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Keith County, NEGenWeb
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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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During the three summer months business boomed. Saloonkeeper, storekeeper, and hotelkeeper all shared in the general prosperity. Ten or twelve herds, each of 2,500 head, could usually be located north of the town, a bawling mass carpeting the plains, while waiting for their new owners. The presence of a hundred or more trail hands taxed the facilities of Ogallala. Sleeping rooms were at a premium, and many visitors to Ogallala spent their first night napping on the "soft side of a walnut board."32 The Ogallala House was considerably enlarged during July of 1876, but even so its capacity was not equal to the rush of customers who eagerly sought the luxury of a bath and a night’s sleep on a mattress instead of on unyielding prairie sod.

For a brief time during the early summer the white tents of soldiers out after Indians were pitched near the town, adding a note of contrast to the dull monotony of the countryside. On their free nights the troops would mingle with Texans in the saloons. Many a rear-riot started over some differences of opinion between the hard-fisted boys in blue and the lanky, hot-tempered Texas drovers who, not too long ago, had worn grey. Loose and disparaging talk about "rebels" or "Yankee bean-eaters" was enough to start a full-scale brawl.

The Ogallala House became the center of social activities for the townspeople of Ogallala and the big cattlemen. Parties and dances were held regularly in its halls. These gatherings were comparatively sedate, more restful certainly than the parties in the Cowboy's Rest. Frequently, so a participant tells us, the dancing lagged until "Old Number Seven" would chug in from the east, bringing Ed Hepner, a trainman with considerable finesse in handling the fiddle.33 His music "soon raised the enthusiasm to a high degree." An evening of dancing to "The Irish Washer Woman," "Pop Goes the Weasel," and "Hell Among the Yearlings," topped off by a midnight supper spread by the hotelkeeper caused even the traveler who never ventured beyond the parlors of the hotel to agree that Ogallala was one "of the livest if not the finest town along the line of the Union Pacific."34

Activities in Ogallala continued at fever pitch until the end of August. By then the drives for the season were ending and the drovers who had brought the herds up the trail were gradually drifting to their native Texas. Business revived briefly during the fall months, especially in October, when the cattlemen of the area began to bring their steers in off the grass for shipment east. By November, however, Ogallala settled back in quiet and peaceful repose. The floaters, gamblers, trades-people, and dancehall hostesses, who made up a large portion of Ogallala’s mobile population drifted off to Omaha or Cheyenne to spend the winter. Only the hotel, one supply store, and a single saloon remained open for the winter. The community sank back into a state of suspended animation until the first thaws of the next spring set everyone to speculating about the extent of the year’s drives.

Except for her sparse population, Ogallala differed only slightly from the other cowtowns of the prairies. In her two saloons, subsequently to be increased in number during the summer months, liquor was dispensed in ample quantity, and the clinking of glasses mingled discordantly with the shrill screech of the violin in the hands of the dancing master. Try as he would this one-man orchestra - it was a great day when the first piano arrived - could hardly make himself heard above the stamping feet of booted cowmen and their enthusiastic painted ladies.

Money changed hands quickly and in sizeable sums. Gold carefully counted out went into the pockets of these cautious Texas drovers who had not yet accustomed themselves to using the "Yankee" greenbacks or bank notes. By 1877, however, drafts on the more widely known banks, especially the First National of Omaha, came more and more to be the accepted method of payment.

A casual visitor spending several weeks in Ogallala during the late seventies would eventually have met all the "big names" of the trail driving business. By 1876 trail driving had been expanded into a big business and was coming increasingly under the control of a few well-known individuals. The Bosler Brothers, who at the time were considered Nebraska’s "cattle barons" contracted for the delivery at Ogallala of the thousands of Texas cattle they annually required for their Indian contracts. Many another of the early cattlemen of the northern plains would settle their accounts with southern drovers in Ogallala’s hotel and saloons, among them John Coad, H.V. Redington, George Sheidley, Joseph Carey, and Hiram Kelley. Across the table from them sat the Texas drovers whose fortunes were built in the trade - Seth Mabry, Jim Ellison, Dillard R. Fant, W.G. Butler, and others.

During its first few years as a major cattle market Ogallala experienced little of the vicious lawlessness which brought fame of a sort to its southern counterparts, Wichita and Dodge City. Some of the rowdy Texans had a good deal of fun, noisy but harmless, and frequently the troubled quiet of the prairie night was shattered by the sharp crack of a Colt in the hand of a cowboy whose enthusiasm had been stimulated a little too freely at the Crystal Palace. Horse racing on the plains outside the town was a popular diversion by day,35 and that, together with a great deal of cowboy sport at the expense of "tenderfeet" and visitors occupied many daytime hours.

Crime came to Ogallala in 1877. It came with a nervous and acquisitive Texan, Joel Collins, who had delivered a herd of Texas cattle to purchasers in Nebraska. Hearing of the gold strikes in the Black Hills, Collins and his sidekick Sam Bass appropriated the money due the Texas cattlemen and started for Dakota to make their fortunes.36 But gambling losses and investments in unproductive mines soon left the pair with empty pockets. Gathering a crew of likeminded lawless individuals such as abounded on the frontier of that day, Collins and Bass next turned to the exciting but generally profitless business of stage robbery. The appearance of federal troops hastened the departure of the desperados from the hills, and about September 1 they drifted back into Ogallala. They pitched their tents on the west edge of town and set their fertile minds to work hatching a new scheme to get easy money. Over a corner table in the Crystal Palace they worked out the details of their next venture, a bold and daring plot to rob the pay coach of the Union Pacific.

In the early morning hours of September 19 word came that the eastbound Union Pacific had been held up 20 miles west of Ogallala, at Big Springs station. A posse was hastily formed and rode out to trail the bandit crew, but found no tangible trace of the robbers. Meanwhile the robbery was creating a furor throughout the mid-west. Not only was it the first time a Union Pacific train had been robbed, but the lot totaled $60,000 all in twenty-dollar gold pieces. The wildest guesses were tossed about as to the identity of the robbers. Omahans in general were convinced that either Jesse James and his gang or the remnants of the Younger gang were the guilty culprits.37

The Union Pacific officials posted a reward of $10,000 for the arrest of the bandits and the recovery of the gold. This was enough to send a host of amateur sleuths on the trail. Within a day or two it was known that Collins was one of the bandits. He was an acquaintance of one of the passengers on the train, Andy Riley of Omaha, who identified him positively for the railroad detectives. So the "wanted" call went out for Collins at once, especially to peace officials farther south.

Meanwhile, one of Ogallala’s citizens had been building up his own case against Collins and Bass. M. F. Leech, the proprietor of one of the supply stores, had identified the robbers. At the scene of the robbery he had picked up a piece of brilliantly-colored red, white, and black cloth which apparently had been used as a mask by one of the bandits. Not only did Leech recognize it as material sold in his store, but he also remembered that he had very recently sold a strip of this cloth to one of Collins’ crew of Texans. Determined to obtain the reward offered by the Union Pacific officials, Leech saddled his best horse and started to trail the Texans. Always he was on the heels of the bandits, but never lucky enough to participate in the capture of any of the thieves.

After camping on the Republican River for a day, the gang split into three groups, two in each group. Collins and his partner, Bill Heffridge, were trapped and both killed while resisting arrest at Buffalo Station, Kansas. Jim Berry, who was being closely trailed by Leech, met a like fate in Mexico, Missouri, 38 at the hands of officers who wanted to question him about the gold which he had carelessly deposited in banks in the area. Sam Bass and his crony Tom Nixon safely brought their share of the loot back to Texas by travelling in the guise of land-seeking grangers. Ten months of notoriety were still ahead of Sam Bass. Then he too would be cut down by the bullets of Texas Rangers, but his fame would live on in the most celebrated cowboy ballads.

For Leech it had been a discouraging pursuit. Always he would catch up with his quarry, only to find them dead or in the hands of peace officers. The amateur detective returned to Ogallala a dejected victim of fate. Yet when he returned, he received a warm welcome home. His search was not entirely unrewarded, for shortly after his return the citizenry elected Leech to the office of sheriff of Keith County.

To be sheriff of Keith County in 1878 called for considerable determination and fearlessness. Since the office had been created five years earlier the turnover among holders of this job had been very high. Six men had served at various times as sheriff, but none had relished the task of keeping the boisterous trail hands in line during the summer months. Nor did Leech seem to enjoy his new honor too well, for a few months later he resigned, to be succeeded for a brief time by J.G. Hughes. Hughes was a fearless old buffalo hunter who could always be relied upon to take over temporarily after the elected officials "throwed up the job." He served for half a dozen years either as sheriff or deputy and participated in some of the town’s wildest gun fights. In the course of one busy evening during the summer of 1879 he furnished three rowdy cowboys with tickets providing permanent entry into Ogallala’s Boot Hill cemetery.39 Only two of the five strangers who had announced they were going to "clean out the town" managed to find safe refuge in flight.

Until the election of 1879 law and order rested on rather unstable foundations in Ogallala. The low point of law-enforcement came during the summer of 1878 when Barney Gillan was appointed sheriff. Himself a Texan, Gillan considered it his duty to protect the cowmen rather than preserve law and order. He became involved in the Custer County "war" between homesteaders and cattlemen. A brother of I.P. Olive, the kingpin of the Texas cattlemen claiming the range in Custer County had been shot and killed by a couple of "nesters." Gillan participated in the arrest of the two homesteaders, Mitchell and Ketchum, collected part of the reward offered by Olive for their arrest, and then permitted Olive’s henchmen to seize the two and lynch and burn them. For his part in the unsavory episode Gillan was later arrested, indicted for complicity in the murder of Mitchell and Ketchum, and eventually brought to trial along with other defendants in this most notorious trial in Nebraska’s early history. Yet before the end of the trial Gillan escaped from the Kearney Jail,40 and disappeared from Nebraska and off the pages of history.

When finally true law and order came to Ogallala, it was ushered in by three individuals. Judge William Gaslin, who in 1876 had been elected District Judge for southern and western Nebraska, did as much as anyone to bring respect for the law into this stormy and rough frontier area. Judge Gaslin, who [so went the stories anyway] at times mounted the bench armed with a Winchester as well as with the legal documents soon acquired an enviable reputation as a fearless and ruthless judge. Ten years was his standard sentence for horse-stealing.41 Those guilty of homicide could expect little sympathy in his court, and in many a westerner’s heart a new respect for law - at least as personified by Judge Gaslin - appeared. In April, 1878, Gaslin held court in Ogallala for the first time, with "every man in the county on the jury,"42 and thereafter his periodic visits, generally at Kearney, were something to be feared by law-breakers.

A second major step in effective law enforcement came in 1879 when Martin DePriest was elected sheriff of Keith County. He continued to hold the office until 1888 when he moved to Perkins County. For the remaining years of Ogallala’s career as a cowtown, DePriest was the law, as many a cowboy discovered to his regret. DePriest was a Texan who had come up the trail in 1877. Instead of returning he had settled in Ogallala and opened a livery stable in connection with the hotel.43 His fearless courage and ability to get along with everyone recommended him as the ideal candidate for the office of sheriff in 1879. Short, but stocky and wiry, DePriest had few equals in a rough-and-tumble fight. It was his ability, plus his deliberate coolness in the face of danger, rather than any unusual proficiency as a gunman which gained him the respect of troublemakers. Since he was himself a Texan, DePriest understood the longing of the trail hand for some good rowdy fun at the end of the drive, and his attitude could never have been called puritanical. Drinking, gambling, consorting with the "soiled doves" was all "good fun" to Mart, and even the firing of pistols into the air was dismissed a "harmless sport." Cowmen knew that the "cowman who’s on the square had nothing to fear in that town."44 But when some drink-crazed or trigger-happy cowhand began to use the water tower as a target or endangering life in the community, DePriest would take down and buckle on his Colts, call to his deputy, Joe Hughes, to grab up his shotgun or buffalo gun, and together they would start to the scene of trouble. The word that this duo was on the prowl would generally be enough to cause the trouble-maker to subside. Not always was this true, however. Many took a shot at DePriest, and several times he was wounded. But the cowboy was rare who ever successfully defied the law as represented by DePriest and Hughes.

Unexpected support for order - if not for law - came from Bill Tucker, the long-time proprietor of the Cowboy’s Rest. Tucker, a lusty, boisterous character, had drifted over from North Platte as early as 1876. The Cowboy’s Rest, over which he presided with lordly mien, soon became known as the leading fun spot of the Platte Valley. Its gaming tables were never empty, its bar never dry, and its ladies never too preoccupied but what the newly-arrived cowhand found a welcome. Yet Bill Tucker disliked the sight and noise of guns, except for the shotgun he kept under the counter as the final arbiter in any dispute. On several occasions Tucker rallied the support of Ogallala’s citizenry and formed a posse to meet the threat of trail crews who were promising to shoot up the town.

Respect for Tucker mounted tremendously after 1880. In the summer of that year Bill came out on top in an encounter with Billy Thompson, the younger of the two Texas gunmen of that family. Billy Thompson, who had been stirring up trouble in Ogallala, and had been riled by some comment of Tucker’s stepped inside the door of Tuck’s Saloon and leveled a quick snap shot at Tucker. The bullet tore off the tips of several of Tuck’s fingers, sent the blood spirting, and flipped the saloonkeeper to the floor behind the bar. Thompson, judging the affair ended, turned and stalked out of the saloon. But Tuck soon came up - this time with his shotgun - and leveled it at Thompson walking down the street. The charge of buckshot found Billy and dropped him like a sack of flour. While Tucker returned to his bar, some of Thompson’s friends dragged him, considerably perforated, off the street. When the next eastbound Union Pacific train came through the Texans loaded the wounded Billy thereon, taking him to North Platte, where he eventually was patched up at Buffalo Bill Cody’s ranch. Billy Thompson had enough of Tucker, directed his footsteps toward Texas, and seems never again to have disturbed the peace of Ogallala.

In spite of the efforts of Gaslin, DePriest, and Tucker, Ogallala remained during its years as a cowtown a stormy and troubled locality. During its ten years of fame seventeen violent deaths were recorded, a not inconsiderable number for a community whose permanent population numbered about one hundred.45 In Ogallala’s Boot Hill cemetery were laid the bodies of cowhands who had lost a debate with gamblers, who had re-fought the Civil War, or who had found DePriest too much for them. The most troublesome gang was made up of Hunter and Evans boys from up on the Niobrara. In an early shooting scrape with DePriest and his deputies several of the crew had been killed. Thereafter there was continual trouble whenever old one-eyed John Graham and his Hunter outfit came down from the north country to pick up a trail herd or bring in some fattened beeves.

The cattle trade at Ogallala continued at a brisk pace from 1879 to 1884. By this time the stories of profits, real and imagined, to be made in the range cattle business were spreading throughout the eastern United States and to the British Isles as well. After 1879 eager cattlemen who hop to share in the profits seized every suitable ranch site along the Wyoming and Nebraska creeks. During the next few years eastern and English capital began to move into the area and stimulated the incorporation of several great cattle companies capitalized at from $500,000 to a million dollars. Purchasing land sites, hiring expensive range managers, buying cattle at inflated prices and on the book count, these companies introduced a new speculative fever into the area. Their constant quest for young stock cattle kept the herds moving up from the south, in spite of mounting costs and the increasing difficulties of trail driving. In the five year period between 1879 and 1884 between 100,000 and 125,000 cattle each year made their way through the Nebraska cowtown. In Ogallala itself a new hotel, the Spofford House, was built north of the tracks, and it soon became the center of activity for the big drovers and the northern buyers.

As the years passed, the herds from the south tended to pass more and more into the hands of a few purchasers. Consolidation and large-scale organization characterized the industry during the early eighties. Many of the wise old pioneers of the range, looking into the future, decided to sell their holdings during 1882 and 1883. So they disposed of their stock, at inflated prices which brought $30 to $35 a head for mixed range stock, yearlings included, which as late as 1880 would have brought only $20 or less per head. The Ogallala Land and Cattle Company began to buy up all the ranches along the North Platte. By 1884 it controlled the former holdings in the area of William Paxton, Dennis Sheedy, Tussler Bothers, Sheidley Brothers, and Bosler Brothers, and its herds, at least by the book count, numbered almost 100,000 head.46 In the Cheyenne county area the Bay State Cattle Company was at the same time consolidating at tremendous cost the herds of Creighton and McShane, Adas and Redington, and Coad Brothers, and several other smaller operators.47 Many weather-wise old cowmen decided to cash in their holdings in the boom market.

When the trail-driving business collapsed after 1884 its sudden end surprised everyone except these old timers. The last great drives of Texas cattle over the Western Trail in Nebraska came in 1884. This was the last season of this colorful business. Western Nebraska was no longer the cattlemen’s exclusive paradise. A succession of years in the early 1880’s during which the rainfall in western Kansas and Nebraska was unusually heavy convinced the venturesome granger that farming was profitable in these western areas. Along the Republican river in Nebraska and the Smoky Hill and Arkansas rivers in Kansas numerous new areas of settlement mushroomed. By cooperating with one another the frontier farmers in these areas were generally able to turn aside the herds which might be driven over their lands, or could at least exact a sizeable cash payment for such passage. In June, 1881, Frontier county settlers constructed a corral near Stow post office, where cattle trespassing on land claims of the settlers were to be held until ransomed by their owners.48 As the despised "nesters" become more numerous the drovers found it ever more difficult and more expensive to attempt to force their way through the settlements and on to Ogallala.

The state legislature of Kansas under pressure from western settlers enacted a steady stream of laws designed to push the quarantine line against Texas cattle farther west. The law of 1884 moved the quarantine line west of Dodge City, while a more stringent measure of the next year closed the entire state to Texas cattle from March to December of that year.49 This law, backed as it was by public opinion, forced those few cattlemen who sought to continue trail driving to move northward through eastern Colorado.

A serious epidemic of Texas Fever swept over Nebraska during the summer of 1884. The disease first appeared near Ogallala in July, apparently being brought in by Texas cattle that had been shipped in from the south over Union Pacific lines. With amazing rapidity the disease spread over much of western Nebraska’s range, causing heavy losses among the cattle. Many smaller cattlemen running native stock which fell victim to the fever instituted lawsuits against the big cattlemen, especially the Rankin Live Stock Company.50 This big outfit of the Sandhills country had shipped in some of the Texas cattle suspected of having spread the disease. Those cattlemen who had begun to introduce expensive blooded bulls into their herds began to join in the demand that Texas cattle should be excluded to protect the northern herds. It was another damaging blow for the trail-driving business, a blow from which the trade never recovered.

Ogallala’s career as a cowtown thus ended with the year 1884. A few herds still made their way to the Platte in spite of settlers and quarantine laws, but their number was not large. An unnatural quiet settled over the community during the summer months. Instead of cracking pistols and boisterous oaths of cowboys only the noisy clatter of construction crews filled the Nebraska air. For the advance guard of the farming frontier reached Keith County in the summer of 1884, and was followed by a great wave of settlers in 1885. The Union Pacific railroad at this time began to push the sale of its lands along the South Platte, and this further stimulated the migration. Within a few short months Ogallala underwent a metamorphosis from cowtown to farmer shopping center. The population of the county, which in 1880 had been only 181 had jumped to 700 at the end of 1884, while Ogallala itself, to judge by the columns of the local press, was approaching the 500 figure.51 During the latter year numerous new business houses were added to the half-dozen business establishments that had served the cowmen during he past years. Two newspapers, the News and the Reflector, McWilliam’s Bank, McConnaughey’s Lumber Company, Norstrom’s Hardware Store, Stone Bros. General Store, the O’Brien and Boile Millinery Shop, and two land offices were among the new establishments. Only three saloons were still operating, and they under the handicap of an $800 license fee which went into the school fund.

Many of the new buildings were constructed north of the tracks where the new town was to be located. A fire broke out in one of the stores south of the tracks on August 6, 1884, and a good portion of the old business section burned down. A few days later Ed Whorley was killed in the Crystal Palace by a gambler named Lank Keyes. It was the last murder of the trail-driving days, and it might well have marked the last days of Ogallala as a cowtown. In October the Congregational Church was organized, further evidence of a new and different area of interest on the part of Ogallala’s citizenry.

The old days were gone, and with them many of the old personalities of the trail-driving days. The Lonergans were gone - Tom killed on a round-up down on Red Willow Creek, Phil in Colorado. DePriest sold out his livery stable in 1887 and in the next year was relieved of his position of sheriff after he had moved to Perkins County. Tucker sold his saloon after the 1885 season, went back to North Platte, and later drifted down into New Mexico in search of new wealth and excitement. The old faces were thinning out.

Soon after Ogallala’s demise as a cowtown the range cattle industry itself collapsed. Nesters, adverse weather, overcrowding of the range, and inflationary and unwise financing brought an end to the most romantic phase of the cattle industry. Yet the industry was to emerge again in modified form, based on the firmer foundations of blooded stock, fenced pastures, and careful financing. Once again Ogallala was to become the center of the cattle industry in the Platte Valley, but never again was it the lurid, hectic cowtown it had been from 1875 to 1885.

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