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Ogallala - Nebraska’s Cowboy Capital

by Robert R. Mahnken
As published in Nebraska History Volume 28, No.2, April-June 1947

Contributed and Transcribed by Keith Hughes

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Gateway to the northern plains - that was Ogallala from 1875 to 1885. At the little village on the Platte, Texas drovers during this decade delivered their trail herds of longhorn cattle by the thousands. Shrewd and calculating Wyoming and Nebraska cattlemen met in Ogallala’s hotel and saloons with the Texas cattle kings and haggled over priced to be paid for the longhorns. A quick handshake, a jovial round of backslapping, a quick "nip" at the bar, and bargains were sealed. Gold flowed freely across the tables, liquor across the bar, and occasionally blood across the floor as a smoking gun in the hands of a jealous rival or an angered gambler brought an end to the trail of some unfortunate cowhand on the stained boards of "Tuck’s" Saloon. This was Ogallala during its ten years of fame as the point of delivery for the herds of Texas cattle being driven up the Western Trail to stock the northern ranges.

Ogallala’s early history was singularly unspectacular. The account of its founding and early development can be related in phrases which could equally well refer to a score of frontier communities. Ogallala was a by-product of the Union Pacific railroad, and for several years after the construction of that road, the village on the Platte seemed destined to be little more than a section house and a water tank along the thin line of steel threading its way through the hunting grounds of the hostile Indian tribesmen whose name the station bore. In the spring of 1868 there appeared three men whose fortunes are closely interwoven with the early growth of Ogallala, the two Lonergan brothers, Philip and Thomas, and Louis Aufdengarten. The Lonergans came to do construction work for the Union Pacific,1 but found the High Plains to their liking, and subsequently became most enthusiastic boosters for the struggling orphan community of the plains.

Louis Aufdengarten drifted in with the U.S. Army, but stayed on to become Ogallala’s first merchant.2 A regiment of cavalry had pitched its summer camp here during the troublesome July of 1868 when Indian depredations, real and imagined, were striking fear into the hearts of frontier settlers as far east as Nebraska’s Blue River Valley. Aufdengarten, in business as a sutler, soon found his trade expanding beyond the mere business of supplying merchandise to the troops. The first wave of professional buffalo hunters reached western Nebraska during that summer. Upward of a hundred hunters made this military post and Aufdengarten’s "store" - it appears to have been a combination of dug-out, soddy, and canvas tent - their base of operations. Buffalo were plentiful and hides by the hundred were brought in. Aufdengarten broadened his activities and was soon buying up the hides for shipment east. It proved a profitable venture, and the next year found Aufdengarten back at the same stand, his connection with the army severed, and his interest now centered chiefly on furnishing supplies and equipment for trappers and buffalo hunters.

The foundations of Ogallala had been laid, but for some time there was little building upon them. The section house was enlarged, a few small huts for the section hands added, and a depot built - one wonders at the optimism of these early pioneers - during 1871. Old settlers of the area declare that by 1873 there were perhaps only 25 settlers in the valley, most of them railroaders and traders, along with a few cattlemen. Yet business was comparatively brisk at this outpost on the plains. Aufdengarten’s business prospered, and the North Platte Enterprise of February 8, 1873, carried the advertisement of his Ogallala emporium, proclaiming to everyone in the area that at the "Drover’s Store" could be purchased "Groceries, Dry Goods, Provisions, Cigars, and Liquors." The Lonergans along with L.M. Stone had opened a "men’s store." The new home just lately erected by this Mr. Stone was the marvel of the valley, it being the first sizeable frame house in the area,3 and soon was being used as a rooming house, or a "hotel" as the westerner insisted on calling it.

There was also something out of the ordinary about Ogallala’s section house. Trains to the west reached Ogallala about noon, and stopped there for the passengers to eat. Section house doubled as dining hall.4 Two cooks imported from North Platte prepared the bill of fare from the meager stocks of edibles available. Steaks, mutton, and the inevitable dried apple pie were spread under the watchful eye of W. P. St. Clair, the newly appointed station master.

It was also during 1873 that the political history of Ogallala and Keith County began. Organization of Keith County was completed in May after Governor Furnas had authorized an election to select county officials. A small frame house which was to serve as the courthouse was moved into Ogallala from Brule and dedicated during the first week of November with a "Grand Ball."5 The first county officials were men whose names are familiar to us - Aufdengarten the county clerk, Tom Lonergan the county Judge, E.M. Searle, a Union Pacific telegrapher, one of the county commissioners, and A.H. Bradley the Sheriff.6 The press of county business was not very great, and it was noted during the summer of 1874 that the Keith County records were "floating around" in North Platte, causing the editor of the local journal to speculate about the possibility of the collapse of this premature county organization.7

Faith in the future of the area was unbounded among the "old timers." The Lonergans in particular impressed the possibilities of the Platte valley on E. A. Curley, an English correspondent who visited Ogallala in December, 1873. In his frequently detailed but always readable account, which furnishes some of the finest material on the early history of the state, Curley relates finding in Ogallala "half a dozen buildings . . . two eating houses, but no lodging or hotels . . . and . . . two bachelor brothers (the Lonergans) who divided between them the offices of Probate Judge, Postmaster, and general storekeepers. They also owned two or three hundred head of cattle and did a little in the butchering line."8 Even Curley left the area keenly conscious of the hopes of the settlers, hopes which more and more were centering about the expansion of the range cattle industry.

During 1874 a step was taken which initiated Ogallala’s career as a cowtown. The Union Pacific people in that year constructed a cattle pen and a loading chute just west of town,9 in the hope that they might here recapture the profitable trade which they had enjoyed at Schuyler and at Kearney, earlier Nebraska shipping points for Texas longhorns. Phil Lonergan added the duties of supervising the yards to his other multifarious activities.10

Many of the early settlers of Ogallala had long been convinced that the future of their community depended upon the growth of the cattle trade. They argued that the peculiarly favorable circumstance of geography indicated a bright future for the range cattle industry. Since 1869 the possibilities of the trade had been the subject of much speculation. During that year a number of large herds of longhorns were driven westward along the Platte, ultimately to find their last range in Idaho. At the same time the first Texas cattle were brought into the region between the forks of the Platte. The Lonergan brothers purchased a small herd of longhorns to winter near Ogallala, while Keith and Barton bought a large herd of about 1,000 head which they turned out to graze farther down the river near O’Fallon’s Bluff.11 The success of these early attempts at range operations had encouraged many another pioneer cattleman to follow their example in Western Nebraska and Eastern Wyoming. Between 1870 and 1874 ranges in the Nebraska panhandle were occupied, along the North Platte by the Coad Brothers, and the Powers Brothers,12 along Pumpkin Creek by the Creighton Brothers and H.V. Redington, and north of Sidney on Rush Creek by the Moore Brothers. The largest herds in the area were those of the Bosler Brothers, true cattle capitalists, who held the contracts to supply beef to the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail Indian Agencies in northern Nebraska. Beginning in 1873 they established their base of operation on the North Platte near the mouth of Blue Creek, keeping most of their herds in that area until later in the 1880’s when they centered their activities in the area near Broadwater.

The Bosler Brothers annually purchased thousands of cattle, many of them at Ellsworth, on contracts calling for delivery at the forks of the Platte, or at Ogallala. During the months of fall and early winter the herds of these enterprising contractors would consist of eighteen to twenty thousand cattle.13 It was the activities (as profitable as they were extensive) of the Boslers more than anything else which convinced the settlers of the valley that a golden future could be expected for the cattle trade.

When Curley, the English corespondent, visited Ogallala late in 1873 his hosts talked only of cattle. The Lonergans at once set out to convince their guest of the possibilities of the range cattle industry in the Keith County area. Carefully compiled statistics, which Curley dutifully listed in his manual, were made available to show the phenomenal profits believed possible in holding Texas cattle on the range for a year. On long rides over the prairie the hosts pointed out the correspondent herds of Texans which had been brought up the trail during the previous summer and others which had been wintered in the northern climate. The longhorns were a new and intriguing sight for the Englishman. Those just off the trail he described as "scrawny" and "in seemingly bad condition to stand the rigors of a severe winter." Those, however, that had spent a year on northern grass he considered "in prime condition" though not fat as the term was applied in England. Curley’s final decision was that "winter grazing, even in the snow, is a practical, substantial, and important fact . . . and not necessarily another name for slow starvation."14 It was the very same conviction which nourished the hopes of the pioneer cattlemen along the Platte.

The prospects of the cattle yards under construction at Ogallala in 1874 were improved by two developments which at first might appear only indirectly related to the cattle trade. During the preceding August the troublesome Ogallala and Brule Sioux had been moved from their Platte River Agency on the Nebraska-Wyoming border to the new Red Cloud and Whetstone agencies along the White River in northern Nebraska. After the removal of these Indians to more distant reservations the Republican River valley, once the favorite hunting grounds of the tribesmen, was closed to their hunting expeditions and the accompanying depredations against the persons and property of the whites. Cattlemen could now move into that entire area with little fear of being molested by the marauding followers of Red Cloud. Early in the summer of 1874 large herds of longhorns were already reported grazing in the Republican valley west of Orleans.15 One barrier had been removed from the approaches to Ogallala.

At the same time the westward surge of venturesome farmers along the rivers in Nebraska and Kansas was closing the trail to Abilene, Schuyler, and Kearney. The trail drivers were forced to seek new markets. As their eyes moved westward over the map of Nebraska, trail bosses and ranchers began to realize that Ogallala and the valley between the forks of the Platte might be the ideal site for a new cowtown.

During 1874 the volume of cattle moved into and through Ogallala did not swell appreciable, for the trail-driving business recovered rather slowly from the effects of the financial panic of 1873. Most of the Texas stock brought into the area still went to the Boslers or the comparatively few cattlemen who were building up their herds farther to the west. The number increased noticeably during 1875 as more ranges were opened up along the North Platte and its tributaries. Business at Ogallala was brisk and it was estimated by observers in the area that between 60,000 and 75,000 Texas cattle were driven to Ogallala that season.16 But it was not until 1876 that the volume of cattle moving up the trail to Ogallala reached the high level it maintained thereafter and made of Ogallala a bustling and exciting village for six months of the year.

The increasing importance of Ogallala as a cattle market was in part due to the emergence of Dodge City as the leading Kansas cattle mart. A new trail, known as the Western or Texas Trail, was blazed, and gradually supplanted the earlier Chisholm trail. The Western Trail turned northward from a point on the Red River which came to be known as Doan’s Crossing, passed through Indian Territory and into western Kansas. For many longhorns and a few of the cowboys the end of the trail came at Dodge City. But for outfits handling younger stock cattle "Dodge" soon became only a stopping point where man and beast could rest for a few days before starting on the long road to Ogallala. From the Arkansas River at Dodge City the trail wound north and slightly west to Buffalo Station on the Kansas Pacific Railroad, about 63 miles west of Hays. Here once again supplies could be replenished at a small settlement, the last before reaching Ogallala. On the trail through northern Kansas and southwestern Nebraska water became the drover’s chief concern, and it soon became common knowledge that watering stops could be found only on the "South and North Solomon, Sappa [near Oberlin], Beaver, Driftwood, Republican, Frenchman [near its mouth], and Stinking Water Creeks."17 Smaller streams which were to serve as watering stops frequently dried up, leaving thirsty, restless cattle. The last day’s drive - some thirty miles from Stinking Water Creek to the South Platte - was one of the worst for the trailweary cowhands, it being the longest and driest of the trip. This lack of water and the hot winds and scorching sun of the prairie were the principal inconveniences endured by the cowhands on the way from Dodge City to Ogallala. No marauding Indians, no flooded river crossings over which to worry, but only occasional thunderstorms which sent the longhorns in a wild stampede over the plains. On the whole the drive from Dodge City to Ogallala caused little fear among the drovers who with increasing frequency found the end of the trail not at the Kansas cowtown but at Ogallala. Contracts signed in Dodge City frequently required delivery of cattle at the Nebraska village. Similarly, an increasing number of drovers who failed to find a buyer on the Arkansas went on up the rail to the forks of the Platte. The Western Trail and Ogallala soon found their way into the plans of an ever-larger number of trail bosses.

After the 1876 season the volume of business at Ogallala increased tremendously. The explanation could be found in one factor alone - increased demand. Previously the only real demand for older stock in this area had come from contractors supplying the Indian agencies in northwestern Nebraska. The sudden development of a new gold field in the Black Hills during 1876 and 1877 unexpectedly added a second market for grass-fed steers. Meat-hungry Dakota prospectors were clamoring for beef, and even steaks off the tough flanks of a Texas longhorn commanded premium prices. During the first hectic months of this latest gold rush those venturesome cattlemen who drove a few steers to Deadwood soon found that beef would bring whatever the owner chose to ask for it.18 A few Texas steers were peddled out for $100 to $125 to the first miners. This new market for steers and older cows provided a powerful stimulant for the range-cattle industry.

At the same time, the all for younger stock became more insistent. Until 1877 the limits of the cattleman’s domain in Nebraska and Wyoming had been marked by the North Platte River. A report by Thomas Kane, president of the Cheyenne County Stock Association, listed about 38,000 head of cattle owned by stock growers in Cheyenne county in August, 1876.19 Another report early the next year indicated that 57,000 head had been wintered in the county which up till that time was the center of the range industry.20 Only the most venturesome had dared to cross the North Platte into the Sioux country. Though most of the tribesmen had been settled on the Red Cloud and Whetstone agencies by 1874, small bands of murderous marauders were still common along the North Platte. David B. Hinman, foreman for the Bosler Brothers ranch, was killed near the Sidney Crossing of the Platte in June, 1876, by Indians who took his horse, revolver, and clothing, and scattered several thousand dollars worth of checks and bank notes over the prairie.21 Even the environs of Ogallala itself were raided by Indian horse thieves during the summer of 1876.22

The military campaigns carried out by General Crook and Colonel Miles during the fall and winter of 1876 brought an end to these depredations. These operations broke the back of the Sioux hostiles. Followed as they were by the new policy of pacification by starvation, these campaigns made it certain that henceforth the Sioux would be confined to the narrow limits of their individual reservations. Thus a new area above the North Platte River was cleared of a "menace" and thrown open to cattlemen who at once seized the opportunity to extend their domains to the north and west. By 1878 enterprising pioneers such as Creighton,23 Bronson, Hunter, and Evans had appropriated choice sites along the Niobrara in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming. Dozens of new operators on scores of new ranch sites all demanded stock cattle at Ogallala in volume never before anticipated. The boom had begun, a boom which was to continue through 1884 and bring from 75,000 to 125,000 Texas longhorns to the forks of the Platte each season.

Ogallala itself by 1876 had changed only slightly since its days as a "tank town" on the Union Pacific. Unlike many of the Kansas cowtowns, it never became a populous community. The state census of 1875 revealed that the total population of Keith County consisted of 108 settlers.24 During its early years Ogallala was a squatter community built on government land. It was not until September, 1875, that Hinman and LaMunyou of North Platte purchased the land on which the town was located. The plat was surveyed, divided into lots, and offered for sale - a free lot being offered to anyone who would construct a business establishment upon it.25 The town itself was but a block long. The stores were all south of the tracks, fronting a street - popularly known as "Railroad Street" - which ran parallel to the rails. Louis Aufdengarten’s general supply store was to be found on the corner of the intersection of this street and the trail leading south to the Platte river.26 Westward from his store extended the rest of the town - another supply store, the one in which the Lonergan’s were formerly interested, but which now was open as a rule only during the busy summer nonths.27 Next came the saloons and gambling establishments, operated during these years under changing management, but generally carrying the same colorful names, the one the "Cowboys Rest" and the other, the "Crystal Palace." A small shoe store and the court house were next in line along Ogallala’s only thoroughfare. The last building in the row was the newly-constructed hotel, the Ogallala House, operated by S.S. Gast, formerly of North Platte, and subsequently managed by Sam Rooney, who married Gast’s daughter. The dining room of the Ogallala House was widely known and eagerly patronized because of its excellent fare, food which seemed even more tasty to cowhands just arriving after three weeks on the trail from Dodge City. One new building of note was constructed during 1875, that being "the most substantial jail west of Omaha."28 Its accommodations were soon to prove as inadequate as those of the local hotel.

On the north side of the tracks were as yet only the station, section house, and the homes of a few families who comprised Ogallala’s permanent citizenry. A two-man construction crew made up of W.A. McIntyre and A.E. Wilson was active during the summer of 1876, repairing Aufdengarten’s home and constructing new frame residences for M.F. Leech and Phil Lonergan.29 Lonergan, now in charge of the Union Pacific’s cattle pens, supervised the expansion and improvement of the yards, repairs made necessary by the increased traffic. These improvements, together with a small school house which was completed for the fall term, marked the extent of Ogallala’s expansion during this summer.30 A contemporary observer could hardly believe that this was the community which already was becoming known throughout the nation.

The tempo of living in early Ogallala changed with the seasons. During the months of winter and early spring life was generally a dull and dreary existence in a drab, unpainted, and unpromising little village. But with the coming of spring thoughts turned to the cattle trade, bets were placed as to when the first herds would arrive, and the whole community became tense with an air of expectancy. The Cowboy’s Rest and other establishments dispensing liquid refreshments were tidied up and prepared for business. Shortly after the first of June the town began to hum with activity. The round-up conducted by the Nebraska cattlemen of the area between the forks of the Platte generally reached Ogallala about that time, shortly before the arrival of the first longhorns from the south. The first Texas herds of the 1876 season were driven into Ogallala during the second week of June,31 and June 10 soon came to be the date on which the first longhorns were expected.

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