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Merrick County
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The Nonpareil - Mar. 31, 1898


History of Merrick County

• From "the beginning" until the year 1895.





Lettero the settlers of these later days the sight of the Platte River practically without water in it is not an uncommon or sensational one. Irrigation west of our county has from summer to summer absorbed the volume of water which in times past flowed through Merrick County, and left us but one or two shallow channels in the entire breadth of the mile-wide Platte. But to the early settler such a state of affairs was not only unheard of, but decidedly alarming. So when in the summer of 1863 the Platte ran entirely dry, that fact and the causes of the occurrence fixed themselves firmly in the minds of those who shared in the alarm which was produced. The story is well told by Wells Brewer in his "Recollections of an Old Settler:

   The year of 1863 is remembered by the old settlers of Merrick County as a remarkable one on two accounts; one is the very severe frost that occurred in the latter part of the month of August; the other that the Platte river was, during nearly the entire autumn, a bed of dry, drifting sand, a thing hitherto unprecedented in the memory of the oldest settler. It is probable that the like had not occurred for many years before, for even the Indians had no tradition of a similar occurrence and seemed as much surprised at the unwonted phenomenon as the whites. On one or two previous seasons the June rise had been but a slight affair, and the river had run very low during the hot months; but this year the June rise was scarcely perceptible and by the 20th of August the great river had, for hundreds of miles above its junction with the Loup, dived completely beneath its sandy bed. The reason was undoubtedly the light fall of snow in the Rocky Mountains the previous winter--a winter of unusual mildness throughout the whole United States. But this cause for the strange freak of the river was not wholly understood by the settlers at the time and many feared that some land slide in the mountains had diverted the currents of some of the tributary streams of the Platte, in which case its dryness might be permanent. When the water was at its lowest stage, which was in the month of September, it could be obtained by digging in the lowest parts of the river bed to a depth of about two feet; but on the surface the sand was entirely destitute of moisture and was drifted about into all sorts of fantastic shapes by the wind; on some of the Islands it was piled in heaps to a height of five or six feet. Considerable difficulty was met with in obtaining water in sufficient quantities for stock. Digging in the sand was of no consequence as on reaching water the quick sand immediately filled the hole. The experiment of curbing was resorted to, but it was difficult to get even a curb to stand long as the cattle tramping in the sand outside of them soon broke them in. As a consequence of this, the stock in the valley suffered considerably for water. However one morning about the first of November, on looking far up the river, something was seen to glitter in the sun that did not rook exactly like sand; that it was water could hardly be believed; but it was water. In a few hours little rivulets of clear water were winding their way down the broad waste of sand and the Platte river was itself again.

   Few of us can realize the sensation which the early settler must have experienced when the fearful possibility, suggested by Mr.


Brewer's article, dawned upon him--a dread lest ''some land-slide in the mountains had diverted the currents of some of the tributary streams of the Platte, in which case its dryness might be permanent.
   To the early settler the waters of the Platte were the promise of his continued existence, and their permanent absence meant the return to a desert of all the country in which he had planted his new home. It was this fear, rather than the actual dryness of the river, that made the year 1863 memorable among the men of those days, and causes its record here as one of the "interesting events of early settlement."

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LetterEW counties in Nebraska, we presume, can boast of the same percentage of loyalty among its early settlers as can Merrick County. When the war broke out there were twelve men in the county who were liable to military service, and of these seven faced the terrors of the battle field and honored the county from which they went. The story of their going and their fortune in war has, at our request, been furnished us by the first volunteer from the county, Mr. Frank Jewell, and we give it below in his own words, preceded by a few reminiscences which, while hardly bearing upon the subject in hand, we would not feel justified in omitting. Mr. Jewell's story is as follows:

   At the beginning of the civil war there were residing in the territory at present known as Merrick County --perhaps a dozen men who were subject to military duty and capable of bearing arms in their country's defense--that is, one dozen men between the ages of 18 and 45 years. Besides these, of course there were a good many boys under that age and some men too far advanced in years to be called to the defence of their flag. Out of the above number seven enlisted and served their country from the beginning to the end of the war, and all came through safely; and the writer of these lines knows of but one of them who has as yet crossed over to the other side of the dark river. Now in studying the history of our country in our boyhood days there would have been a link lacking if we could not have had a picture of the minute men firing on the red coats at Concord, or old Israel Putnam sliding down those impassable rocky cliffs upon his rearing charger. So, too, we think there would be something lacking from the history of Merrick County without a reference to its loyalty to the old flag in the days that "tried men's souls"--constitutions, also. It would be somewhat like the tragedy of Hamlet with the ghost left out. If in placing these few items before your readers I should become absent minded or reminiscent the old vets of the county are at liberty to accuse me of adopting their old method, used in a "pinch," of "swapping lies."

   My first recollections of the Platte Valley are of a bright, clear evening in October, 1860, when, with a train of some fifteen or twenty wagons, we came winding over the hills from Omaha upon the military trail, and came in sight of the valley at the old Elk Horn ranch, just a little before sunset. The atmosphere


was so clear that we could plainly see the trees on the Platte river at North Bend, 35 miles away, and nothing to intervene except a few houses at Fremont--perhaps half a dozen in all. That was a sight to enthuse the boy of eighteen who had since his thirteenth year been blessed mostly with hard knocks and the privilege of taking care of himself. There he saw thousands of acres waiting for the plow, with no one to object and nothing to pay. So you cannot blame him if he was a little enthusiastic and pulled out in the morning with a heart full of hope for brighter days in the future. Arriving at the old ranch conducted by Uncle Jason Parker on Oct. 20th, 1860, we met the first familiar face after a trip of about 500 miles, and at once took the course advised by a great statesman of later days and proceeded to "grow up with the country." Many things that would be strange and new to the people of the present time were seen in those days. I remember, for instance, the signs used at the most of the ranches--a piece of cracker box cover nailed to a cedar stake and ornamented with the following writing in lamp-black or red chalk:




   Now this is not as comic or unique a sign as can be gotten up by our promoter of advertising in Central City, but is at least suggestive. It starts out with the staff of life, is re-enforced with slippery sweetness and ends at the road to d----nation. Another peculiar nuisance in early ranch life was the habit all pilgrims going in either direction had of asking so many questions. This resulted in the manufacture of another sign by the irrepressible Cyrus Parker, a youth at the ranch. To relieve the boys of spending so much useless breath he elaborated from his fertile mind the following and posted it on another board:

130 miles to Omaha

13 miles to Shoemaker's

40   "  "  Columbus

70   "  " Kearney

20   "  "  Eagle Island

We came from York State

We are going to live here

This is No Telegraph Office

You ---- fool.

   The latter part of which came near getting him a warm jacket from good Uncle Jason, and had to be rubbed out. The telegraph office needs a little explanation. At that time the Overland T. line had a station at Columbus and another at Johnson, on Wood river about 40 miles west of Parker's Ranch, and for the purpose of repairing in case of accidents they had at Parker's what was called a "testing office," to find any breaks in the wire. This office was in a little box with the wire parted and each end covered by a brass plate, with a third plate to button across from one to the other to form the circuit, and a ground wire within reach. The test was made by placing a damp finger on one of the plates, after parting them, and touching the end of the ground wire to the tongue. If hot it was all O. K., but if cold someone had to go out and mend the wire--a trip of 20 miles and back. If the line was broken beyond our beat we could signal the opposite station--Columbus or Wood River--by parting the wire and tapping the brass plates with the metal key, this sound being conveyed by wire to the other station. This was in after years a reminder to the writer of the many lost opportunities of youth, for if we had only had brains enough at that time to have attached a hello tube to the plate and talked through it, instead of using the metal key to convey the sound, we might have been millionaires and the world would have had no need of Edison.
   But I am wandering from my text and will have to get back to business. Along in the spring of 1861 a change came over the spirit of our dreams. The news of the firing upon Ft. Sumter was slowly wafted out over the plains per the Western Stage Co. to Columbus, and thence to the ranch per mule team loaded with usual amount of provisions and whiskey for the far west people. But the driver claimed that a S. C. was better than six yankees and we concluded that he must have been a-good customer of his own merchandise.
   The final result was that three of us boys pulled out for the Missouri river with three yoke of oxen and two wagons, and a few weeks' work in Iowa in the harvest field, with the boys passing by to enlist at Council Bluffs, was enough to remind the writer, at least, that it was his duty to go and hunt for that brave S. C. and take his share of the grief as foretold by the western mule driver. So upon the 7th day of August, 1861, he took the usual oath to serve our Uncle Sam for three years or during the war and was followed in close succession by the other six, whose record, so far as I can recall it to mind, is about as follows:

   FRANK JEWELL.--Enlisted August 7th, 1861, in Dodge's Battery Light Artillery, afterwards known as the 2nd Iowa Independent Battery. Discharged August 8th, 1865, having served two enlistments.

   GEO. THOMPSON.--Enlisted about Sep. 20th, 1861, in same organization. Served two terms and discharged at same time.

   The battle flag of the 2nd Iowa Battery, now in the State House at Des Moines, Iowa, if I remember rightly, bears the following inscription, and these two Merrick County boys had a hand in the whole business: "New Madrid, Farmington, Apr. 14 and 22, Corinth Siege, Iuka, Corinth Oct. 3rd and 4th, Jackson 1st, Vicksburg, May 22nd, and Siege Jackson 2nd, Tallahatchie, Hurricane Creek, Tupello, Nashville, Spanish Fort."

   ED PARKER.--Enlisted about December or January 1st, 1862, in 15th Iowa Infantry. Served also in 9th Kansas Cavalry, of which he was 2nd Lieutenant when discharged in July, 1865.

   JOSEPH WHALEY.--Enlisted about Janaury (sic) 1st, 1861, in 15th Iowa Infantry; re-enlisted in the same and followed Sherman to the sea; was in all the racket seen by Crocker's Brigade and came out at the end of the war with no damage except that made by one small bullet which he caught in his foot at Shiloh.

   ----- HURLEY. --Served in the 1st Nebraska from the beginning to the end of the war.

(Concluded next week)


© 2000, 2001 by Ted & Carole Miller