CUSTER County is situated in the geographical center of the State, and is forty-eight miles in extent from north to south and fifty-four miles from east to west, and contains 1,658,880 acres. The county is well watered by numerous streams. The South Loup River enters from the west, about eighteen miles from the northern boundary, and flows east of southeast into Buffalo County, leaving Custer not far from the southeast corner. The Middle Loup flows southeast across the northeastern part of the county. Between these streams are Mud Creek and Clear Creek, tributaries of the South Loup River. All of these streams have also numerous but nameless small tributary creeks flowing into them.
The two Loup Rivers are streams of considerable importance, and have wide valleys. Though they are sandy in places, as a general thing they are fertile. Ascending from these level bottom lands are many high bluffs intersected by deep draws and cañons. These extend for some distance back, when the uplands, or divides, between the streams, are reached, and here are broad and comparatively level table-lands.
In most places, the bottom lands are thickly covered with blue stem grass, which here grows to an immense height and makes the very best quality of hay. The bluffs are steep and much broken by intervening hollows, which, in the winter, break the cold winds sweeping over the prairies, and afford shelter for the herds of cattle roaming over them. Here, too, is found an excellent quality of grass on which cattle thrive. Back from the bluffs, on the upland prairies, there was, a few years ago, one immense expanse of thick and matted buffalo grass, growing a few inches high, but now, in many places, this is giving way to a heavy and high growth of grass of different varieties. This changing of the buffalo grass to other and larger varieties has been observed to keep pace with the settlement of the country.
In the early years of the settlement of Nebraska, the buffalo grass covered the prairies all the way east to the Missouri River, but now it is common only to the uncultivated and thinly settled portions of Western Nebraska.
Until a little more than ten years ago, the territory now known as Custer County was occupied only by Indians and wild animals, the latter being very numerous. The cattle-raisers were at an early day attracted to this region, on account of the advantages offered by the natural resources of the country, and, for some years, they occupied it as a herding-ground. This was one of the best portions of the cattle range, and immense herds wandered at will over these rich pasture grounds.
In a short time, however, after the settlement of Central Nebraska commenced, the natural fertility of the soil attracted the attention of those who desired to devote their energies to farming, but even then they were deterred from settling, as it is rather a serious undertaking to start a farm in a country that the cattlemen have learned to regard as their own. The latter regard settlers as intruders, and, in many instances, resort to any means, however unlawful, to discourage settlement. Their cattle, of course, are allowed to run at large, until the county has become so thickly settled that the farmers can by force of numbers compel the owners of the cattle to obey the herd law. Hence, for the first few years, the settler has to protect his crops both night and day. Nothing but constant attention will suffice, as thousands of cattle are roaming at large over the prairies.
It was not until the years 1877 and 1878 that any settlements of importance were made by farmers. During these years many had come in, entered homestead claims and begun farming. Breaking was done and crops raised. The yield of all kinds of grain was abundant, and the farmers were well satisfied with the productiveness of the soil, and their success held out inducements to others to also enter claims and prepare for raising crops. The tide of immigration to Custer County had set in and the lands in the most fertile portions of the county were fast being taken up.
From the very first, however, there were troubles with the cattlemen, arising from various causes. This was one of the richest of herding grounds, and the cattlemen, through the right of possession, regarded the country as their own, and seemed to think that the settlers were encroaching on their rights. Besides this, it was thought at this time that only the more fertile bottom lands could ever be utilized for agriculture, and if these were occupied by farmers cattle would be shut off from the water courses, and stock-raising on a large scale would become impossible in the county. Thousands of acres of valuable grazing lands would thus be made practically valueless. Another thing that tended to keep up this strife between the stock-raisers and farmers was the fact that many unprincipled men annually came to the county for the purpose of stealing cattle. As thousands of cattle pastured here were unattended and never seen by the owners or their herdsmen, except at the time of the annual round-up each summer, stealing them was neither a difficult nor a dangerous matter. The thieves could go out and shoot down cattle, take off their hides, dress them for beef and haul them to the railroad stations, selling and shipping them by wagon loads. Every one knows the feeling of hatred that always exists on the Western borders toward horse and cattle thieves. As soon as the cattle-owners became aware that hundreds of their cattle were stolen every year, they became enraged, and could they have discovered the real thieves it is probable that they would have been promptly lynched. Not knowing the real offenders, however, and already prejudiced against the settlers, they at once attached to these the responsibility for the loss from which they suffered.
From these and various other causes, troubles of a serious nature soon arose. The cattle were restrained by no fear of punishment, and often did much damage to the crops of the farmers, and, on the other hand, the stealing of cattle was kept up. Besides this, the loss incurred from natural causes was only too willingly attributed to the settlers. Soon a strong feeling of enmity was aroused on both sides, and no pains were spared by the herders to harass the settlers all they possibly could.
These things continued to go on from bad to worse until at last all law and order were set at defiance. The cowboys had determined to drive the settlers from the country, and no measures were too harsh for them to undertake.
In the fall of 1878, these troubles had reached such a height that they at last culminated in one of the most heartrending and appalling crimes that ever was in the province of history to describe. This was the tragedy that was brought to a close by the inhuman murder of Luther K. Mitchell and Ami Ketchum--a horror truly sickening in its details.
One of the most wealthy of the cattle-owners of Nebraska was I. P. Olive, who owned many thousand head of stock that found pasturage in Custer County. He had from time to time, lost a great many animals, some of them undoubtedly stolen by cattle thieves. For this reason he became the prime mover in the attempt to expel the settlers from Custer County. His headquarters were in this county, although he resided in Plum Creek, Dawson County. He had come to Nebraska from Texas, on account of having been concerned in the killing of several men while there, and it is said that he had been guilty of other murders. Fearing both legal and personal vengeance, he fled to Nebraska. He was accompanied by his brother, Robert Olive, who had, to prevent all knowledge of his whereabouts, assumed the name of Stevens.
Luther M. Mitchell and Ami Ketchum were homesteaders, living on Clear Creek, where they had made a settlement some time previous. Mitchell was an old man, sixty-three years of age, a farmer, who had removed here from Merrick County. Ketchum had resided in the State for some years, and had worked at his trade, that of a blacksmith, in several towns, but, having decided to go to farming, he entered a homestead here.
For some time there had been trouble between the Olives and Ketchum. In the attempt to frighten or drive the settlers from the county, they found Ketchum too courageous to be frightened, and too quick and accurate in the use of firearms to be driven successfully. Between Stevens, or Bob Olive, and Ketchum, there had been a great deal of difficulty. Stevens, as he was then known, had on several occasions threatened to kill Ketchum and had also accused him of stealing cattle.
Some days previous to the trouble that resulted in the death of Stevens, one Manley Capel had been arrested on the charge of stealing cattle in Custer County, and, in his confession, seemed to implicate Ami Ketchum.
Stevens, or Bob Olive, was well known as a desperado, and it was also known that he and Ketchum were enemies. Yet, Sheriff David Anderson, of Buffalo County, made him a deputy for the occasion, and gave him a warrant for the arrest of Ketchum. This warrant was sworn out by some members of the Olive gang, and it has been a question whether this warrant was gotten out in good faith, believing Ketchum to be a cattle thief, or merely as a pretext to get him into the custody of the Olives. It is now generally thought that Ketchum was innocent of any crime, that he was merely a peaceable settler, whom Stevens was anxious to kill on account of the old enmity, and because he could not be driven from the country by threats. It is also generally believed that had he fallen into Stevens' hands, he would have been killed on some pretext or other; that there are reasons to believe these opinions to be correct, as the following sketch of the ensuing tragedy will show.
Stevens engaged three others to accompany him, all rough and desperate men, among whom was Barney Armstrong, and proceeded to the home of Ketchum, arriving there on Wednesday morning, November 27, 1878. Mitchell and Ketchum were getting ready on that morning to go to a neighbor's to return a bull they had been keeping. Mrs. Mitchell was preparing to go with them to visit the family of this neighbor--one Mr. Dows--during the day. When they were nearly ready to start, a stranger rode up and asked Ketchum, who was a blacksmith, to shoe his horse. Ketchum told him that he could not on that day, and asked him to return the next morning, which he promised to do, and rode off. It has since been supposed that he came there in the interests of the Olives, to see if the intended victims were there. Mitchell and Ketchum had put their rifles in the wagon, hoping to see some game on their journey. Ketchum also took his pistol, which he always carried, from the fact of Stevens having threatened his life.
While the men were taking care of the animal, Mrs. Mitchell took her place on the seat to hold the team. While Mitchell and Ketchum were tying the bull to the axle of the wagon and gathering in the long lariat rope by which it was tied, Mrs. Mitchell observed a party of men riding toward them, but it attracted no particular attention, as they were frequently visited by hunters and land-seekers. As these men came up, they dashed along, four abreast, and, when they came near, began shooting. Stevens, or Bob Olive, was the first to fire, and, as he did so, he called to Ketchum to throw up his hands. For reply, Ketchum drew his pistol, and, at his first shot, Stevens fell forward in his saddle, mortally wounded. Meanwhile, the other men kept up the shooting, and Ketchum was wounded in the arm. The children came running out of the house, when one of the men began firing at them, but without effect. Mitchell reached into the wagon, secured his rifle and began firing, but Stevens now turned and rode off and he was soon followed by the remaining cowboys. There were from twenty-five to thirty shots fired, but only with the effect stated. As soon as the cowboys had ridden away, Mitchell and Ketchum packed up a few of their household goods and started to go to Merrick County, where Mitchell had formerly lived. They did this as they feared violence from the now enraged cowboys. Arriving in Merrick County, they went directly to the residence of George Gagle, where they stopped, and the men went at once to Dr. Barnes' to attend to Ketchum's wounds. The next morning, acting upon the advice of their friends, the men, Mitchell and Ketchum, having secured a place of safety for Mrs. Mitchell and the children, started for Custer County, to give themselves up and stand a trial for the killing of Stevens. On their way, when they reached Loup City, they visited Judge Wall for legal advice. Judge Wall advised them to go no farther, as the cowboys were waiting for them, prepared to lynch them. They remained here two or three days, and then went to the house of John R. Baker, on Oak Creek, in Howard County, where they were arrested by Sheriff William Letcher, of Merrick County, and Sheriff F. W. Crew, of Howard County, giving themselves readily into custody.
I. P. Olive had offered a reward of $700 for the arrest of Mitchell and Ketchum, and several Sheriffs, among whom were Crew, of Howard; Gillan, of Keith; Anderson, of Buffalo, and Letcher, of Merrick, were anxious to capture them that they might secure the reward. But after they were captured and in the hands of Crew and Letcher, these officers were unwilling to incur the responsibility of taking them to Custer County, and turning them over to the blood-thirsty cowboys; therefore, they were finally taken the Buffalo County Jail, in Kearney, and placed in charge of Capt. David Anderson, the Sheriff of that county, for safe keeping. The prisoners were first held without any legal authority, as I. P. Olive had given the warrant for their arrest, issued in Custer County, into the hands of Barney Gillan, Sheriff of Keith County, to serve. The prisoners had engaged T. Darnall, of St. Paul, Neb., and E. C. Calkins, of Kearney, as their attorneys. The attorneys endeavored to keep the prisoners in the jail at Kearney, fearing that violence might be done them. The feeling in Kearney at that time was against Mitchell and Ketchum, who were represented as having killed Stevens while he was fulfilling his duty as an officer of the law. A question arose among the Sheriffs as to the division of the money offered as a reward for Mitchell and Ketchum, which Olive had declined paying until they were delivered in Custer County. A proposition was finally made to Sheriff Anderson to take them to that place, and $50 were offered him for his services. This he declined to do, however, unless he was paid enough to enable him to employ a sufficient number of men to guard the prisoners. It was finally arranged that Gillan, since he held the warrant for their arrest, should take the prisoners to Custer County, and he promised to notify their attorneys, Calkins and Darnall, so that they could accompany them. As Gillan was a Sheriff, and his desperate character was not then known, even these attorneys did not anticipate any serious difficulty. They, however, kept close watch lest the prisoners should be stolen away.
On the forenoon of the 10th day of December, Darnall, fearing that the prisoners were about to be taken away, was keeping close watch until after the emigrant train came in. This train was late, but Darnall remained at the depot until he thought it was about time for it to leave, when he started away. In the meantime, Gillan had taken the prisoners from the jail, and at just the last moment hustled them on the cars. Darnall, then fearing trouble, telegraphed to Gillan at Elm Creek, the next station west of Kearney, asking him if he would hold the prisoners at Plum Creek until the arrival of the next train from the East. Gillan replied that he would do so. To still further secure their safety, he also telegraphed to Capt. C. W. McNamar, an attorney at Plum Creek, asking him to keep close watch, to see what was done with the prisoners on their arrival at that town. Plum Creek was the home of I. P. Olive, and here he was surrounded by many friends and employes. They, with wagons, met the party as they got off the train, and, putting the prisoners into a wagon, started at once for Custer County. This was about 3 o'clock in the afternoon. Capt. McNamar being unable to prevail on them to remain, and believing that it was the intention to murder the prisoners, followed them for some distance, when the party separated, some going in one direction and some in another. He followed after the prisoners, however, until after dark, when he lost their trail. The Olive party kept on, all coming together on the Loup River, about five miles from Olive's ranch, where they went through the process of transferring the prisoners from Gillan to Olive. Among those who took the prisoners were Bion Brown, Pedro Dominicus and Dennis Gartrell. Gillan and Dufran walked up the road for a short distance, while the remainder of the party started on for Devil's Cañon, Olive riding ahead and Gartrell driving the wagon. Olive stopped under a large elm tree. Two ropes were thrown over a branch and Gartrell tied one around Ketchum's neck and Pedro Dominicus tied the other around Mitchell's neck. The ropes were not prepared with slip nooses, however, but were simply tied that their agony might be prolonged. The prisoners were handcuffed together. Ketchum was first drawn up. Olive caught up a rifle and shot Mitchell. Olive and Gartrell then caught hold of the rope and drew Mitchell up. Fisher and Brown pulled on Ketchum's rope. A fire was then kindled under them. Accounts differ as to whether this was done purposely or not. The party had been indulging freely in whisky, and some of them claim that this fire was started accidentally. However this may be, the bodies were frightfully burned. The next day, when the bodies were found, about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, Ketchum was still hanging, with his legs burned nearly to a crumbling condition. Mitchell's rope had either burned off or had broken, and he was lying on the ground, one arm drawn up to Ketchum by the handcuffs, while the other was burned off up to the shoulder.
As soon as the bodies were found, Capt. McNamar returned to Plum Creek and reported the fact. I. P. Olive lived here and also several of the men who participated in the murder. They were well known as desperate and dangerous characters, and no one cared to attempt to arrest them. Indeed, returning at once to Plum Creek, Olive and his men had threatened to kill any one who should attempt to molest them.
After a few days, a conference was held at the office of E. C. Calkins, at Kearney, to see what could be done. Sheriff James, of Plum Creek, Dawson County; Sheriff Anderson, of Buffalo; Judge Gaslin, E. C. Calkins and others were present. The Judge expressed a willingness to issue a warrant, but the question was who should serve it. Sheriff James refused to do so, fearing that the murderers could not be captured, and even if they could, that he would soon be hunted down by their confederates. Sheriff Anderson objected to going into another county to make an arrest, attended with so much danger, but said that if the murderers came into Buffalo County, he would not hesitate to attempt their arrest. Two warrants were then made out, for the citizens of Kearney and the law-abiding portion of the inhabitants of Plum Creek had resolved that the capture should be made. Atty. Gen. C. J. Dilworth, who resided on his farm in Phelps County, near Plum Creek, had for some time, with the assistance of others, been working up a plan for the capture of the gang. On Saturday, January 5, 1879, he telegraphed to Kearney Junction that arrangements had been made to take the murderers, and that the citizens of Plum Creek only awaited assistance. At the former place, a well-armed and determined party had been organized under the leadership of Lawrence Ketchum, a brother of one of the murdered men. This party had been anxious to attempt the capture of Olive, but had hitherto been held back by the wiser counsels of Dilworth, who sought by the use of a little strategy to surprise the criminals, and thus save the loss of life that would necessarily result from an open attack.
On receipt of the message above referred to, the Kearney party took the first train bound west and arrived at Plum Creek after dark. Here they were met by some of the citizens, who took them to a place of concealment, and, upon reconnoitering, it was decided to wait until the next morning, when there would be no suspicion, and they could be captured one at a time. On Sunday morning, Baldwin was seized at break of day at his hotel while starting a fire. A number of the party were concealed in the post office, where Olive and a number of others were captured, one at a time, as they came for their mail. Fisher and others were arrested singly on the street. There was no bloodshed, and but little show of resistance. The prisoners were then taken to Kearney on a special train. On their arrival, Olive, Green and some of the others, fearing that they were to be lynched, turned pale and showed the most craven fear. They were all confined in the Kearney jail at first, but subsequently, were distributed to jails in different parts of the State. On Monday morning, after the capture of Olive, the Mexican, Pedro Dominicus, Barney Gillan, Sheriff of Keith County, and Phil Dufran were captured and brought into Kearney.
The time appointed for their trial was the next spring. The place selected by the Presiding Judge, William Gaslin, was at Hastings. An indictment was found against I. P. Olive, John Baldwin, William H. Green, Fred Fisher, Barney Gillan, Pedro Dominicus, Bion Brown, Phil Dufran, Dennis Gartrell, Barney Armstrong, Peter Bielec and a man called McInduffer, for the murder of Mitchell and Ketchum.
The trial of I. P. Olive and Fred Fisher began at once and lasted for some time. Brown and Dufran turned State's evidence, and the evidence showed the murder to have been committed in the manner above stated. But Olive and his relatives were wealthy, and no expense was spared in conducting the case in their behalf. During the trial, which attracted the attention of the entire State, hundreds of indignant citizens of various parts of the State went to Hastings, hoping to see justice done. Judge Gaslin was scrupulously honorable, and the murderers had a fair trial. It was known, however, that money was spent freely in behalf of the prisoners, and at one time it became so apparent that the ends of justice would be thwarted, that the people talked of lynching the prisoners, but, as a company of soldiers guarded them, this was not attempted. Although the evidence was strong against the prisoners, showing that they had deliberately planned and executed a most foul and cowardly murder, the jury went out and after some time returned with a verdict of guilty of murder in the second degree. Judge Gaslin then sentenced I. P. Olive and Fred Fisher to imprisonment for life in the State penitentiary, to which place they were taken.
Immediately after the sentence of Olive and Fisher, their friends began to try to devise plans to secure their release, and the trial of their associates in crime was postponed. The following year, these efforts were successful, and the convicts were released from the penitentiary, upon a decision of the Supreme Court of the State, ordering them to be set free on account of technical irregularities in the proceedings of their trial. Let it here be stated that Custer County had recently been formed from territory that had, before the county organization, been in two judicial districts, but now was understood to be attached to the western district. The Supreme Court held that the prisoners must be tried within the limits of Custer County, and at the same time held that this county was in no judicial district, and hence, that the murderers could be tried before no District Judge in the State. This was the decision of two of the Judges of the Supreme Court, but Judge Samuel Maxwell, all honor to him, dissented in one of the ablest legal documents ever prepared in that court.
The decision of the court, of course, practically released the convicts and put an end to the prosecution of their associates, nearly all of whom, however, had been allowed to escape from the county jails in which they were confined.
Custer County has continued to attract the attention of settlers, and there has not been a year since the organization of the county in which there has not been considerable settlement. Homestead claims have been entered and developed into good farms, which produce bountiful crops.
The troubles with the stockmen were kept up for some time, but now life and property are as safe here as in other localities. At the present time, there is a large immigration to the county, and the better quality of Government lands are fast being taken up. The population of the county will now number about 3,000.
Stock-raisers are fast being driven back by settlers, and many herds have left the county. There are yet, however, immense numbers of cattle that find pasturage on the fertile prairies of the county, and the ranches of large stock-owners are quite numerous.
The settlements are gradually extending back to the uplands, and everywhere that farming has been attempted good crops have been raised. But the main industry of the county is no doubt destined to be a combination of crop and stock raising, and this is already being looked to by the settlers, who are fast getting small herds of cattle around them.
As the settlement of the county went on, several little towns were started, but thus far they have grown to no great size. The principal towns in the county are Broken Bow, the county seat; Custer City and Westerville. None of these towns have yet achieved much importance as business centers, but each is in the center of a thriving settlement, and there is no doubt that each will eventually make a prosperous town.
L. D. GEORGE, stock-raiser and farmer, owns a farm two miles northwest of Gibbon, Buffalo County. He has a stock ranch and has control of three sections of land in Georgetown, Custer Co., Neb. He began the stock business in 1875, and makes a business of buying and selling stock. He first located in Gibbon, Neb. With the Ohio colony in 1871, at which place he farmed until 1875, then settled on his stock ranch as above described. Georgetown was named after Mr. L. D. George, and his son was the first Postmaster of the place. Mr. G. was born in Sandwich, N. H., August 29 1829; lived in his native place until he was seventeen years old; lived in Boston, Mass., three years; then followed the shoe business in Danvers, Mass. until he came to Nebraska. He was married in the latter place in 1851, to Miss Harriet E. Guilford of the same place. They have one son and four daughters. N. C. George, now married and living on their ranch; Ella M., married to Mr. W. P. True, also living on the ranch; Ida M., married to Mr. John C. Snyder, and living near Gibbon; Cora J. Morgan at home, and Flora married to Mr. F. Silvernail, and living three miles north of Gibbon. Mrs. G. died in Massachusetts in 1863.