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Merrick County
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The Nonpareil - Mar. 10, 1898  

• THE NONPAREIL'S •

History of Merrick County

• From "the beginning" until the year 1895.

 

CHAPTER II.


THE EARLY SETTLERS.


LetterROM 1858 until 1869--eleven years--the early settlers had no permanent "town." Lone Tree Station served simply as a "depot" for the designation of a settlement which was scattered along over considerable territory adjacent to the Platte River. During these eleven years Merrick County was passing through the uncertain first stages of early settlement. To the question, "Who was the first settler on Merrick County soil?" we doubt if one-fourth of the present population could give a definite answer. Yet, so far as we can determine by both the records and the memories of the old settlers, he who first made his home on the soil of the newly named county is still one of our leading business men, just as interested in the county and its future now as he was in the days of his first acquaintance with it.
   From the July 4th, 1876, address of John L. Martin, on the occasion of the "Centennial Celebration," we glean the following account of the coming of the first settler:
   In August, 1859, James Vieregg, returning to the States from the gold fields of California, stopped in Hall County to visit with his brother John, who had "squatted" there. While resting there and beholding the fertile plains displayed before him, and looking with prophetic eye forward to its future greatness, he came down within the boundary of Merrick County, drove a cottonwood stake into the ground and lariatted his claim on what the government surveyors afterwards located as the southeast quarter of section 5, township 11 north, range 8 west. This claim was located Thursday, September 5th, 1859, and was the first settlement by a white man in Merrick County, Nebraska.

Photograph
JAMES VIEREGG,
MERRICK COUNTY's EARLIEST SETTLER.
From a comparatively recent photograph.
(added by hand: 1833-1924)

   The Merrick County to which Mr. Vieregg came is well described by Wells Brewer, in answer to the question, "What was Merrick County then?"

   Many roving trappers and hunters had passed through it, sojourning for a few weeks and perhaps months, but previous to the summer of 1859 no white man had called it his home. It had long been the battle ground between the Pawnees and the tribes of the Plains, the Sioux, the Cheyennes and the Arapahoes. .... For a thousand years at least it had been a part of the favorite grazing ground of the buffalo, the elk and the antelope, as the numerous bones, heads and horns at all depths in the soil abundantly testify. For countless ages the prairie grass had started up fresh and green with each returning summer's sun, to be swept away by the prairie fires that followed the first frosts of each succeeding autumn; .... and the wild prairie flowers had bloomed on the banks of this broad river, had nodded in the wind, and had "wasted their sweetness on the desert air."

 

   It is difficult for us to conceive of the days when Columbus on the east and Grand Island on the west were the nearest towns, and when the scantiness of these often prolonged the eastward journey to Omaha and the westward one to "Fort Kearney." To Omaha was a trip of ten days with the "freight" and one of two days by the "passenger" coach. To Kearney was a journey of four days with oxen and of one day with horses.1

1Mr Vieregg says no more was thought of a journey to Denver in those early days than people now seem to think of a trip from Palmer to Central City.
Photograph
THE FIRST HOMESTEAD,
Taken up in 1859 by Mr. Vieregg. The house seen
in the picture was not built until 1865-6,
just after the former house had been destroyed by fire.

   But Mr. Vieregg's honor as the first Merrick Countyite is not without a close competition. It was the latter part of the same day, toward sunset, that two other travelers, from the east this time, stopped beneath the lengthened shadow of the old "lone tree," and counseled whether it would be a good neighborhood in which to make a new business venture. Deciding in the affirmative, they set about the establishment of that complex combination of all branches of industry known then as a "ranch." It may be allowable here to remark that a "ranch" in those days included everything from a hotel, with its inevitable bar, to the feeding of stock for markets further east or west. These two travelers who are entitled to the honors as second and third inhabitants of Merrick County were Jesse Shoemaker and Chas Eggerton, both of Douglas County. By the end of six months Mr. Shoemaker had his family located with him in his new home. "Shoemaker's Point," as the situation of the ranch was named by the people of its day, was only a short distance from the present town of Chapman, and was the site of the first post office in Merrick County, located there in 1861, with W. H. Mitchell as postmaster. "Previous to its establishment," says Wells Brewer in a letter to the Lone Tree Courier of August 20th, 1874, "the settlers in the middle

Photograph
J. G. BREWER
From a photograph taken in 1865.

and eastern portion of the county had generally had their mail directed to Columbus, whence it was forwarded to them by the kindness of the postmaster, through the pockets of the stage drivers. This insecure method of conveyance was sometimes painfully apparent in the condition of the letters when they reached their destination, especially if the weather happened to be stormy. Again, as there was a change of drivers at Eagle Island (situated at the extreme eastern limit of Merrick County, in the Platte River) it sometimes happened that the driver from Columbus failed to deliver to his successor the letters in charge, in which case they would be carried back to Columbus. When there was only a weekly line of stages, the delay thus occasioned was considerable." But the further history of our early "post office" will be taken up in a later part of this chapter. For the present we will resume our work of becoming acquainted with the early settlers.
   It was only a little later in the same year that J. G. and Wells Brewer, returning from their "Pikes Peak" search for gold, arrived in Merrick County in quest of a new home. Their coming is thus described by the latter:

Photograph
WELLS BREWER
From a photograph taken in 1865.

   For many days and weeks our pilgrims had been journeying over the verdureless waste of the great plain, wearied with its death-like monotony. As may readily be supposed, the wide, green valley of the Platte, had to them unusual charms. The little patches of sod corn by the roadside that they occasionally passed looked so green and luxuriant, the little earth-covered cabins of the settlers, few and far between though they were, looked so cozy and comfortable to them, who had passed so many months without seeing any human habitation whatever,

Photograph
HOMESTEAD OF J. G. BREWER.

that they were more and more persuaded that the land in which they were journeying was a goodly land, and that the parched, dreary, and irreclaimable desert was passed. So entirely were they convinced, of this that at night, when they halted at the earth-covered cabin of one of the settlers it required but little setting forth on the part of said settler of the good qualities of the soil and climate to induce them to make up their minds to halt for a season, at least, and look around. With that halt of our pilgrims to look around the die was cast; they never continued their journey.
   Judge Brewer at once located on the farm which yet bears his name, but after a brief stay his brother Wells returned temporarily to Michigan. The names of Messrs. Vieregg and Brewer, thus early associated with the history of our county, have been prominent in all its later development, as will be found in subsequent chapters.

(Chapter II will be concluded next week)



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TOC
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© 2000, 2001 by Ted & Carole Miller