© MJH for Buffalo County NEGenWeb Project, 2001

History of Buffalo County
and Its People

by Samuel Clay Bassett





    It is not pleasant to make of record in this history of Buffalo County and its people an account of the terrible tragedy which resulted in the murder and burning of Luther M. Mitchell, and Ami Ketchum in the month of November, 1878. It would not here be given space, related, were it not that it illustrates in an aggravated form some of the perils encountered by those who would make homes on the plains of Nebraska in an early day. When it was discovered that cattle allowed a free range on the plains of Nebraska, waxed fat on the nutritious grasses, cattlemen, with great herds of half wild Texan and Cherokee cattle established cattle ranches of thousands of acres on the Government lands and often by threats arid intimidation endeavored to prevent the taking of homestead claims which should interfere with the free range of their cattle. The homesteader, as a rule, was a quiet, inoffensive person and of limited means, whose desire and ambition was to make for himself and family a home on a quarter section of Government land, and by the raising of crops provide for his family the necessities of life. The cattle men seized upon all good herding grounds, and built their home ranch on every available water course, which tended to exclude actual settlers. When once in possession the cattlemen endeavored to


retain possession in spite of the herd law, the homestead law, even to the extent, in a few instances, of killing would be settlers if necessary. Only in a very few instances did cattlemen resort to murder in order to hold their range, but by threats and intimidation, and an occasional killing, they created such a reign of terror that many settlers feared to attempt the taking of a homestead claim under such conditions.
    It is also true that there were parties calling themselves settlers who made their habitations in the vicinity of these large cattle ranches and made their living by killing off the ranchman's cattle which they disposed of at distant points within driving distance.
    While the Olive ranch was in Custer County, and the murder and burning of Mitchell and Ketchum occurred in that county, yet when they were arrested they were brought to Buffalo County, placed in the custody of the sheriff of the county, confined in the county jail and delivered by the sheriff of the county over to what was fully believed, by many people, to be killed by the Olive gang; also when these men had been murdered and their bodies burned, in places to charred crisps, the bodies were brought back to the county seat of Buffalo County and exposed to the view of the general public in the undertaking rooms of F. J. Switz at Kearney. The editor of this history viewed the remains of Mitchell and Ketchum as exposed in the Switz undertaking rooms, and by reading and otherwise was fairly well informed as to the main facts of the tragedy of which it is believed the following is a fairly accurate account:
    Some days previous to the trouble which resulted in the killing of Stevens, one Manly Capel had been arrested on the charge of stealing cattle in Custer County, and in his confession had seemed to implicate Ketchum.
    Stevens was well known as a desperado, and it was known that he had threatened to kill Ketchum. Even with this knowledge, Sheriff David Anderson, of Buffalo County, made Stevens his deputy for the occasion, and gave him a warrant for the arrest of Ketchum. This warrant had been sworn out by some members of the Olive gang and it had been questioned whether the warrant was asked for in good faith, believing Ketchum to be a cattle thief, or merely as a pretext to get Ketchum into the custody of the Olives. It is now generally believed that Ketchum was innocent of any crime, that he was merely a peaceable settler whom Stevens was anxious to kill because of his enmity, and because he could not be driven from the country. It is also generally believed had he fallen into Stevens hands, even as an officer of the law, Stevens would have killed him on some pretext or other.
    Stevens, having a warrant for Ketchum's arrest in his possession, engaged three others to accompany him, all desperate men, among whom was Barney Armstrong, proceeded to the home of Ketchum, arriving there on the morning of November 27,1878.
    Upon personal request Mr. Wm. P. Higgins has been so kind as to contribute, for this history of Buffalo County, the following account of the tragedy:

Wm. P. Higgins, University Place, Nebraska.

    My father settled on a homestead at Douglas Grove, in the Middle Loup


At that date it was unorganized territory and in what is now Custer County there was not to exceed twelve or fifteen families. In the fall of 1875 and the years 1876 and 1877, a number of settlers from Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin and Illinois came to the Middle Loup and Clear Creek valleys and began in a small way to break out their homesteads and build humble homes and develop the resources of that county that they and their children might enjoy the splendid prosperity that has come to the people of Custer County. About the same time there were settlers who came to the South Loup Valley (it was in the western part of Custer County) and established cattle ranches, and being men of more means than the average settlers of the eastern part of the county, stocked their ranches and began producing cattle from the grasses of Central and Western Nebraska.
    The luxuriant blue stem of the valleys and canyons, and the fat producing buffalo grass of the hills made it a veritable paradise for cattle men.
    In the autumn of 1876 and the spring of 1877, there was established on the South Loup a cattle ranch owned and operated by Olive Brothers who came from Western Texas, bringing several thousand head of the long-horn breed of Texas cattle, and turning them out to pasture on the hills and valleys of what is now Custer County.
    These cattle were raised on the plains of Western Texas and knew nothing of restraint. Hence they roamed the valleys of that county at will. This was before the period of barbed wire pasture and ranchers generally had corrals made of poles and logs sufficient to hold their saddle horses, and part of their cattle that they might run them through the branding chute. These cattle wandered all over the country and became a source of great annoyance to the homesteaders, destroying their crops and rendering it next to impossible for them to stay on their claims. The Olives asserted it was not a farming country. That they would not obey the herd law of Nebraska, and that the homesteader had no rights that they would respect, and threatened dire vengeance on anyone who dared to interfere with their stock.
    Such were the conditions which led to the Mitchell-Ketchum tragedy.
    I first met Ami W. Ketchum, commonly called Whit Ketchum, in 1876. At that time he was staying with a man by the name of McGee, who lived at Sweetwater, on Beaver Creek, near where the Town of Ravenna is now located. McGee kept a kind of hotel or rather a stopping place for the settlers who freighted their supplies north of Kearney.
    During the summer of 1876, citizens of Kearney secured the services of McGee to locate a route from Kearney to the Black Hills that provisions and supplies could be freighted there. If my memory is right an overland stage-coach line was established over this line with C. W. Dake as manager. The route led by McGee's and was known as the McGee short line. When McGee started to locate this route he came to my father's place on the Middle Loup and Whit Ketchum was with him as an associate in the enterprise. They stayed at my father's house nearly all day examining maps and charts, talked with my father about the location of streams and valleys to the northwest of our place.
    Ketchum was a quiet, courteous, unassuming young man, probably about twenty-five years of age. No better man than Ketchum could be found for such


a task for he was young, healthy, vigorous and absolutely fearless. After McGee had finished his work and the gold excitement in the Black Hills region partially died out, Whit Ketchum settled on a claim near Myrtle, on Clear Creek. About this time an elderly man by the name of Mitchell, also settled at the same place, and he and Ketchum became neighbors and friends.
    They also broke out their claims and planted and raised such crops as are usually grown by pioneers.
    Ketchum was a blacksmith and he builded a sod shop and did such work as was needed by the early settlers. He also did gun repairing for the pioneers of that section. At this time the settlers were suffering the loss of crops and otherwise being damaged by Olive's cattle. Many feared the Olives and their cowboys, for as future events showed they were a lawless bunch. Bob Stevens, foreman for Olive, was especially menacing in his attitude toward the homesteaders. After Stevens was killed by Ketchum it was revealed that he was a brother of I. P. Olive, and went under an assumed name of Stevens for reasons best known to himself. But fear never entered the heart of Ketchum and he insisted that Olive must take care of his cattle and respect his rights as a homesteader on Uncle Sam's domain.
    One morning on arising, Ketchum found a herd of Olive's cattle in his crops and using his claim as a pasture. He mounted a horse, took two or three rather fierce dogs he and Mitchell owned, and proceeded to move the cattle away from his claim in a style that would not be approved by an experienced cattleman.
    Ketchum's attitude of fearlessness and independence, and his insisting on protecting his crops (for there was no court or officers in the county at that time) aroused the ire of Bob Stevens, and his hatred of Ketchum was fanned into a furious passion.
    Stevens threatened to shoot Ketchum at first sight. Ketchum quietly remarked that he did not intend for Stevens to shoot him as long as he could prevent it. About this time I had a gun which needed a new spring made, so I went over to Ketchum's to get him to repair my gun.
    He was so busy that he could not fix the gun that day, so I left it and returned home. In a week or ten days I took a saddle horse and rode over to Ketchum's place after my gun. It was eight or ten miles from my father's house. When I came on the hill a short distance from the Mitchell and Ketchum homes, I discovered that the hay stacks, outbuildings and the roof of the sod house had been burned and everything of value to a homesteader destroyed. I rode around, looked the place over and wondered what was the trouble. About half a mile from Mitchell's place, near Clear Creek, was another house, part sod, part dugout, and I discovered that there were teams and a number of people, so I rode down and found that a number of homesteaders and also I. P. Olive and his men were there. The homesteader came out and told me that Bob Stevens (Olive) and three of his men had come to the Mitchell house, got into a fight with Mitchell and Ketchum, and that Ketchum had shot Stevens, and that he was in the house dying. They had brought Doctor Dildine from Kearney, but he could not save him.
    Stevens had been shot with a large calibre revolver, the ball entering his body just below and a little to the right of the navel, came out on the left side of the


back a little higher than it entered, for Ketchum was on the ground and Stevens on his horse.
    The homesteader wanted me to go in the house and see Stevens as he was dying, but I did not care to see him.
    After talking to the people there some time, I rode about three miles down the creek to where Mitchell's son-in-law lived. Mitchell and Ketchum, after the fight, had loaded their household goods and such other things as they could haul, into wagons, took their live stock, and left the country, seeming to have a presentment of what would happen to them if they fell into the hands of the Olives.
    The son-in-law was not present at the fight, but was there shortly after, and gave me a detailed account of it as he had it from Ketchum, Mitchell and members of the family.
    He said that after breakfast Mitchell and Ketchum decided to take a bull home to a man who lived over on the Loup near my father's place. They had hitched the team to the wagon, put my gun in the wagon to take it home and had a rope around the bull's horns, and Ketchum had the rope around the axle and, was underneath pulling the bull while Mitchell drove him out of the corral. This was the situation when Bob Stevens (Olive) with three of his men dashed up on horses, with revolvers in their hands, called Ketchum the vilest of names and opened fire on him. Ketchum straightened up from under the back part of the wagon, jerked his revolver and shot Stevens as I have before described. He then shot at one of the other men and cut a handkerchief about his neck, inflicting a slight wound. Ketchum's revolver had but two loads in it, after which he sprang to the wagon, got my gun and continued the fight. About this time Stevens got dizzy and began to reel. Two of his men, fearing he would fall from his horse, rushed up, took him by the arm and ran his horse over the hill out of sight of the house. One of his men, at the first volley, placed the sod house between himself and the battle. When the fight started Mitchell's children were in the yard. They ran screaming into the house, and Mitchell followed them and got his gun and came back to the door, but the fight was about over, and he was so excited and frightened that he could hardly handle the gun, and really took no part in the fight.
    At the second or third volley from Olive's men a bullet clipped about half an inch off the bone of the elbow of Ketchum's right arm and so numbed it that Ketchum said after the second shot he could not handle his arm and it placed him to a disadvantage.
    The rest of the story is well known to the people of Nebraska.
    (Note--As it is told elsewhere in this history, it is not here repeated.-- Editor.)
    Now the question naturally arises, what kind of men were Mitchell and Ketchum? Mitchell was a quiet, inoffensive old man, who was connected with the tragedy simply by the force of circumstances; that is, by being present when the collision between Whit Ketchum and the Olive gang occurred.
    The Olives and their friends started a rumor that Ketchum was a cattle thief; that he had stolen and killed cattle and peddled the meat. But not one word of evidence was produced to show that these charges were true. In the


publicity given these men, by the crime committed, if anyone knew of a single case of cattle stealing committed by either of them, it would have been definitely stated and proof furnished.
    But such were the "stock in trade" charges of the Western Texas cattle men.
    I knew Whit Ketchum and knew him to be an honest, courageous young man, and had the fight at Mitchell's house turned the other way and Ketchum been killed, I do not believe these foul charges would ever have been made against him. But the result would have been pointed to as an example likely to happen to any homesteader who had the courage to stand against the unlawful aggressions of the cattle men.
    Such are the substantial facts in this now famous tragedy.
    The following is from a published account, preserved by the editor as a clipping, its author unknown:
    "As soon as the Stevens party had ridden away Mitchell and Ketchum packed up their few belongings of a household nature and started to go to Merrick County, where Mitchell had before lived. When they arrived in Merrick County they drove to the residence of Doctor Barnes to have Ketchum's wound dressed. The next day, after securing a place of safety for Mrs. Mitchell and the children, on the advice of friends, they started on their return to Custer County in order to give themselves up and stand trial for the killing of Stevens, it having been learned that he had died. They went by way of Loup City and engaged the services of Judge Aaron Wall. Acting on his advice, they remained for a few days at Loup City and then went to the home of John R. Baker in Howard County, where they were arrested by the sheriff of Merrick County, William Letcher, and the sheriff of Howard County, F. W. Crew. I. P. Olive had offered a reward of $700 for the arrest of Mitchell and Ketchum, and several sheriffs, among them Crew of Howard County, Gillian of Keith County, Anderson of Buffalo and Letcher of Merrick, were desirous of making the capture and securing the reward offered. But after they were captured Sheriffs Crew and Letcher were unwilling to assume the responsibility of taking their prisoners to Custer County and turning them over to the bloodthirsty cowboy outfit. The prisoners were finally taken to Kearney and placed in charge of Sheriff David Anderson, and confined in the Buffalo County jail.
    "The prisoners were at first held without legal authority, as the warrant for their arrest, issued in Custer County, had been placed in the hands of Sheriff Gillian of Keith County to serve. The prisoners had engaged the services of Thomas Darnell of St. Paul, Howard County, and Elisha C. Calkins of Kearney. Their attorneys made every effort to keep the prisoners in the jail at Kearney, fearing that violence might be done them. The feeling at Kearney at that time was against Mitchell and Ketchum, it having been represented that Stevens was killed while fulfilling his duty as a public officer. A question arose among the sheriffs over the division of the reward offered and which I. P. Olive refused to pay until Mitchell and Ketchum were delivered in Custer County. Sheriff David Anderson was offered $50 to deliver the prisoners in Custer County. He declined unless enough was offered to enable him to employ a sufficient force to safeguard the prisoners.
    "It was finally arranged that since Sheriff Gillian of Keith County held the


warrant for their arrest that he should take the prisoners to Custer County, and he promised to notify their attorneys, Darnell and Calkins, so that they could accompany them. As Gillian was a sheriff, and as his desperate character was not at the time known, even their attorneys did not anticipate serious trouble. They, however, kept a close watch lest the prisoners be taken without their knowledge.
    "On the forenoon of December 10th, Attorney Darnell, fearing the prisoners might be spirited away, kept close watch until the Overland emigrant train came in. At that date there were but two passenger trains a day, west bound. One about 10 at night, the other about the noon hour. Mr. Darnell awaited the coming of this train and remained on guard until the train was ready to leave, when he turned away.
    "In the meantime Gillian had taken the prisoners from the jail and at the last moment hurried them aboard the train.
    "Calkins and Darnell, fearing trouble, telegraphed to Gillian at Elm Creek, the first station to the west, asking if he would hold the prisoners at Plum Creek until the arrival of the next train from the East. This Gillian promised to do. Attorneys Calkins and Darnell also telegraphed to C. W. McNamar of Plum Creek, asking him to keep close watch as to what was done with the prisoners on their arrival.
    "Plum Creek was the home of I. P. Olive and here he was surrounded by his friends and employes. On the arrival of the train the prisoners were placed in wagons by Olive and his party of friends and started at once for Custer County. This was about the middle of the afternoon. Attorney McNamar was unable to prevail upon them to await the arrival of the attorneys of the prisoners, and believing it was the intention to murder the prisoners, followed them for some distance, when the Olive party separated. However, he followed the prisoners until after dark, when he lost their trail.
    "The Olive party kept on, all coming together on the Loup River, about five miles from the Olive Ranch, where they went through the formal process of transferring the prisoners from Gillian to Olive. Among those who took the prisoners were Bion Brown, Pedro Dominicus and Dennis Gartrell. Gillian and Dufran walked up the road for a short distance while the remainder of the party started on for Devil's Canyon, Olive riding ahead and Gartrell driving the wagon. Olive was riding ahead and stopped under an elm tree, when two ropes were thrown across a limb and Gartrell tied one about the neck of Ketchum and Pedro Dominicus tied the other around Mitchell's neck. The ropes were not prepared with slip nooses, but were simply tied that their agony might be prolonged.
    "The prisoners were handcuffed together. Ketchum was drawn up first. 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 drinking whisky, and some of them claim that the fire was started accidentally. However this may be, the bodies were burned frightfully. 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 broken, and he was lying on the ground, one arm drawn up to Ketchum by the handcuffs, while the other was burned off at the shoulder.
    "As soon as the bodies were found, Attorney McNamar returned to Plum Creek and reported the fact. I. P. Olive lived in Plum Creek and also several of the men who took part in the murder. They were well known as dangerous characters, and no one cared to attempt to arrest them, as on returning to Plum Creek Olive and his men had threatened to kill any one who should attempt to do so.
    "A conference was held at the office of Attorney E. C. Calkins at Kearney. This conference was attended by Sheriff James of Dawson County, Sheriff David Anderson of Buffalo County, District Judge William Gaslin, Attorney E. C. Calkins and others. Judge Gaslin expressed a willingness to issue a warrant for the perpetrators of the dastardly deed, but the question was who would undertake to serve it. Sheriff James refused, fearing the murderers could not be captured and that he himself would be hunted down by their confederates. Sheriff David Anderson objected to going into another county to make the arrest, attended with so much danger, but said he would not hesitate to attempt their arrest if they came into Buffalo County. Two warrants were made out, for the law-abiding citizens of both Buffalo and Dawson counties had resolved that the capture should be made. Attorney General C. J. Dillworth, who resided on his farm in Phelps County, had for some time, with the assistance of others, been working up a plan for the capture of the gang. On Saturday, January 5, 1870, he telegraphed to parties at Kearney 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. The party had been anxious to attempt the capture of Olive but had been held back by the wiser counsels of Attorney General Dillworth, who sought, by the use of strategy, to surprise the criminals and thus save the loss of life which would necessarily result from an open attack.
    "On receipt of the message referred to, Kearney parties took the first train and arrived at Plum Creek about 12 o'clock at night. They were met by citizens of Plum Creek, who took them to places of concealment, and it was decided to wait until morning, when there would be no suspicion, and the murderers could be captured one at a time. On Sunday morning Baldwin was arrested at daybreak at his hotel, while starting a fire. A number of the party were concealed at the postoffice, where Olive and a number of others were captured, one at a time, as they came for their mail. Fisher and others were arrested on the street. There was no bloodshed and but little show of resistance. The prisoners were taken to Kearney on a special train. On their arrival Olive, Green and some of the others, fearing they would be lynched, turned pale and showed the most craven fear. At first they were confined in the Buffalo County jail, but soon were distributed to jails in different parts of the state. On Monday morning after the capture of Olive the Mexican, Pedro Dominicus, Barney Gillian, sheriff of Keith County, and Phil Dufran were also captured and brought to Kearney.
    "The time set for the trial was in the spring of 1879 and the place selected


by District Judge William Gaslin was Hastings, in Adams County. An indictment was found against I. P. Olive, John Baldwin, William H. Green, Fred Fisher, Barney Gillian, Pedro Dominicus, Bion Brown, Phil Dufran, Dennis Gartrell, Barney Armstrong, Peter Bielec and a party by the name of McInduffer for the murder of Mitchell and Ketchum. The trial of Olive and Fred Fisher began at once and lasted for some time. Brown and Dufran turned state's evidence, which evidence disclosed the murder to have been committed in the manner herein described.
    "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 from various portions of the state attended the trial, hoping to see justice done. Judge Gaslin was scrupulously honorable, and the criminals had a fair trial. It was known that money was spent freely in behalf of the prisoners. At one time it seemed so apparent that the end of justice would be thwarted that there was talk of lynching the prisoners, and partly on this account, and also for fear of violence on the part of Olive's cowboy friends, who were much in evidence, a company of state militia was kept at Hastings during the trial. "Although the evidence was strong against the prisoners, showing that they had deliberately planned and executed a most foul and cowardly murder, the jury returned a verdict of murder in the second degree. Judge Gaslin sentenced I. P. Olive and Fred Fisher to imprisonment for life in the state penitentiary.
    "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 was postponed. The following year their efforts were successful, and Olive and Fisher 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 their trial in the District Court. Let it be here stated that Custer County had recently been formed from territory that had, before the county organization, been in two judicial districts, but was now understood to be attached to the Western (Fifth) District.
    "The Supreme Court held that the prisoners must be tried within the limitsof Custer County and at the same time held that this county (Custer) '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 judges of the Supreme Court, but Judge Samuel Maxwell, all honor to his memory, dissented in one of the ablest documents ever prepared in that court.
    "The decision of the Supreme Court practically released the convicts. Olive and Fisher, and put an end to the prosecution of their associates, nearly all of whom, however, had been allowed to escape from county jails in which they had been confined."
    The editor does not agree with some of the strictures upon county officials and members of the Supreme Court indulged in in [sic] the foregoing account of this matter as, herein quoted.
    In the attempt to administer justice in accordance with law legally enacted, it is never best that judges should override the plain letter of the law. It is not the province of a judge to legislate, to enact law. Nebraska was new as a state


in the '70s and there was much of lawlessness, especially in the central and western portion of the state. If, as a people, we are to be taught to respect and uphold the law, then the officers of our courts must themselves hold the law in highest respect and be at all times obedient to its mandates.
    As a finale to the terrible tragedy, the murder and burning of Luther M. Mitchell and Ami Ketchum, I. P. Olive, the chief instigator, the one most responsible for the dastardly outrage, met a just fate at the hands of an avenging relative of one of the murdered men. Olive, shadowed for years, knowing he was being pursued for purposes of revenge, dreading daily and hourly that the stroke would fall, was shot at a cattle round-up, as recalled, in Southwestern Nebraska in the year 1884.
    Mr. F. J. Switz, who was coroner of Buffalo County at the time this crime was perpetrated, writes, in 1916, in reference thereto:
    "Whether the fire was started before they were dead I was never quite sure. County Judge Bobblits of Custer County, in which county the crime took place, ordered a man by the name of Sanford to cut the bodies down and bury them near the scene of the crime. About one week later L. L. Ketchum, a brother of one of the men murdered, and a posse of men from Kearney went up to Custer County, exhumed the bodies and brought them to Kearney and turned them over to F. J. Switz, county coroner, who held an inquest and in due time the bodies were disposed of. Mitchell's body was shipped to the eastern part of the state. Ketchum was buried in the cemetery at Kearney."
    While the bodies were in the possession of Coroner Switz, he had them photographed, one of which he kindly furnishes as an illustration. The photo is dim from age, but bears out Mr. Switz's statement that the body of Mitchell, especially the left side, was frightfully burned, the left leg and arm being burned off and the left side of the face so badly burned that the features could not be recognized by his relatives. The photo discloses that his boot remains on the right foot and is uninjured by fire.
    The photo discloses that Ketchum's body was uninjured by fire. The features are plainly discernible, that of a comparatively young man, the hair on his head plainly showing, his underclothing on the body not burned, and his boots uninjured on his feet. Both men wore boots reaching nearly to their knees. The bodies, when photographed, were laid on planks out of doors, the head and body slightly raised, and Mr. Switz states were "frozen stiff and the worse looking bodies I ever saw." The photo seems to disclose that Ketchum's right arm had been well nigh separated from the body at the shoulder.

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