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Merrick County
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The Nonpareil - April 28, 1898


History of Merrick County

• From "the beginning" until the year 1895.




(concluded from last week)

   A fourth crime--if that term can be appropriately applied to the deeds of the Indians--was committed in 1869. On the night of June 14th two horses were stolen from the pasture of John L. Martin. The account of this and the tragic outcome of an attempt to secure the thieves and the stolen property we give below in the words of Wells Brewer:

   On the morning of the 15th of June, 1869, Mr. William Shoulders, who at that time was in the employment of the McCathrons', found that a mule that he had picketed out the night before had been stolen. That it was a theft was apparent from the fact that the portion of the lariat which remained had not been broken but had been smoothly cut with a knife. Neither Shoulders nor anyone else dreamed that there were any hostile Indians near; it was supposed to be the work of some petty horse thief, or perhaps of some "tramp" or deserter who, finding the mule beside the road, had taken him to ride a few miles. From the tracks, or some other indications, the owner of the mule was led to believe that he had taken up the road, or had at least started in that direction. Taking a halter in his hand, and declaring his intention to recover his mule at any cost, Shoulders set out in the direction he supposed the thief had taken. When he reached Martin's he found that two horses were missing from there. They had been taken from the small pasture lot on the immediate bank of the river. At this point the river is free from islands and nothing interrupted the view of the other side. For some time before Shoulders' came up a horse had been noticed grazing on the other side of the river. It was thought that the horse had resembled one of the missing horses. It was thought a little strange that the horse remained grazing so long in one place; but without stopping to weigh probabilities, or in the least counting the risk or the danger, Shoulders and a young man named John Sanford at once proposed to cross over. The river was very high, the June rise being at its height, and the morning was cool--even cold; there had been quite a severe frost the night before. Crossing the river under such circumstances was no pleasant nor easy task; but divesting themselves of all superfluous clothing, and entirely unarmed they plunged boldly in; those on this side watching, and waiting the result. The crossing was toilsome and tedious; sometimes the men would be wading in water a few inches deep, and sometimes they would be struggling in the stiff current up to their armpits and again they would entirely disappear except their heads as they swam across some deep channel. Sanford being the most a active and the best swimmer always kept the lead, sometimes being a rod or two in advance of his companion. The horse was still quietly grazing on the side of the bluff. At length they reached the opposite shore and began to ascend the steep bank. They had hardly reached the summit of this bank when they turned and hurriedly sprang back into the water. That instant some ten or fifteen mounted men galloped up and commenced firing upon them. A high north wind was prevailing at the time, and the report of the guns could not be heard, but the smoke of each discharge could be distinctly seen. The two men after they sprang into the water were lost sight of. By the splashing it appeared that some of the men on horse back rode down into the water. In all some fifteen or twenty shots were fired. After about fifteen minutes spent in hurried preparation the party of horsemen rode away over the bluffs out of sight and all was quiet. No doubt could then be entertained as to the character of these mounted men; they were a party of hostile Indians.
   The news of what had taken place rapidly spread, and by noon quite a company of men had assembled. Preparations were at once made for crossing over. It was a dangerous, and in some respects, a fool-hardy venture. It might easily be that only a part of the Indians had left and that others were lying in wait in anticipation that more white men would come over. This was duly considered before it was decided to make the attempt; but the bare possibility that one or both of the unfortunate men might be lying concealed in the willows, wounded and needing help, overbore every other consideration. About half a dozen young men, as well armed as the circumstances would permit, crossed over. I regret that I cannot give the names of the men composing this party as they are deserving of all praise for thus risking their lives for the chance of aiding a fellow creature. They reached the other side without any difficulty save that from the cold and rushing waters of the river. The Indians were all gone and it was fortunate that they were, for, to say nothing about the great advantage a lurking party of Indians would have over men waist deep in that swift current, the revolvers of the white men, the only arms which they carried, were nearly all rendered useless by having been more than once under water. A rod or two from the water's edge, but screened from observation from the north side by an abrupt ridge, they found the remains of an Indian camp fire. Near this to their horror they discovered a fresh human scalp; by the color of the hair it was recognized as that of Shoulders. Strange that it should have been left here, it must have been dropped accidentally by the savage who had torn it from the head of the dying man. Some little search was made for the bodies of the two men but nothing further was discovered. The wind was now blowing a perfect gale from the north and very cold for the season; they were fast becoming so chilled and benumbed by the cold, that, fearing that if they delayed their return longer some of them would be unable to stem the current of the river, they at once abandoned the search and returned.

   These four deeds comprise the annals of our early criminal history. Nothing at all equal to them has since transpired in our county life, although the murderer's knife has, occasionally all but accomplished the death of an enemy. This has almost without exception, however, been owing to the effects of strong drink, and not to any natural criminal instinct.

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LetterE turn with a feeling of relief from the criminal record. But we are not yet through with the sad annals of our early life. Few of the older members of our community have forgotten the "Great Tornado" which in July, 1871, descended so destructively upon the county. In his centennial day speech Mr. Martin briefly describes the occurrence thus:

   On the 5th of July, 1871, about six oclock in the evening, a tornado or waterspout crossed the country, going in nearly an easterly course. It destroyed everything in its path for a width, of about 200 feet. It lifted the roof from the Lone Tree depot, destroyed a part of Bryant's Hotel, destroyed a blacksmith shop and some small houses, scattered a good part of Traver & May's lumber yard, and about one mile east of town destroyed the house of Elnathan Phelps, where he and his four children were eating supper. They were carried some eighty feet into the air, and cast to the ground about eighty yards from where the building stood, The dead body of Mr. Phelps was found hanging in a cottonwood tree, while his children were found lying among the debris around him. Strange as it may seem, the children all recovered without suffering any serious injury. Some portions of the house and furniture were found nearly two miles away.

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LetterN interesting and most curious circumstance connected with the early days is vouched for by Mr. James Berryman, who says that previous to the year of greatest immigration (1870) the coming of the seasons was as regular as clockwork. "We all knew," says Mr. Berryman, "that on the day before Christmas we must have our barns banked up, our fuel and food supplies provided for, and be prepared for winter. In the fall of 1870 the new settlers inquired as to when they should expect winter, and we told them, 'no danger at all before Christmas; winter never misses Christmas a week either way.'" But with that winter, for some cause or other, the regularity of the seasons vanished, and the immigrants who had accepted the old settler's advice found themselves early in November at the mercy of a severe western winter. Since that time the winter season has been capricious, sometimes short and at other times spreading itself all over the months from November to mid-April.
   The year of 1873 was one of the latter kind. From a lesser storm in 1872 at about the same time, however, our pioneers had learned not to be too sure of good weather before May. Consequently the great blizzard of 1873 found them not so illy prepared as would have been the case five years earlier.
   On the evening of the 13th of April, 1873, wise men of the county shook their heads and declared that before the next morning there would be a "tight blizzard." Their prediction was fulfilled. At about 12 oclock that night the storm began, and the settlers awoke the next morning to find themselves literally buried alive by the snow which had fallen during the night. A terrific north wind, swirling and eddying continually, drove the snow with such a force that at the height of the storm no one could face it long and live. Men sat about their redhot stoves and endeavored to keep themselves warm, venturing out only when absolutely necessary to look after their stock. For three days and four nights the storm raged, and when it ended fully one fourth of the live stock in the county had perished.

   Many experiences, some sad and some amusing, have been carried in the minds of those who underwent the trial of the great storm. We are able, however, to give only a few, as indicative of the intensity of the storm and the alarm which it occasioned among the people.

   The first and saddest incident of this memorable blizzard was the death of a young man, Barnhouse by name. The boy started from the Central City House to the printing office, then situated on the corner west of Larsen's implement house. When he did not return in a reasonable time inquiry was made, and it was found that he had not reached the office. A searching party of several men was organized, and joining hands they went south for a mile, and returned in the face of the blizzard, but found no trace. After the storm a party found the boy's body frozen into the ice of the Platte, near Parker's Island, only

(Continued on last page)

a short distance from some bushes whose protection, had he reached them, might have saved his life.

   It was in this storm that Thomas Kelley, who lived at that time on the Brannan farm west of town, went out to his barn, about fifty rods from his house, to feed his stock, and found the storm so severe that he chose rather to remain in the barn all night than to attempt a return to the house.

   During the fiercest part of the storm N. R. Persinger, who lived at that time on his homestead about nine miles north of town, started out with an armload of hay for his horses. As he went around the comer of the barn the wind caught him, threw him down, and rolled him and his burden of hay over and over. When he had righted himself again his cap had disappeared. This occasioned him no alarm, but when it was found after the storm, lodged against a stable over two miles away, the finders were badly frightened, surmising that the lost cap meant a lost traveler frozen to death on the prairie. Such was the alarm which prevailed during the great storm.

   To us of the later days, accustomed somewhat to the annual blizzards and more or less acquainted with the extremely severe storm which occur every five or six years, the fright of this great April Blizzard of '73 may appear of little consequence. But to the newcomer who had supposed March ended a western winter, its coming was unexpected and alarming, and few of those who passed through it have yet forgotten the terror of its coming or the rigor of its endurance.


© 2000, 2001 by Ted & Carole Miller