; it will be seen that their fears were by no means groundless, and that their only safety lay in concealment or flight before the Indians approached near enough to discover them. At one time, after the flight of the settlers, we learn that the only white men left on Wood River were Ed Oliver and a little Frenchman, whose name is unknown; they remained at Oliver's ranch about one mile west of the present town of Shelton, where they took care of the vast herds of cattle and horses left in their charge, and, though there were Indians near, they were not molested. Among the causes, perhaps, that rendered this locality comparatively safe from Indian depredations, are the facts that Fort Kearney was only a few miles distant, and the Indians were usually a little cautious about approaching too near the forts or regular garrisons of the soldiers, and also to the fact that this was in the Pawnees' country, and the Pawnees, being inveterate enemies to the Sioux and Cheyennes, the latter probably did not care to engage in troubles that would doubtless bring both soldiers and Pawnees upon them.
Though, on the outbreak of this Indian war, the ranches were generally broken up, and travel over the emigrant and freight road nearly stopped, this continued so only a short time. There was found to be but little danger of Indians East of Fort Kearney, and the ranchmen and settlers soon returned. Travel and freighting were again resumed, and this portion of the route was considered free from danger. But when the stages reached Fort Kearney, they were attended the remainder of the distance across the plains by a heavy guard, and freight and emigrant wagons were formed into large trains, and the men in attendance thoroughly organized and drilled before leaving the fort for the West.
There were no great changes in the Wood River settlement until the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad through this county, in 1866, when, the railroad doing away with the old overland freighting business with wagons, the old trading and stage ranches were of course abandoned, and from this time forward the resources of the Wood River settlement have been farming and stock-raising. Farms were soon opened up and bountiful crops were raised. Immigration, however, did not commence to any great extent until after the county was organized.
In the year 1870, the only settlement in the county was a few farmers along Wood River. Some of these, however, desired to organize Buffalo County, it previously existing in name, and attached to Hall County for judicial and revenue purposes. Therefore, in January, 1870, Sergt. Michael Coady of the United States Army, Martin Slattery and Patrick Walsh, three sturdy and whole-souled Irishmen, who had landed interests in the county, wrote a letter to Gov. David Butler asking for an organization of Buffalo County. We believe Patrick Walsh wrote this letter, and Coady and Slattery signed it with him. These men all happened to be Democrats in politics, and, the administration of the State being Republican, they, thinking it might have a better effect, added a postscript to their letter stating that it was written by "three d--d good Republicans," and regarded this as an excellent piece of diplomatic strategy.
Gov. Butler, in February of 1870, issued a proclamation declaring Butler County duly organized, and ordered an election of county officers to take place in the following October, and appointed the following officers to hold their offices until that time: Treasurer, Henry Dugdale; Clerk, Martin Slattery; Probate Judge, Patrick Walsh; Sheriff, John Oliver; Commissioners Thomas K. Wood, Ed Oliver and Sam Boyd.
The officers appointed all filled their positions or employed deputies to do their work for them. The settlers of the county were along Wood River, near where the town of Shelton now is. There were also quite a large number of transient settlers at Kearney Station, now known as Buda. Kearney Station was the point from which Fort Kearney received its supplies and quite an effort was made to make it the principal railroad town of the county. In fact, it was, at the time of the organization of the county, the only town that was started, but the attempt to build up a town proved a failure.
There were a few settlers also at Elm Creek. Charles Davis, afterward a Commissioner, kept the railroad eating-house at Elm Creek Station for a number of years. He was well known to all the old settlers of the State, and was the leading man in the western part of the county. He died at Elm Creek in 1877.
Nearly all of the first officers of the county still reside within its limits, and are among the leading citizens, Ed Oliver is the leading merchant of Shelton. John Oliver has emigrated westward. Thomas K. Wood is operating a cattle ranch on Upper Wood River. Patrick Walsh is a resident of Shelton, where he may be seen leisurely walking the streets almost any day. He is honored and respected by all who know him, and is pointed out with pride as one of the fathers of his county and the original proprietor of the thriving town of Shelton. Martin Slattery is engaged in farming a short distance from Shelton, where he has met with great success; is enjoying good health; has a pleasant home, where he can spend his declining years in peace and comfort. Henry Dugdale died at his home two miles west of Shelton in 1880. Mr. Dugdale settled here in 1859, and, until the day, of his death, his career was characterized as one of energy and usefulness.
For the first year after the organization of the county, there was no regularly established county seat. Each officer kept the records pertaining to his office at his own home. The first meeting of the County Commissioners was at Nebraska Center, about two miles from the present town of Gibbon, and held February 26, 1870. After this, for several months their regular place of meeting was at Wood River Center, now Shelton, after which Kearney Station was decided upon as the regular place of meeting.
At the first election, held in October, 1870, the following officers were elected: Henry Dugdale, Treasurer; M. McNamara, Clerk; John Oliver, Sheriff; Patrick Walsh, Probate Judge; Thomas K Wood, William Booth and Charles Davis, Commissioners. McNamara, who was elected Clerk, failed to qualify, and Michael Coady of Fort Kearney, was appointed in his place, and he appointed Walsh as his Deputy. As there had been no Superintendent of Schools elected, the duties of that office devolved on the Clerk, and, in his absence, upon his Deputy. The Treasurer elect also failed to qualify, and the Commissioners appointed Walsh to collect the taxes and perform all the duties of County Treasurer. Thus it was that Patrick Walsh filled three of the most important offices at one time. County affairs went on smoothly. The Treasurer accounted for every dollar that came into his hands. Every effort was exerted to keep the county out of debt. The expenditures were not great, and care was taken that no bonds be issued for any purpose. Indeed, at one time, in the fall of the year 1871, the Commissioners loaned the two school districts in the county $1,000 each, rather than that they should vote bonds to build schoolhouses.
The first school district in the county was organized before the organization of the county, while it was attached to Hall County. This district was organized in 1869, and the school was taught by Miss Mary Smith. She is now Mrs. Norton, and is living with her husband at Schaup's Mills a few miles below Shelton.
The first religious meetings known to have been held were during the winter of l870-71, by Rev Mr. Marquette, a Methodist minister, who conducted a revival meeting in the old Wood River Schoolhouse. Several persons professed conversion as a result of his efforts.
The first marriage in the county, after the organization, was that of Owen Curry to Miss Kate Haverty, at Wood River, now Shelton. The marriage occurred August 20, 1871, J. M. Ryan officiating.
After the organization of the county, its settlement was rapid. During the year 1870, a great many families came into the county, and either purchased land or entered homestead or pre-emption claims on lands belonging to the United States Government. In April 1871, a large colony came in from Ohio and settled where Gibbon now is. Eighty-five families came in at this time and laid out the town, and each entered a homestead claim and began farming in earnest. They also planted out many fine groves of forest trees, and many of them started orchards. To-day, some of the finest, best-cultivated and most beautifully ornamented farms in the county may be seen on Wood River, near Gibbon. The eighty-five were soon followed by many more, and, during the spring, a large settlement was formed about Gibbon The farms were opened that year--that is, breaking was done and houses were built, though of course no crops to speak of could be raised until the next year.
When the Ohio colony spoken of arrived, they outnumbered all the other settlers of the county, and they at once set to work to secure the county seat and public buildings, and, with characteristic energy, left nothing undone that would tend to build up the county, and more particularly the town of Gibbon. Less than one month from the time of the first arrivals, a town had been laid out, buildings erected, and the County Commissioners--Charles Davis, William Booth and Henry Dugdale--declared the county seat removed to that place from Kearney Station.
In the history of new counties, we almost invariably find that there have been local quarrels and jealousies, in different sections of the county, in reference to the location of the county seat. Each town, of course, wanted it, and struggled to obtain it. Buffalo County was no exception to this rule, and, when the county seat was located at Gibbon, the foundation was laid for political quarrels and dissensions, sectional jealousies regarding the location of the county seat, and from what portions of the county the officers should be elected, that divided the county for many years after. The first serious troubles arose during the summer and fall of 1871 between the Gibbon and Wood River settlements. It seems that each party wished all the officers elected from their own neighborhood. Lines were not drawn between the two great political parties of the day, but each was confined to the settlement to which he belonged. At the October election in 1871, the Gibbon party elected their entire ticket, with one exception and resulted as follows: Clerk, Aaron Ward; Treasurer, Ed Oliver, of Shelton; Sheriff, Oliver Thompson; Superintendent of Schools. C. Putnam; County Judge, J. N. Allen; Commissioners, B. F. Sammons and William F. McClure. J. N. Allen did not qualify for his office, and F. S. True was appointed Judge to fill the vacancy. C. Putnam resigned his position, and Daniel A. Crowell was appointed Superintendent of Schools.
Measures were soon taken to build a court house at Gibbon, and, bonds being voted, a large and handsome brick structure was erected the next year, at a cost of $22,000. It was thought that building so good a court house here would secure the county seat here for all time, and that, on its completion, the sectional strife throughout the county would cease, but such was not the case.
In the fall of 1872, the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad Company completed their line of railroad, forming a junction with the Union Pacific about five miles west of old Fort Kearney. A town was laid out here and called Kearney Junction. The sale of lots began in September of 1872, and, during the remainder of that year, and during the next, the town grew to be by far the most important one in the county. As soon as this town was laid out, the country around it began to settle up rapidly. Settlers came in by the hundreds and began opening up new farms. As soon as the town was laid out, vigorous endeavors were made to secure the removal of the county seat from Gibbon to Kearney Junction. At first, this was not successful; but in the fall of 1874, by a vote of the people, the county seat was established at Kearney Junction, since which time the county seat fight may be considered as ended, and there has since been comparative harmony on this question.
During the years 1873 and 1874, two iron wagon bridges were built across the Platte River, each nearly a mile in length. One of these was south of Kearney, and cost the county $60,000. The other was built between Gibbon and Lowell and by Buffalo and Kearney Counties conjointly. About this time, several bridges were built across Wood and Loup Rivers. It was necessary to vote heavy bonds to build all these bridges and to build new county buildings, as well as to make other improvements. Speculators had a great influence in the early history of the county. An inflated idea of the wealth and rapid growth of the county was believed by the earlier settlers, and high and speculative values placed upon property. The affairs of the county were run upon the same speculative plan, and the county had soon made expenditures beyond the ability of the people to pay, and, though improvements were rapidly made, the county was soon burdened with a heavy bonded indebtedness.
The rich farming lands, however, continued to attract the attention of settlers until, in 1874, the population of the county numbered nearly three thousand.
But to go back a little in the political history of the county. In October, 1873, the following county officers were elected: Clerk, Joseph Scott; Treasurer James Van Sickle; Sheriff, David Anderson; Judge, A. Collins; Superintendent of Schools, J. W. Place.
At the election of Representatives to the Legislature from this Representative district in 1874, William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill) of North Platte, was elected, but declined the office on account of his theatrical business, which absorbed all of his time, and D. P. Ashburn, of Gibbon who was his opponent during the campaign, was allowed to occupy his seat. At this election, Patrick Walsh and D. A. Crowell were also elected commissioners.
In the election of 1875, much interest was manifested, and sectional feeling was intense This election resulted as follows: Clerk. S. C. Ayer; Treasurer, James Van Sickle; Sheriff, David Anderson; Superintendent of Schools D. A. Crowell; County Judge, D. Westervelt; Commissioner, H. A. Lee.
In 1876, S. W. Switzer was elected Representative from Buffalo County, and E. C. Calkins was elected State Senator from this district. J. E, Chidester was also elected County Commissioner.
At the election of 1877, the most of the old officers were re-elected. The complete ticket elected was: S. C. Ayer, Clerk; James Van Sickle, Treasurer; David Anderson. Sheriff; J. J. Whittier, Judge; John Swenson, Superintendent of Schools; Simon Murphy, Surveyor; H. C. Andrews, Commissioner.
In 1878, both James H. Davis is and George E. Smith were candidates for Representative to the Legislature from this county, but the election resulted in a victory for the former. There was a great deal of excitement throughout this Senatorial District. John D. Seaman, of Kearney, was nominated by the Republicans and Frank A. Harman, of Bloomington, Franklin county was nominated by the Democrats. After a hard and bitterly-fought campaign, Seaman was elected by a majority of thirty-seven votes. During the campaign, much bitterness of feeling was engendered among some of the leading men of the county, that has never since been forgotten.
Though there were some hard times during the early history of the county, which will be described on another page, settlers continued to come in, until, in 1879, the population numbered about seven thousand, and, with the influx of new voters, much of the old sectional strife in politics had died out, but only to give rise to new political issues. Among the great events that now stirred the feelings of the voters of the county were the rumors set afloat, early in 1879, that the County Treasurer, James Van Sickle, was a defaulter to the sum of several thousand dollars, and steps were soon taken to inquire into the real condition of county affairs.