Texas longhorns were trailed into Nebraska soon after the end of the Civil War. They provided stock for ranches across the Northern Plains and supplied beef to army posts and Indian agencies. Between 1875 and 1884 Ogallala was the last of a series of end-of-trail towns in the state that served as focal points for Texas Herds.
Union Pacific executives, observing that shipping cattle to eastern packers was profitable for Kansas railroads, believed they could undercut Kansas freight rates in Nebraska and still make money. At the same time Texas drovers, dissatisfied with facilities at Abilene, began to seek Nebraska shipping points for their herds. In 1870 the railroad established a loading facility at Schuyler. Local pressure shut it down after a single season. Kearney as an end-of-trail town was used only three seasons before tension between local residents and the trail hands led to the October 1874 "Kearney War," which made that town untenable. In North Platte, the Fremont Slough south of town precluded holding herds close to the rail yards, and the table land south to the Republican River was already claimed by local ranchers. 1
Ogallala, however, suited. It was already a shipping point for buffalo byproducts via Louis Aufdengarten’s trading post, established in 1869. 2 And pasture south to Stinking Water Creek was unclaimed, primarily because the tableland was dry, although the stretch between the head of the creek and the South Platte River was only one long day's drive for trail herds.
A group of North Platte businessmen and ranchers, allied with the Union Pacific, organized Keith County from Lincoln County’s Alkali, Ogallala, and portion of Big Springs precincts. It was named after cattleman Morell Case Keith. The group included lawyer Beach Hinman, rancher and politician Guy C. Barton, and rancher Isaac Dillon, nephew of Union Pacific President Sidney Dillon. None of them ever lived in Keith County, and Hinman, the active partner in developing Ogallala, did not buy the site and plat the town until 1875.3
The motive for organizing the county was understood from the beginning by the few local residents. Louis Aufdengarten was already calling his trading post "The Drovers’ Store" in early February 1873, more than a year before the railroad constructed the shipping pens. The county’s lack of population was a virtue for a terminus for Texas cattle.4
When Keith County was officially organized on May 3, 1873, there were barely enough literate permanent residents to fill required county offices. Edwin M. Searle, James W. Miller, and John Dowd were appointed county commissioners. Louis Aufdengarten was county clerk; Scott Keith, probate judge; Robert Law, county treasurer; Asa H. Bradley, county sheriff; George Van Camp, superintendent of schools; and John Gordon, surveyor. All but one were railroad employees. "Permanent" was ephemeral; only four of the initial appointees were still available to hold office in October when the first election was held. Bradley, the sheriff, still lived in Keith County that fall and was confirmed in office with a total of fifty-three of fifty-six votes cast.5
Asa Bradley was a twenty-eight-year-old railroad engineer from Ohio, and whether he had law enforcement experience is not known. The demands of office were not heavy, however. During his two years as sheriff the only incident of consequence was the arrest of eighteen-year-old William Blyer, who pleaded guilty on June 19, 1874, to stealing "one coat worth $13, one hat worth $13, one hat worth $2, and $34 in money."6
Keith County had no jail, so Blyer was incarcerated in North Platte and became a serious financial burden. By January 1875 the commissioners were chafing under the ongoing expense. They signed a $2500 contract with Louis Aufdengarten to construct a sixteen-by-twenty-four-foot rock jail with walls ten feet high, iron bars on the windows, a door covered with boiler iron, a floor made of two-inch oak, and a ceiling of one-inch oak flooring. On May 3 they decided to increase the length of the proposed jail by two feet.7
At the same May meeting Bradley resigned. He moved to North Platte, where he became the Lincoln County sheriff. Perhaps he had concluded that law enforcement paid better in Lincoln County. It was more than five years until Keith County commissioners paid the sheriff a salary. Until then the men who held office were paid only a fee per incident plus mileage and expenses.8
The commissioners asked Frank McAuliff to fill the sheriff’s office, but he refused the job and soon thereafter became a county commissioner. The county was without a sheriff for two months until the commissioners next met on July 6, 1875. Then "Frank McAuliff not having accepted the Office of Sheriff of Keith Co. Geo. Carothers was appointed Sherrief [sic] filed his bond, and the same was approved by the board."9 Carothers was a clerk at Aufdengarten’s store and "was quite a favorite among the boys," probably as good a law enforcement attribute as Keith County could hope for.10 He was in office a month when the county’s first recorded murder occurred.
Robert Webster in 1875 was working as a drover with one of the more than thirty herds of Texas cattle driven north that year.11 His crew was encamped about twenty miles northwest of Ogallala on the morning of August 5 when the crew’s black cook went hunting for wild game to add variety to the monotonous diet. A herder known as Woolsey disguised himself as an Indian and rode down on the cook, who set out for camp at a run. At least one of Woolsey’s companions participating in the plot fired shots over the herder’s head to lend credence to the appearance of an Indian attack, and some of the shots nearly hit Woolsey. Later he located Webster, his co-conspirator, bathing in the Platte River and shot him to death in revenge. Woolsey then mounted his pony and rode off. 12 The Western Nebraskian, a North Platte newspaper, commented:
It is said that both men [Woolsey and Webster] were hard cases; but no words are too strong with which to denounce the deep-seated cowardice of shooting a man under such circumstances.13
County Court was immediately called into session. Probate Judge W.P.P. St.Clair found that "murder has been committed in the County of Keith by shooting Robert S. Webster and that the same was committed by one Woolsey whose other name is not known". Woolsey could not be found, information having been telegraphed to Great Bend, Hayes City, and Buffalo."14 Following a coroner’s inquest, which found five bullet wounds in Webster’s body, his remains were "buried at the foot of the hill north of town."15 Woolsey was never heard from again.
Carothers arrested two thieves that fall. On September 11, 1875, E.F. Baker faced the county court concerning the theft of two horses, and on September 27, John McCaffery (or McCaffey) appeared on the docket charged with stealing $175.16 Apparently they were the first incarcerated in Ogallala’s new jail, and McCaffery was the of many who escaped (October 24) and disappeared.
There were no more murders that year, but another death came to the sheriff’s attention. On December 15, Edwin Searle telegraphed area rancher Russell Watts in North Platte that "William Coffman was found dead at your ranch, today, shot through the heart." He was "boss herder" at Watts’s ranch just west of Alkali. An inquest found he had been shot through the head, apparently while cleaning a gun on December 14.17
Joseph G. Hughes conducted the inquest on Coffman’s body. For the next forty years Hughes appeared and reappeared as Keith County coroner, assessor, judge of elections, jailer, deputy sheriff, sheriff, and, occasionally, courthouse janitor. He was also a professional hunter, farmer, stockman, well-driller, horse-trainer, and farrier, acquiring whatever skill was useful on the frontier.
Carothers refiled his bond January 7, 1876, but resigned April 17. The commissioners held his resignation a week, perhaps because they were hard pressed to find a replacement. Then Edwin M. Searle took the sheriff’s job.18
Searle was eighteen years old in 1867 when the Union Pacific hired him as telegrapher at Alkali Station. He served Lincoln County as Alkali constable from 1868 to 1873. The Union Pacific transferred him to Ogallala about the time the county was organized. He lived in Keith County the rest of his life, acknowledged as the county’s first permanent resident and one of the original county commissioners.19
The year 1876 was a wild season in Oglallala. At least as many herds came up the trail as in 1875. Their arrival coincided with the year’s first killing. A few cattle from one herd had become mixed in with those of another. When William Bland tried to cut out his branded stock from the herd managed by Joseph Hayden, Hayden resisted. A heated verbal exchange escalated to gunfire when Hayden shot Bland in the shoulder. 20 "Damn you," said Bland, "If that’s your game I’ll give you enough of it," and returned fire. In the ensuing fusillade by both men, Bland shot Hayden in the neck, killing him instantly. After Hayden had expired, Bland gave him two more shots for good measure. A coroner’s jury ruled Bland acted in self-defense. Hayden’s body was shipped off to Cheyenne for burial.21
In town, Railroad Street was a jamboree day and night with horse races and buffalo rides and other bravado stunts and drunken cowboys roaming back and forth between the village’s two saloons and two identifiable houses of prostitution.22
At the same time every westbound train that chugged through Ogallala carried emigrants heading for Cheyenne and Salt Lake City and California who had discovered that the railroad was cheaper and easier travel than wagons. They gaped out of grimy windows at the cowtown uproar, and some of the bravest stepped onto the platform and rushed across the street to the Drover’s Store to replenish their supplies, or ducked into the section house to buy a meal, or into the OK Saloon or the Crystal Palace to see if Ogallala whiskey was any worse than North Platte whiskey.23
Professional gamblers had discovered the town, and three-card monte, faro, and other games of chance ran twenty-four hours a day. An unnamed cardsharp won $10,000 paid in gold and his victims were determined he was not going to leave town with it. According to a story in the September 2, 1876, edition of The Western Nebraskian, reprinted from the Kansas City Times, he succeeded
...after much strategy, in skipping the town. A train passed Ogallala about 2 o’clock in the morning and on this train the hero of the deal and chip made his escape. The enraged cattlemen, however, were determined to get their money back. They immediately telegraphed ahead of the train to friends at Alkali. When the train arrived "the cattlemen of that place boarded the train and were not long in finding the little joker pretending to be fast asleep in a berth in the middle of the Pullman. The trouble then commenced and a lively time was had for a few minutes".The cattlemen finally dragged out their victim, tied him to a mule, and started away with him. The fate of the gambler was not ascertained. The Pullman car was pretty freely perforated with the bullets.24
Searle’s tenure as sheriff concluded shortly thereafter. The commissioners fired him. It came about because "Pedro, other name unknown" was killed near Roscoe on September 10 by Cheyenne Count temporary deputies.25 Pedro, a Mexican citizen working at a Sidney livery stable, one day in late August disappeared with two horses. He was traced to Ogallala, and from there to cattleman James Ellison’s camp near Roscoe by Cheyenne County Deputy Sheriff John Zweifel and two temporary deputies from Sidney. One of the deputies, Harry Gaylord, shot Pedro during an escape attempt. His body was brought to Ogallala, and after an inquest conducted by Joe Hughes, buried on Boot Hill.26
The Sidney Telegraph reported that "Ed. Searls [sic] Sheriff of Keith County was in the city on Monday last," September 11, the Monday following Pedro’s Sunday night killing.27 There is no indication why he was in Sidney or how long he had been away from Keith County. But the following Monday, September 18, the commissioners fired Searle, replacing him with Frederick W. Gasmann. It is not clear whether the board was miffed because Searle had not been on hand to help intercept Pedro, or because the incident was a culmination of other, unnamed, derelictions of duty.28
Gasmann’s appointment was an obvious stopgap. He served just fifty-four days, all of them after most cowboys had gone south, and there was not a single incident noted during his term. On November 11, 1876, he accepted the probate [county] judge position vacated when W.P.P.St.Clair left to represent the Forty-ninth District in the Legislature. Millard F. Leech accepted the sheriff’s job.29
Leech, with his father David, ran a herd of cattle near Ogallala and operated a dry goods store in town. He had just finished constructing Spofford House, Ogallala’s second hotel. Leech had a real law enforcement ability. He had already run down a horse and mule thief as a Lincoln-Keith County stock inspector. But he did not use his talents long as Keith County sheriff, and his term was almost as uneventful as Gasmann’s. The day he resigned, February 20, 1877, he billed the county $20 for guarding and boarding one prisoner, perhaps the horse and mule thief, and went back to work as a range enforcer, this time for the newly organized Stock Association of Western Nebraska. He was later hired as a troubleshooter by the Union Pacific Railroad.30
Joseph G Hughes was then appointed sheriff. It may have seemed to the county commissioners that they had scraped the bottom of the barrel. It was one thing to have an ex-buffalo hunter as temporary coroner - that work wasn’t for the squeamish - but another to put him in a job that, even in Keith County, required some public relations skill.
Hughes came to Keith County from Indiana in 1873 and was soon joined by his wife, Elizabeth Ann Southard Hughes, and the eldest son of what became a family of four sons and a daughter. He hunted the buffalo that crowded the river valley between Ogallala and North Platte and when the buffalo were gone a year later, claimed farm land near Roscoe. In 1874 Jasper Southard, his widowed brother-in-law, came to live with them and through the wildest years helped with family and farm and pitched in as a law officer when Hughes needed help.31 The winter of 1876-77 was quiet except for one unusual incident: "A couple of fellows with their heads bashed in" were discovered lying behind one of Ogallala’s saloons. Hughes buried them, but never discovered who killed them.32
Hughes had no further business of note until August 1, 1877, when William "Billy" Campbell was killed in a gunfight. Campbell was famous across the cattlemen’s West. Most memorable of his feats was the occasion in 1868 when Joseph G McCoy, founder of the Abilene cattle market, hired Campbell and five other premier ropers to capture buffalo bulls to send East by rail to advertise the availability of western cattle at Abilene.33
Ed Lemmon, a veteran drover, worked with Campbell that summer moving Bosler Brothers cattle north to the reservations. According to Lemmon, they had delivered one herd and had come back to Ogallala to pick up another. He was to meet Campbell at Tuck’s Saloon "but when I got there they were just picking up Bill’s remains to take to the undertaker."34
James Cook, a trail hand who later settled in Sioux County on land he named Agate Springs Ranch, was an eyewitness to the shooting. He was eating supper early that evening, he said, when a pair of neatly dressed hands entered the Ogallala House dining room. They were soon followed by an inebriated Bill Campbell, who overheard the trail hands ordering baked beans. Campbell jumped to his feet and shouted, "just what I thought, a couple of damned Yankee bean eaters." He then proceeded with the most abusive language at his command. Brothers Andy and Alfred "Babe" Moye left the table quietly and walked out. Campbell, who was armed, followed and shouted insults.35
Born in Georgia and raised in Texas, the Moyes kept their tempers, Cook said, and went to W.H. Tucker’s saloon to pick up their revolvers preliminary to leaving town. But Bill Campbell, spoiling for a fight, closely followed and as he entered the saloon, Andy Moye and Campbell fired simultaneously. Campbell was killed instantly, and the Moyes fled the saloon and escaped south.36
Lemmon’s version of the story was that Campbell’s insults had to do with a plate of hash, that Andy Moye was drunk, that neither Campbell nor Moye was armed when they left the hotel but both retrieved their guns and met at the saloon by pre-arrangement; and that the other brother, the "sober" Moye, shot Campbell in the back.37 The Sidney Telegraph, reporting the shooting three days later, said gunfire erupted between Campbell and one of the Moyes before they left the hotel.38 All three versions agreed that several innocent bystanders were injured.
With Campbell dead and the Moyes having fled, there was not much that Hughes or Ogallala’s fledgling legal system could do. Nonetheless, when the first term of the district court was held in Keith County the next year, "Thomas Moy" was indicted by a grand jury for the murder of William Campbell.39
The week after the Campbell killing, Hughes, Lincoln County Sheriff Asa Bradley, and a stock inspector named Barney Gillan caught three horse thieves: Dick Ruble, George Leavenworth, and Peter Wilson. They were tried in Cheyenne County District Court, convicted of grand larceny, and sent to the penitentiary for five years.40
Then in early September blood was spilled again. James E. "Little Jim" Alby, John Bratt’s wrangler, took exception to being "blacksnaked" by the foreman of one of Dillard Fant’s herds and shot him. Bratt in his Trails to Yesterday recalled that Alby stopped at his ranch southeast of North Platte during his successful escape attempt and that pursuing Sheriff Joe Hughes also stopped at the ranch. "I learned later that the sheriff never caught him."41
Hughes charged the county $164.13 for chasing Alby. The amount suggests that this was the instance recalled recently by Hughes’ great-grandson, John Walraven, when "the old buffalo hunter" followed his man "clear to Texas."42
In September 1877 Frank Stephens, alias "Shorty," assaulted Thomas Harrison. Whether the two were cowhands or not is unknown. The county provided medical care for the severely injured Harrison and in December sent him to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Omaha for treatment at a cost of $7 per week.43 Harrison inproved enough that he could return to Ogallala in the spring of 1878 to testify at district court when "Shorty" was indicted for the beating.44 Evidently Harrison continued to suffer from his injuries for he returned to St. Joseph’s in Omaha in the spring of 1880 and must have died; the county bought a coffin for him in June.45 The Stephens indictment, like that against Moye, never led to an arrest.
Barney Gillan, active in August as a stock inspector in Leech’s territory, was elected Keith County Sheriff on November 6, 1877. Soon he arrested William Harris and Henry Gaylord for horse stealing - probably the same Gaylord who was involved in shooting Pedro, the horse thief.46
On January 26, 1878, Gillan reported that he had three more men in jail. The commissioners instructed the county clerk to "write Wm Gaslin Dist. Judge to ascertain how soon he could arrange for a term of Court in Keith County to have said prisoners tried, and if he thought it would be less expensive to have said prisoners tried in another county."47 Judge Gaslin ignored the expense question and said he would be pleased to set a term of court in mid-April "provided it would suit."48
On April 8, Jake J. Brown, Michael Veach, and James Farley were tried for "branding cattle not belonging to them." Brown was acquitted; Veach and Farley were sentenced to thirty additional days in jail. Twenty days later "the Clerk was instructed to notify the sheriff to discharge the prisoners when the Thirty days for which they were sentenced were up."49 The county had heated the jail and housed and fed the men most of that bitter winter, and the commissioners didn’t want to prolong the matter.
The summer of 1878 was comparatively quiet on Railroad Street. Barney Gillan was a cattleman’s sheriff, ignoring cowboys’ high spirits and concentrating on controlling rustlers and horse thieves. C.M. Richardson was arraigned for stealing horses August 17, and the commissioners requested Judge Gaslin to visit Keith County again. Richardson went to the penitentiary for three years. In November Jack Howard was sentenced to ten years.50 Howard had stolen Louis Aufdengarten’s horses. Aufdengarten posted a reward for his apprehension, but the commissioners took responsibility for paying it and the following spring established a standing offer of $200 for the capture of horse thieves and cattle rustlers.51
A few weeks later another drama occurred. Isom Prentice "Print" Olive and his brothers Ira and Robert (who also used the name Bob Stevens) had left Texas in 1876 and claimed a range on the Middle Loup River in what soon became Custer County. Settlers were already taking homesteads on the eastern edge of the territory. The Olives had no sympathy for farmers, particularly those who helped themselves to ranchers’ beef - and most settlers did. Ami Ketchum and Luther Mitchell were accused of stealing Olive cattle. Robert Olive, deputized by the Buffalo County Sheriff, rode into Mitchell’s yard to serve a warrant, an a gunfight broke out. Olive was mortally wounded. The Howard and Merrick county sheriffs captured Mitchell and Ketchum and took them to the Kearney jail. "Print" Olive wanted the men tried on his Custer County home ground and turned to an old friend from Texas, Barney Gillan, to pick up the grangers in Kearney and transport them to the Custer County courthouse.52