Organization | Crime, Schools, etc. | Statistics
Part 2: Blair: History | Churches | The Press | Business and Trade
Societies | Biographical Sketches
Part 3: Arlington: Biographical Sketches
Cuming City: Biographical Sketches
Fontenelle: Biographical Sketches
Part 4: Fort Calhoun: Biographical Sketches
Hiland | Herman: Biographical Sketches
Admah | Kennard | Desoto: Biographical Sketches
Biographical Sketches: Richland Precinct | Grant Precinct
List of Illustrations in Washington County Chapter
Washington County Names Index
WASHINGTON County is situated on the eastern border of the State, midway from north to south. It is bounded on the north by Burt County, on the east by the Missouri River, on the south by Douglas County, and on the west by Dodge County, and contains 400 square miles, or 256,000 acres.
The surface of the county is beautifully diversified. The creek and river bottoms and valleys cover about thirty percent; ten percent is broken and bluffy, while about sixty percent is upland or rolling prairie. The bottoms of the Missouri River along the eastern border of this county, are from three to seven miles wide; those of the Elkhorn, on its southwestern border, are from three to six, and the fertile valley of Bell Creek which flows from north to south through the county and empties into the Elkhorn, is from one to three miles in width. The county is also watered by numerous smaller streams, among which may be mentioned the Brown, Little Bell, Deer, Fish, Long, New York, North, Papillion, South, Stewart, Turkey and Walnut. The Papillion with its tributaries drains a large part of the county, and every township has running water.
The soil is exceedingly fertile throughout the county. That along the creeks and rivers is usually a dark sandy alluvium, impregnated with carbonates and phosphates, covered with vegetable mould, the whole varying from four to twenty feet in depth. The uplands, which range from fifty to 150 feet above the bottoms, are mainly a dark loam, rich in vegetable matter, from one to six feet in depth, resting upon a subsoil of light marly loam, from twenty to thirty or even sixty feet in depth, which in its turn rests on clay, gravel and sand, or rock. This "marly loam" is identical with the lacustrine deposits or loess, mistaken by the early settlers for a yellowish clay subsoil, which in the more northeastern portions of the State, along the Missouri, acquires a thickness of at least 130 feet. It is of surprising fertility throughout its entire thickness, and possesses a remarkable degree of permanence of shape or position, so that even when exposed to the sun and rain, as in railway cuts, the marks or imprints of the spade in the hands of the laborer, remain visible for years. These lacustrine deposits belong to the Champlain Epoch of the post-tertiary period in geology, and extend over most of Washington County.
The prairies are covered with a thick coat of blue-joint grass, which affords rich pasturage and nutritious hay. Tame grasses, therefore, are not necessary to successful farming, though they are preferable to blue-joint, and are being rapidly introduced. Red top, timothy, clover, both white and red, Hungarian and other grasses, including Kentucky bluegrass, all flourish--the latter especially, when started, taking possession of the soil.
Generally speaking, the native timber of this county, is not very abundant, though along the rivers and smaller streams, there are considerable forests, principally of cottonwood, with smaller quantities of ash, box elder, elm, oak, pig hickory and walnut,--the three latter kinds growing mostly along the smaller streams. This natural deficiency is, however, being to some extent supplied by the enterprise of the inhabitants of the county, who have up to the present writing (1881) planted 1,895 acres of forest trees, and twenty-five miles of hedge.
Washington County possesses but little mineral wealth, a limited amount of sand-stone, and considerable clay suitable for making bricks, are all that have so far been found.
At the time of the now famous expedition of Lewis and Clarke, which was organized in 1803, but which did not start on its tour of exploration until May, 1804, the Indian nations inhabiting what is now Nebraska, were the Missouris, Otoes, Omahas, and the Pawnees. There were several other tribes, however, within the present limits of the State. Since the organization of the Territory in 1854, no tribes have made their headquarters, or have had any villages within what is now Washington County. There were a few Omahas remaining in the county until 1855, when they moved on to their present reservation in "Blackbird" County. The last Indian who died in the county was an Omaha chief by the name of Big Elk, who died and was buried in 1854, near Fort Calhoun. Yet the early history of the county is by no means devoid of interesting events, in connection with which the dusky red men performed a conspicuous part. The first important event of the kind that we shall mention, was the celebrated council held at Fort Calhoun, near the present southern boundary of the county, between Captains Lewis and Clarke on the one side, and a deputation of six chiefs from the Missouris and Otoes on the other. This council was held August 3, 1804, and established friendly relations between the expedition and the Indian nations represented thereat.
That this council was actually held on the present site of Fort Calhoun, is now generally conceded, though the early settlers of Council Bluffs, Iowa, endeavored to show that it was held where their city now stands.
In 1819 the Government established Fort Atkinson, afterward Fort Calhoun, on this same spot of ground. The fort was abandoned as a military post in 1827. The following is submitted in evidence that Fort Calhoun occupies the place of meeting between Lewis and Clarke and the Indian chiefs. It is an extract from a letter written by Father De Smet, bearing date December 9, 1867, in reply to a letter of inquiry by N. Ramsey, Secretary of the Historical Society, of St. Louis. Father De Smet writes: "During the years 1838 and 1839, I resided opposite what is now called the city of Omaha. In 1839 I stood on the bluff on which the old fort was built in 1819; some rubbish and remains of the fort were then visible, and some remaining roots of asparagus were still growing in the old garden. Fort Atkinson was located where now stands the town of Fort Calhoun, Nebraska Territory, about sixteen miles in a straight line above the city of Omaha, and forty miles by river. Mr. Cabanne's trading post was six miles by land below Fort Atkinson, and ten miles by land above where now stands Omaha City. I met Captains Joseph and John La Barge, and proposed the question of the former site of Fort Atkinson, in order to test the accuracy of my memory, and they confirmed it in every particular."
The next event of importance in the history of the county with which the Indians were connected, was the "Pawnee War." This war occurred in the summer of 1859. At this time the Pawnee Indians occupied two villages on the south side of the Platte, about twelve miles south of Fontenelle, a small village in the western part of the county, about fifteen miles directly west of Blair, the present county seat. This "war" was caused by the robbing of a bachelor by the name of Uriah Thomas, who was living alone in a little log hut at some distance from any other house, and about twelve miles north of Fontenelle. They took from him his pocket-book containing $136, a package of valuable papers, including land warrants, drank up all his whiskey, and drove off a fine yoke of oxen, leaving him locked up in his cabin. After a short time Mr. Thomas managed to liberate himself and give the alarm. In a few days afterward the people living at West Point, thirty miles to the northwest of Fontenelle, and DeWitt, six miles further up the Elkhorn, came down to Fontenelle in a body, and reported that the Pawnees in passing through their section of country, divided themselves into marauding bands, committed numerous depredations upon the settlers, burning their dwellings, destroying their furniture, driving off their stock, etc., in true Indian style. A body of armed men were soon in pursuit, and reached West Point about the middle of the afternoon of the day on which they started. Having seen no Indians, and just as they were about to return to Fontenelle, a scout reported a small body of Indians crossing the river about a mile distant. Arrangements were immediately made to capture them. The plan, however failed, and as they ran from the place of attempted ambush toward the river, they were fired upon, two or three killed and one wounded and captured. This latter one, in attempting to escape, was also shot and killed.
News of the killing of the Indians spread like wildfire throughout the Territory, and the entire country was ablaze with excitement. It was generally believed that a war of extermination would at once be inaugurated by the Pawnees against the outlying settlements. The few militia companies then organized were ordered by Governor Black to hold themselves in readiness to move at a moment's notice; the settlers along the Elkhorn flocked to Fontenelle, which village assumed the appearance of a military camp; the growing crops suffered much damage from neglect, ammunition and arms were collected, blunderbusses and sabers were furbished up, and everything made ready for an anticipated attack by the savages, 10,000 of whom were reported to be on the war path, arrayed in the most ferocious kinds of war paint and feathers. The savages failed to appear, and as a force of about 200 men had now gathered in and about Fontenelle, it was determined to cross the Elkhorn, attack the Indians wherever they might be found, and administer to them a lesson that would long live in their memories.
Governor Black accompanied the expedition and was its commander-in-chief, though the direct command devolved upon Col. (since Major General) Thayer. William Kline was Captain of the company from Fontenelle; James A. Bell, First Lieutenant and William Flack, Second Lieutenant. Captain Hazen commanded the Fremont company, J. J. Turton, that from North Bend, and Peter Reed that from Richland. Captain Bob Howard commanded the Omaha gun squad, and Lieutenant Robinson, fifty United States dragoons. The late Gen. Samuel B. Curtis accompanied the expedition, but took no active part in its management. After marching for a number of days, the Indians were overtaken. They were fully 5,000 strong, and belonged to three nations: the Omahas, Poncas and Pawnees. The Omahas were friendly, the Poncas doubtful and the Pawnees hostile. However, upon discovering the proximity of the expedition, fear seemed suddenly to take possession of the Indians (except the Omahas), and they made the most strenuous efforts to escape. After a time they were brought together, about 2,000 of them, and a parley ensued. They were given their choice of giving up the braves who had been engaged in the burning and depredations about West Point, pay the expenses of the expedition out of certain moneys due them from the Government, or--fight. They chose the former,--surrendered seven young braves, and signed an agreement authorizing the keeping back from certain moneys due them from the Government, an amount sufficient to defray the expenses of the expedition. Having arrived at an amicable adjustment of the difficulties, white men and Indians separated, the former to return home with his prisoners, the latter to roam at will over the wide, wild domain. It so happened that the course of the returning expedition was past the camp of the Indians, some of whom came out to see it pass. Among them was a squaw, whose brave was one of the prisoners who was tied behind a wagon, being led away to captivity and punishment. This squaw rushed among them and gave her brave a knife, with which he stabbed himself in the breast, falling heavily to the ground. While the guards were attending to the wants of the supposed dying man, she again seized the knife and cut the rope which bound the prisoners, all of whom, except the wounded brave, sprang away like a flash, followed by all the guards, save one, firing upon the fugitives as they ran. The guards who had pursued the escaped prisoners soon returned, and reported that they had either killed or wounded the six that had escaped. The expedition resumed its march, taking with them the self-wounded brave, who had failed in an attempt to escape, and soon reached Columbus, where they were formally disbanded. The Government paid to the Indians all that was due them, and the expedition had its own expenses to pay. Thus ended the "Pawnee War."
Thomas B. Cuming, of Iowa, became acting Governor of the Territory on the death of Governor Burt, which event occurred on the 18th day of October, 1854. One of his first official acts was the issuing of a proclamation dividing the Territory into counties, and fixing their boundaries. By the terms of this proclamation, Washington County was bounded as follows: "Commencing at a point on the Missouri River one mile north of Omaha City; thence due west to the dividing ridge between the Elkhorn and Missouri Rivers; thence northwesterly twenty miles to the Elkhorn River; thence eastwardly to a point on the Missouri river two miles above Fort Calhoun; thence southerly along said river to the place of beginning."
There was one place for voting in the county, viz., at Florence post office, with the following Judges of Election: Anselum Arnold, Charles How and William Bryant.
The first census of the Territory was made in accordance with a proclamation of the acting Governor, dated October 21, 1854, and in accordance with the returns, one Councilman and two Representatives in the Legislative Assembly, were apportioned to Washington County. James C. Mitchell was chosen Councilman and Anselum Arnold and A. J. Smith were chosen members of the House of Representatives.
The first Legislature convened at Omaha, January 16, 1855. This Legislature, February 22, 1855, passed an act reorganizing Washington County with the following boundaries: "Commencing at a point on the Missouri River two miles north of Florence, thence north following the meanderings of said river to a point in a direct line, twenty-four miles from the place of beginning; thence west to the dividing ridge between the Elkhorn and Missouri Rivers, or to the eastern boundary line of Dodge County; thence south along said line twenty-four miles, thence east to the place of beginning."
By the same act Fort Calhoun was made the county seat; and the organization of the county was completed by the appointment by the Governor of the following county officers: Stephen Cass, Probate Judge; George W. Nevelle, Clerk; George Martin, Treasurer; and Thomas J. Allen, Sheriff.
On December 20, 1854, the Governor issued a proclamation dividing the Territory into three judicial districts, as follows: First District embracing Douglas and Dodge Counties, with the Hon. Fenner Ferguson, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Territory presiding. The Second District comprised all that portion of the Territory south of the Platte, to which Hon. Edward R. Hardin, Assistant Justice, was assigned. The Third was composed of Washington and Burt Counties, with Assistant Justice James Bradley, presiding.
By an act of the Legislature passed January 26, 1856, the limits of the judicial districts were defined as follows: The First was composed of Douglas, Dodge, Washington, Burt and Dakota Counties, Hon. Fenner Ferguson, presiding; the Second was composed of Cass, Otoe, Lancaster and Clay Counties, Hon. Edward R. Hardin for Justice; and the Third contained Richardson, Nemaha, Pawnee and Johnson Counties, presided over by Justice James Brady.
The first general Fourth of July celebration which occurred in Washington County, was held in the grove on North Creek, near Cuming City, in 1860. Almost the entire population of the county was in attendance. Hon. John S. Bowen was the orator of the day. A band from Tekamah was present, and the affair was a grand success. Cuming City was at this time at the zenith of her glory, and she has since declined until now there is but little left of her former greatness. Hon. James S. Stewart still resides on his farm near the site of the former village.
Although the people of Washington County are law-abiding and orderly, they have not in the past punished criminals commensurately with the crimes committed. Since the first settlement of the county at Fort Calhoun in 1854, there have been eleven murders committed, some of them wanton and heinous crimes; yet no murderer has been hanged in the county. There is no doubt that some of them, under the law, richly deserved the meting out to them of its extreme penalty.
There are in the county eleven voting precincts, with from two to six district schools in each. The district schoolhouses are particularly well built and well furnished, as it is an easy matter to discriminate against non-resident property owners in the annual assessment, he not being able to go before the County Commissioners, who are the Board of Equalization, and have an unjust assessment reduced. There are forty miles of railroad in the county. The Sioux City & Pacific running through from east to west, twenty miles; and the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha, twenty miles, running through from north to south.
These two roads have completed an elegant and commodious frame union depot at Blair.
Washington County bore a creditable part in the War of the Rebellion. Although she sent no organization of soldiers to the South, yet from thirty to forty of her citizens enlisted in regiments of other States, one of whom, at least, as Second Lieutenant of Company I, Eighty-seventh Iowa Infantry, in the person of Abraham C. Andrew, was killed at Chickamauga. Besides these, two companies of the Second Nebraska Cavalry, A and B, were raised in Washington County. Of Company A the officers were: Captain, Peter S. Reed; First Lieutenant, Silas E. Seely; Second Lieutenant, Elias H. Clark.
Of Company B: Captain, Roger T. Beall; First Lieutenant, Charles D. Davis; Second Lieutenant, Charles F. Porter.
This regiment was organized in the fall of 1862, as a nine months' regiment, and served about a year, guarding the settlements against threatened Indian outbreaks, in Western Nebraska and Dakota.
For the purposes of taxation, property is appraised at about one-third its actual value, with the exception of money and notes. The total assessed valuation of real and personal property in the county, in 1881, was $1,524,000, against $1,482,000 in 1880.
In 1855 the population of the county was 207; in 1860, it was 1249; in 1870, it was 4452; in 1880, it was 8631; in 1881, it is estimated at over 9000.
According to the returns made by the assessors there were in 1880 of spring wheat, 18,165 acres, 217,980 bushels; corn 35,865 acres, 1,400,000 bushels; barley, 205 acres, 2,460 bushels; oats, 5,016 acres, 235,750 bushels. The assessors' returns for 1880 being incomplete, we have to presume that the other crops were about the same on the average as for 1879, when there were raised of buckwheat sixty-six acres, yielding 585 bushels; of sorghum 106 acres, 10,375 gallons; flax, 211 acres, 1,772 bushels; of broom corn, one and a half acres, nine tons; and potatoes, 543 acres, yielding 39,706 bushels.
Of fruit trees the assessors report 387 acres, devoted mostly to apple, pear, plum and cherry trees, the climate not being adapted to the peach, and 12,314 grape vines. The climate and soil are especially well adapted to the grape.
The water of the county is remarkable clear and pure, containing but little mineral, carbonate of lime, and is found by digging on an average, about thirty feet.
Washington County is considered by its inhabitants as one of the most highly favored in the State. The soil is exceedingly productive, the climate, for the most part genial, and with the exception of peaches and winter wheat, there has as yet been no failure of crops.