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Who's Who in Nebraska - Colfax Co. History


William Edward Johnson

Transcribed by Sherri Brakenhoff
from WHO'S WHO in NEBRASKA, published by Nebraska Press Association. Lincoln, Nebraska 1940.
Many thanks to Mr. Alan Beermann, Executive Director of the Nebraska Press Association and American Press Advertising service for permission to transcribe this wonderful piece of Colfax county history for all to enjoy.
In mid-April of 1813, seven gaunt and wind-bronzed men made their way along the valley of the Platte in what was destined to become Colfax County, leading one aged horse which carried their meager supply of food and camping equipment. These were the "Astorians," so-called because they were a part of an expedition sent out three years earlier by John Jacob Astor to build a fort at the mouth of the Columbia river on the Pacific for his American Fur Company. They were now returning to inform their employer of the successful establishment of the trading post and to arrange the business details of the coming trade in furs.

They were, so far as can be told from the diaries of the earliest explorers, the first white men ever to traverse Colfax County. They found a broad valley, peopled sparsely by Indians of the Pawnee tribe, who occupied most of the country lying south and west of the Muscleshell (now Shell Creek); and an uninhabited, treeless hill country to the north and east of the water course, which was claimed by the Omaha tribe.

Major Stephen H. Long's expeditions, sent out by the United States government to reconnoiter the country for military purposes and to investigate its economic and commercial possibilities, crossed the county in 1820--bound for the upper reaches of the Platte. For the next twenty-five years an increasing number of traders and trappers used the Platte Valley as the main route to the mountain trading posts.

In 1847 the first of the great Mormon migrations crossed the county, to beat a trail through the soil which was to mark the course of thousands of westering home and gold seekers of later years.

In the early 50's came the first settlers: Isaac Albertson and E. W. Toncray, who founded the short-lived village of Buchanan at the junction of Shell Creek with the Platte, not far from the present location of Rogers, in April 1856. Albertson was to become a political power in the new territory as a member, in 1864, of the council of the territorial legislature, and as the incumbent of numerous county offices. The following October Daniel Hashberger arrived, to settle near the future town of Schuyler, where he farmed for many years and supplied lodging and board accommodations to the occasional traveler. Further west, just a short distance from present-day Richland, settled the William Fayl family. Members of the Mormon faith, they came west with the Mormon migration of 1857, which stopped temporarily near Genoa until difficulties between the Mormon Church and the Indians could be resolved. Deciding to make Nebraska their permanent habitation, the Fayls returned to Colfax County territory. Here they erected a frame dwelling which, even as late as 1859, was the westernmost structure of its kind in Nebraska territory. Also in the summer of 1858 came Henry Kemp, who acted as a self-styled justice of the peace in early territorial days, and later in the fall of the same year, Joseph Skinner.

About a month after the founding of Buchanan, in May 1856, a group of Omahans formed a company for the purpose of founding a town and building a bridge at the Loup Fork, near where it enters the Platte. Accordingly Frederick Gottschalk, Jacob Louis and George Roush were sent out to inspect the country. They stopped briefly at Buchanan, then pushed on west until they arrived at a body of water which they took to be the Loup Fork. Marking the spot, they returned to Omaha and a month later led a company of nine others, captained by Vincent Kummer. The company arrived at the chosen spot about noon and after a repast set them-selves to work staking off the site for the east approach to the proposed bridge.

In mid-afternoon Kummer, who seems to have been skeptical of the location, started to walk north along the bank. He walked for a considerable time, then, hearing ahead of him the ring of axes on wood and surmising that another group of men was engaged on a similar mission upstream from their location, he burst through the tall weeds to discover himself back at the point from which he had started. Chagrined, the men recognized then that he had walked completely around the body of water, and that what they had mistakenly believed to be the Loup Fork was, in fact, McAllister's Lake, so they picked up their tools and pushed on another eight miles to the west where they found the river they were seeking.

Four miles southwest of Schuyler, Moses R. Shinn built a rope ferry in 1858 across the treacherous quicksands of the Platte, and located a home on the Butler County side. It provided, for many years, the only means of crossing the Platte river (except by fording) between Omaha and Denver. Shinn, an itinerant preacher and pioneer of Omaha--later one of its richest and most influential citizens and a man who donated liberally to found churches at Fremont and other points--earned many a dollar piloting California, Utah, and Colorado-bound emigrants across the river. He charged $2 per team, and on one day of which we shall later speak, had nearly a thousand emigrants' wagons waiting in line for a chance to ferry across. In


1859 Daniel Gardner took over the operation of the ferry for Shinn, and in the following year it passed to Stephen D. Shinn, who operated it until the building of a wooden bridge in 1871 made its existence unnecessary.

Three trails met at Shinn's: The Mormon Trail and Military Road--a broad and well-defined highway which followed the north bank of the Platte from Florence and Omaha village; the Denver trail, linking Denver and the Missouri river towns, paralleling the Morman Trail to Shinn's, where it crossed the Platte to continue westward along the south bank of the river; and the Nebraska City-Fort Kearny trail, which came overland to Shinn's place on the Butler County side of the ferry and there merged with the Denver trail. Early chroniclers state that four out of five of the emigrants of the late 50's and early 60's preferred to cross at the ferry to follow the south bank of the river, to avoid the difficult crossings of the multitude of streams entering the river from the north.

Here, too, in 1860, occurred Colfax County's first murder. From the time Moses Shinn first started his ferry, he employed William E. Hill as a sort of "steerer," whose duty it was to stand at the junction of the ferry road with the Military Road, and there persuade the westering traveler of the superior advantages of making the crossing at Shinn's, in preference to the ferry at Columbus. After a year or two of this employment, Hill had gone west to the vicinity of North Platte, where he determined to locate, and returned to move his livestock and effects.

A three weeks rain had swollen the Platte so as to make the ferry crossing hazardous and in the interim, close to a thousand emigrant wagons accumulated on the north bank. To assure every man getting his proper turn, Shinn passed out consecutively numbered tickets. It happened that Hill had the last turn on the evening of the first day's ferrying, but on the trip across the stream, one of his cows and a calf plunged off the ferry and returned to the north bank. Hill crossed that dark and rainy night to seek the holders of the first place on the ferry the following morning, hoping to make arrangements with them to bring his cattle over along with their own effects. Three Brady boys, Colorado bound, held the first ticket, and upon approaching them for this favor, one of them jokingly suggested that they could simply keep the cattle for themselves. Hill, very much under the influence of liquor, became enraged and abusive. The younger Brady knocked him to the ground with a wagon tongue, breaking his jaw, then, as he lay writhing on the ground, Hill shot his assailant in the arm with a pistol. One of the older brothers took the gun away from Hill and shot him through the head, killing him instantly. The murderer was taken into custody the following morning when the crime was discovered and brought before "Justice" Kemp, whose place was two miles above and who, after hearing the testimony, brought in a verdict of "accidental death."

North of the ferry on the old Military Road was the treat "ranche" (inn) operated by an eccentric old Englishman named Joseph Russell. His establishment was the best known place between Fort Kearny and the Missouri; it was a main stopping-off place for western travelers and wagon-trains. Diaries of early wayfarers through the regions state that Russell was host to as many as three hundred in a single day. Russell lived most of his life on the frontier and became so accustomed to the comparative quiet of frontier life that the coming of the Union Pacific within sight of his home caused him to sell out and remove to a remote section of Missouri, where he died about 1870.

In 1860 the few permanent habitations in the county were strung along the course of the Military Road. Commencing with Isaac Albertson's on the east, one traveled by the homes of N. Toncray, Albertson's brother-in-law; William Davis; R. W. Corson, later justice of the peace; Daniel Hashberger, William Gilson, Mr. Rolfer, James Jeffries, H. Bushnell, Joseph Russell, Joseph Skinner, James Kemp, Mr. Clough, George Spaulding and William Fayl.

These and a few others constituted the entire population of the county in 1860. The govern-ment road was the only well-defined highway; the Western Union had run a single line of wire along its course in that year and thus brought the eastern part of the country in closer communication with the west. There were no flour mills nor stores for many miles; the settlers had to journey seventy miles to Fort Calhoun on the Missouri to reach the nearest mill, and to Omaha, an equal distance, for other provisions.

When Nebraska achieved territorial status in 1854, Colfax County's acres were included in the vast county of Burt, which then covered all the territory between the Missouri and the Loup, north of the Platte. A year later, an act of the territorial legislature placed it within Dodge County with its seat of government at Fontanelle. In 1857, Dodge County was divided in twain and Colfax lay within the newly formed "Loup" (later Platte) County. A few months later, Colfax settlers started a movement to separate from Platte and to form a new county with its seat at Buchanan. This was bitterly rejected by the citizens of Columbus, who held the balance of power by superior weight of numbers. Columbus had 55 resident voters; Buchanan had only 16.

During the period when Columbus was the county seat of original Platte County, which included Colfax, occurred one of the interesting examples of the use of "neighborhood law," to the exclusion of the established courts, a frontier phenomenon which was to brand the county as "out-law" for many years of its early existence.

William B. Gilson had, in 1862, purchased from Abraham Beeman a homestead on the southeast quarter of Section 15, a portion of which is now


included in Clarkson's Addition to Schuyler. In November 1865, he sold his farm for $1,500 to a man named Truesdell, the deed going to Elizabeth N. Harmon, the former's married daughter. A short time later, when surveyors for the Union Pacific staked out the site for a station just half a mile north of the property, Gilson became dissatisfied with his bargain. Learning from Truesdell that the deed had never been placed on record, Gilson volunteered to perform the service by taking it to the county clerk at Columbus. Accordingly, the deed was delivered to Gilson's care. In late January, Truesdell visited Columbus and learned that his deed was not yet recorded. He approached Gilson for an explanation. Gilson at first denied any knowledge of the transaction; later admitted it but insisted that the farm be sold back to him. This Truesdell declined to do, and Gilson ordered him off the place.

Truesdell appealed to Uncle Dan Hashberger, who, the same afternoon, went to Russell's Ranche and had a long talk with the elder Russell. That evening, in response to a call, some twenty-five woodchoppers and teamsters congregated at Hashberger's place, where they fortified themselves with frontier whiskey and chose John Ross as their captain. The band then went to Gilson's, where Ross demanded the deed. At first Gilson denied having it, but when one of the band dangled a noosed rope in front of his nose, claimed he had lost it. He was then instructed to write a new one, demurred, and the hemp collar was again brought into action to persuade him. Justice of the Peace Corson was sent for, so that the instrument might be properly acknowledged, the deed was witnessed by John F. Eby and W. H. Penn, and the self-styled "Regulators" retired to their homes. This deed was dated Feb. 3, 1866, and was filed for record on Feb. 9. However, it was legally defective in that it failed to describe the grantors as "husband and wife," and also because the original deed had conveyed title in the name of Mrs. Gilson.

A short time later Gilson went before Justice Hudson at Columbus and swore out a complaint against several members of the "Regulators." All were arrested except the elder Russell, who was in Omaha on business. One of the band telegraphed to apprise him of their arrest and requesting that he bring the best criminal lawyer he could employ. He came next day by coach and brought Nebraska's most eminent lawyer of the time, Hon. A J. Poppleton. the men were brought before Justice Hudson, who quashed the complaint after delivering a lecture on law and anarchy, and instructed Gilson to deliver a correct deed. Gilson felt that the entire neighborhood was against him, which was not far from the truth, so he moved later in the summer to Oregon.

The year 1866 heard the clang of metal upon metal when the work crew building the Union Pacific railroad moved through. By August of that year, rail service between Omaha village and Shell Creek station (later Schuyler) was an accomplished fact. The journey to Omaha consumed nearly seven hours and cost $7.55.

In 1868 the first Czech immigrants came to the county. They were to be followed by large numbers of their compatriots, to make the future county of Colfax one of the most important Czech communities in the nation. The same year Shell Creek station rose to brief eminence by becoming the most important cattle shipping point in the United States, by virtue of many thousands of Texas longhorns which were herded across the prairies to this, the nearest railroad. Ogallala shortly succeeded Shell Creek in cattle shipping importance, and with the completion of the Santa Fe railroad to Dodge City, Kansas Territory, the cattle drive was appreciably shortened and Shell Creek's importance as a shipping center speedily declined.

The first mill in the county was erected on Shell creek, near the Platte County line in 1868. Two years later Wells and Neiman built their mill downstream, but in 1882 it was dismantled and a modern steam plant was built at Schuyler. This, over a period of years, expanded to become a million dollar plant--the most important mill in the middle west outside of the great mills at Minneapolis. Financial difficulties closed it down for a short time after 1921 and threw it into receivership. Local citizens formed a company and ran the plant until a combination of adverse circumstances forced it to close for the last time in 1930. In the greatest fire in the history of Schuyler, on Oct. 7, 1933, the milling plant was completely destroyed.

March 15, 1869 Platte County was divided to form Colfax County. Shell Creek station was renamed Schuyler and became the county seat. Ironically enough, the names honored Schuyler Colfax, vice president of the United States under President Grant, and an Indianian who, fifteen years before, had taken a leading part in organizing the "Anti-Nebraska Men"--a group opposed to the creation and settlement of Nebraska Territory.

The following year an amicable settlement was reached with the mother county of Platte, whereby Colfax County assumed its proportionate share of the county indebtedness existing at the date of the partition.

The year 1870 also saw the incorporation of the city of Schuyler; the passing (by a vote of 27 to 15) of an $80,000 county bond issue, $20,000 of which was for the erection of a court-house and to pay the $5,200 owed Platte County, and $60,000 for the construction of a 1,350 foot wooden bridge over the Platte river to replace the now almost useless ferries.

In those years roads were few, bridges almost unknown. A single plowed furrow guided the traveler past the 3,000 acre Fuller ranch north of Schuyler, and over the hills to West Point on the Elkhorn, the nearest railroad point to the north.


The 70's and 80's saw greatly increased immigration. Germans settled in the north corners of the county, near the villages of Orleans, Howells and Leigh. Czechs occupied the central northern part of the county, dividing their trading between the village of Clarkson and numerous country stores and postoffices at Praha and Abington. In the 80's too, the dugouts and sodhouses in which most of the pioneers had been compelled to dwell, because of utter lack of native timber, gradually began to disappear, to be replaced by frame buildings built of lumber hauled overland from Schuyler and West Point.

The 80's also saw three lynchings and two murders. A man named Helmus had been murdered in Wilson precinct and his death avenged by the lynching of one of those believed responsible. In January 1886, Wenzel Lapour was confined in the county jail for observation as to his sanity, because of violent actions and threats made against members of his family. John S. Degman was sheriff, having been sworn in on Jan. 2. On the morning of Jan. 12, Degman entered the jail house to make a fire for his prisoner, and while he was bending over arranging the wood in the stove, Lapour grabbed a heavy piece of wood and struck the sheriff over the head, fracturing his skull and killing him instantly. Lapour then attempted to make his escape, but he was apprehended before he got out of town and was replaced in the jail. That night, after dark, the streets of the town became literally alive with the forms of local citizens stealing in the darkness toward the jail. The assault upon it was made at midnight, and the following morning Lapour's body was found hanging from a limb of a tree on the courthouse lawn. The coroner's jury brought in a verdict of "death by hanging at the hands of parties unknown."

On Jan. 3, 1889, John Craig was farming and raising Kentucky thoroughbreds on his farm northeast of town. There had been a number of suspicious farm fires in the neighborhood over a period of months. Craig's daughter, returning from a meeting at the nearby school-house that night saw their huge three story barn ablaze and ran to awaken her father. But the fire had such a great start that it was impossible to get close to it and daylight brought to view a scene of indescribable carnage. Forty-three thoroughbred horses, 70 head of cattle and 20 hogs had perished in the flames.

Three days prior to the fire George Hagerman, a farmhand at the Craig place, had asked for a half day holiday, from which he had failed to return. Craig suspected Hagerman of settling the fire and swore out a complaint for arson against him. Then Sheriff Joe Kidrna and Craig went to Omaha in search of the fugitive. They went to a livery stable to hire a team to take them about the town, and were astonished to find two of Craig's horses in the barn. The liveryman told them that Hagerman was out trying to sell the third horse to settle his feed bill. It was immediately apparent to the men that Hagerman had fired the barn to cover up the theft of the horses. While they were talking to the proprietor Hagerman galloped up on Craig's horse, but upon seeing the Schuyler men he galloped off. They pursued him to the Elkhorn river, where he abandoned the horse and went afoot along the stream. A posse was organized at Elkhorn to apprehend him, and it was joined by an armed force from Schuyler. The first day, while he was attempting to make a run from the wooded section to the Elkhorn station, one of the possemen shot him in the side with a shot gun, but did not succeed in stopping his flight.

Hagerman wandered through the woods for several days, until finally, in a desperate attempt to steal food at Doherty's farmhouse four miles south of Elkhorn, he was apprehended and turned over to the Colfax County authorities. Tuesday morning, Feb. 5, his body was found hanging from a box elder tree on the courthouse square. Two doctors testified at the inquest that death was due to strangulation, but owing to a suspicion that prominent local people might be involved, the coroner's jury brought in a verdict of "death by exposure."

Revolted at the lynching, which climaxed a series of lawless acts within the county, a group of prominent citizens, including former Judge Russell, County Judge Thomas and G. W. Wells called a public mass meeting for the same evening, at which place resolutions of censure were drawn up and a further resolution was directed to Governor Thayer asking that the legislature appropriate $5,000 for the purpose of discovering the identity of the lynchers and bringing them to justice. The crime attracted nationwide interest, and drew editorial comment clear to the eastern shore of the continent.

Judges Russell and Thomas, as well as other prominent people who attended the mass meeting, shortly received letters threatening similar action against themselves unless they desisted from their attempt to discover the offenders. The letters were signed "The White Caps"--referring to a short-lived secret vigilante organization born in the East and were mailed from North Bend and Morse Bluff. It later developed that a vigilante group had been operating quietly out of North Bend for two or three years, but all effort to bring them to justice failed. The lynching had the salutary effect, however, of crystallizing public opinion against lawless mob action, and Colfax County regained its reputation as a home of law abiding citizens.

From this time on through the years until the World War, Colfax County settled back into a steady, normal growth. The county highway system was completed, the "talking wires" came to connect farm homes with the towns and thus bring the people closer together, the ranch life of early days was replaced by intensive farming and the numerous foreign language groups gradually fused


into one loyal group of Americans. Curiously, the languages of their fathers were employed, especially by the older generation, to the exclusion of English until our entry into the world conflict. Then the county which had the greatest percentage of foreign born population in the state--showed its loyalty to the flag which had given its people an opportunity to hew a great agricultural empire out of the wilderness. Again in proportion to its population, Colfax County led the entire United States in its purchase of Liberty bonds and contributions to the allied cause.

The present fine courthouse was erected in 1921-22 and is one of the most beautiful buildings of its kind in the state.

Colfax County's 11,400 inhabitants (1930 census) are served by three railroads. The main line of the Union Pacific runs through Rogers, Schuyler and Richland; the Burlington branch enters Schuyler from the South Platte country; and the Scribner-Oakdale branch of the Chicago & Northwestern provides limited service to the north end towns of Howells, Clarkson and Leigh. Highway 30 is paved across the county, paralleling the Union Pacific, a state highway bisects it from north to south, another connects the north end towns and many of the county and connecting roads are gravelled.

Upon these physical evidences of its past growth, Colfax County goes unceasingly forward to its destiny.

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