Saunders County NEGenWeb Project
Past and Present of Saunders County Nebraska, 1915



By L. W. Gilchrist

   Thompson Bissell was an 1865 settler in Saunders County and was elected a county commissioner in 1866. In the gold excitement of Pike's Peak he ran a road house on the overland trail on Platte River and did a thriving business in trading sound cattle to the emigrants for footsore animals which traveled up the Platte, destined for the gold fields of Colorado and California. In 1865 the Indian war on the plains made residence on the frontier very dangerous. The Sioux Indians were on the warpath; they were the most numerous Indians on the frontier, possibly excepting the Commanches of Texas. During this Indian trouble Mr. Bissell settled on Wahoo Creek about two miles south of where Ithaca now stands and commenced ranching and dealing in cattle. He brought with him quite a number of oxen yokes which he had received in trade from the emigrants. In 1865 William H. Dech and his father, Uncle Billy, settled near where Ithaca now stands. From 1865 until 1869 settlers did not come very fast to the prairies of Saunders County, but in the latter year there came quite a number who located in the valley west and northwest of Bissell's place. No more liberal or generous settler ever cut his fodder in this county than Thompson Bissell. His house, his table, barn and corn crib were open to any settler who traveled by his door and no one ever passed within sight without receiving a cordial invitation to stop. No one was ever charged a cent for lodging, meals or horse-feed and the writer of these lines has seen at least a dozen up-country settlers eating at his free table at one time. No man



helped the early settlers as he did. He would sell any homesteader a yoke of oxen, take his note and ask no security. He launched himself heavily into the Texas cattle business, bringing as high as 4,000 Texas steers to the county at one time. His heavy cattle risks finally broke him. He espoused the greenback craze and for a time was a prominent advocate of the 16 to 1 policy that brought financial downfall to many, him among the number. He closed out his ranch and moved to Valley County, where he died and was buried a few years since.

   In 1869 there was a good bit of claim jumping. Men took out claims in 1868 and went back home to spend the winter, intending to return in the spring. John M. Booth located a claim on Cottonwood about five miles northwest of Wahoo. Two men jumped the claim. Thompson Bissell, Moses Stocking (another 1865'er) and about twenty-five other settlers went out to the jumped claim. One of the men came to the door with a gun and Moses Stocking walked up to him, grabbed the gun, and twisted it out of his hands. There were two jumpers in the house and these were loaded on a wagon, taken to Ashland, tickets bought for them and they were placed on the B. & M. and forwarded into Iowa. They were admonished not to return, which advice they adhered to, and this ended claim jumping in Saunders County.


   There are several elements which determine the climatic conditions of Nebraska. Among them are: the latitude, the elevation above sea level, distance from bodies of water, mountain barriers, and level prairies to the south and east. Records of the weather were first kept by the United States soldiers at the frontier posts; then the first settlers observed accurately as possible the conditions; and beginning with the '70s authorized reports were kept at various points. The result of this systematic record has been to establish the fact that the average climatic conditions of the state have changed very little, if at all, since white men first came. Strong variations have occurred, the summer of 1915 being a notable exception, when cold and rain predominated, but these weather eccentricities have occurred before and will again.


   The average temperature for the year varies with the latitude and elevation. The southeastern part of the state has the highest average, 52 degrees (History of Nebraska, 1907), where the elevation approximates nine hundred feet. In the southwestern portion of the state the average temperature is about two degrees less, the elevation being in the vicinity of three thousand feet. January is the coldest month and July is the warmest. In the territory of Saunders County the lowest temperature has been about 39°, in 1874, while during the summer months the thermometer has frequently passed the 100° mark.

   The precipitation for the state is almost entirely of rain, the snowfall being generally very light. Most of the moisture received here comes from the Gulf of Mexico. In the southeastern portion, including Saunders County, the average precipitation exceeds thirty inches. Good authorities say that fully 70 per cent of the precipitation for the year falls in the months of April to August, inclusive. The percentage of cloudiness is highest in March, April, May and June, while the following three months are usually the ones with the least clouds. The wind velocity is generally high, averaging from nine to eleven miles per hour.


   In the State of Nebraska there are sixty-four species of native trees. This pertains to the state as a whole, as there are not so many species in any one section. The southeastern part of the state, which directly concerns our description of Saunders County, contains fifty species. The trees and vegetation of the state have migrated in from every direction and from distant points. It is said upon good authority that the most of the species have come in from the east.

   Trees--Some of the more important trees native to Saunders County are: red cedar (Juniperus virginiana); cottonwood (Populus deltoides); basswood (Tilia americana); white elm (Ulmus americana); red elm (Ulmus fulva); hackberry (Celtis occidentalis); silver maple (Acer saccharinum); box elder or ash-leaved maple (Acer negundo); butternut (Juglans cinerea); black walnut (Juglans nigra); shellbark hickory (Hicoria ovata); bitter hickory (Hicoria minima); white oak (Quercus


alba); bur-oak (Quercus macrocarpa); red oak (Quercus rubra); wild plum (Prunus americana); honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos); white ash (Fraxinus americana); red ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica); green ash (Fraxinus lanceolata).

   Grasses--There are on record 155 species of grasses growing in Nebraska, either in the wild state or under cultivation. The common maize or Indian corn is perhaps the most important grass product in the state, although very few people would think of a towering corn stalk as a species of grass. Indian corn is divided into five types, namely: dent type, a common field variety; Flint type, a hard variety; pop-corn type, very starchy; soft-corn type, entirely white starch; and sweet corn type, the common table variety. Other grasses are: big blue stem, switch grass, barn yard grass, green foxtail, millet or Hungarian grass, yellow foxtail, Indian rice, wild ribbon grass, Muhlenberg's grass, timothy, red top, oats, cord grass, blue grama, black grama, buffalo grass, tall grama, reed grass, salt grass, orchard grass, Kentucky blue grass, wheat grass, rye, wheat, barley, wild rye, red clover, white clover, alfalfa and the various native sedges. The last four named are scientifically classed under the head of "plants" and not "grasses."

   Wild Flowers--Some of the more important wild flowers of the state are: the lilies, orchids, buttercups, water lilies, poppies, capers, violets, mallows, cactuses, mentzelias, evening primroses, roses, lupines, prairie clovers, morning glories, gilias, pentstemons, verbenas, sunflowers, asters, golden rods.

   Weeds--Among the many plants which may be classed as weeds are the following common types: squirrel-tail grass, couch grass, porcupine grass, sand bur, smart weeds, heartsease, tumble weeds, low pigweed, loco weeds, crazy weeds, shoestring, milkweeds, wild morning glory, horse nettle, buffalo bur, nightshade, wild verbena, prairie pink, thistles, Spanish needles, sunflowers, cocklebur, ragweeds, horseweed, and iron weeds, shepherds purse, Russian thistle, lambs quarters, pig weed, tumble weed, purslane, plantain, dandelion, creeping thistle, burdock, oxeye daisy.


   Saunders County is one of the best drained counties in the state. There are many creeks running through the country, also


many springs which pour into these creeks, and Platte River as the northern boundary. Salt Creek gathers its waters from Saunders, Butler, Seward and Lancaster counties, uniting them in the great salt basin near Lincoln, and flowing thence northeasterly through a broad and beautiful valley, flanked on either hand by picturesque slopes of upland. The Wahoo is a stream of much importance in the county. Its numerous upper branches rise in range 5 east, and in towns 14, 15, 16 and 17 north, and flowing in a general southeast direction, unite their waters near the geographical center of the county. Sand Creek, the longest and largest of these tributaries, has its source near the Platte coast or bluff and also near the west line of the county, in township 17 north. Its general course is southeast to the point where it unites with the Wahoo. It has two tributaries, Willow and Spring Creeks and Barnhill branch.

   Cottonwood, the next tributary in order of the Wahoo, rises in section 20, town 16, range 5 and has a very direct southeast course for fifteen miles and enters the Wahoo on section 9, town 14, range 7. Dunlap Creek rises on section 8, town 14, range 5, and bearing northeasterly, enters the larger creek on section 32, town 15, range 6. North Fork, Barnhill branch, is the most southerly of the upper branches, and rises about section 25, town 14, range 5. Running northeast it joins the Wahoo on section 8, town 14, range 6. The next tributary of the right bank is the Miller branch, a small stream, but traversing a broad valley. It rises about section 33, town 14, range 6 and runs nearly east to section 30, town 14, range 7. Here it joins the Wahoo on section 8, of same precinct. At this junction was located a grove noted among the early settlers of the county. Below this point the right bank of the Wahoo receives no tributaries of note, they being mere draws, heading in the divide, and of only a few miles in length.

   Clear Creek: Passing now to the left bank, first below Sand Creek, we find the body of water known as Silver Creek. Its sources are four springs which issue from the side of the "Ancient Island" and it empties into the Wahoo on section 17, town 13, range 9. Upper Clear Creek, the Clear Creek of the island, is a still more feeble stream, rising in section 15, town 8 and discharging into the Platte bottom at section 1, town 14, range 9. Lower


Clear Creek, or the Clear Creek of the bottom, rises from the south side of a bog, in the west side of the Platte bottom. Its course is near the bluff, until it meets the Wahoo Valley on section 35, town 13, range 9; thence it bears easterly until it discharges its waters into the Wahoo. Rock Creek: Passing now to the south side of the county, there is Rock Creek, a mill creek, with one branch rising in the southwestern corner, and one in the northern part of town 13, range 6, and crossing into Lancaster County on section 31 of town 14, range 7, and runs southeasterly through a fine valley, leaving the county on section 36 of town 13, range 7. On the border of this valley were located some good sandstone quarries. The east fork of Oak Creek rises in Butler County, and passing through, waters the southwest township of Saunders County. Oak Creek now becomes a moderate mill stream with a very fine valley, and discharges its waters into Salt Creek.


   In the year 1880 a meeting was called in Wahoo, the object of which was the organization of a fair association. J. D. Cook was elected president: N. B. Berggren, vice president; and L. W. Gilchrist, secretary. A committee on constitution and by-laws was also appointed. Various schemes were debated as to how to raise the money necessary to carry the institution to success. It was agreed, finally, that a committee should be appointed to solicit life membership at $25 each, ten-year memberships at $10 each and five-year memberships at $5 each. J. D. Cook, John D. Lehmkuhl and another were appointed as this committee. They at once began to solicit memberships. They first secured an option from C. L. Stocking on twenty-seven and a half acres of ground in section 10 at $50 per acre. The people of Wahoo and the surrounding country subscribed generously and soon raised money enough to pay for the land, and this land was then deeded to the Saunders County Agricultural Society. An estimate was made by this committee of the amount of lumber, posts and windows needed to fence the grounds, build a floral hall, horse barns, chicken house, cattle pens, hog sheds, grand stand at the race track and all necessary buildings. The board


of directors sent the secretary to Omaha to buy the lumber necessary to complete the grounds, fences and all the necessary buildings. He was also instructed to interview the officials of the Union Pacific Railway Company and see if a reduction of freight could not be had upon the lumber from Omaha to Wahoo, and succeeded in getting the lumber hauled free of charge by the road in return for past favors granted them by Saunders County. In a little over two months the grounds were in shape and a fair was held. Upon the first day, although the weather was threatening, large crowds came to see the various displays. About 2 o'clock of the first day it began to rain, and continued all of the next day, and still the next day. The grounds were flooded with water and finally the management ordered the exhibitors to depart. A few premiums were made on horses only. The association came out at the end of this first fair with $200 on the right side of the ledger.

   The Saunders County Fair, or Exposition, as it is now called, has been held annually, and with varying success. In the last few years interest in the fair has been rather slack and it is generally known that a few more seasons of the kind and the annual fair of Saunders County will be a matter of history only.

   Considering the splendid equipment at the grounds, the valuable premiums and the excellent class of entertainment offered; the exposition merits better support upon the part of the people of the county.


   The white population of Saunders County is divided into four groups; first the native, native parentage--having both parents born in the United States; second, the native, foreign parentage--having both parents born abroad; third, native, mixed parentage--one parent native and the other foreign; and fourth, the foreign born resident.

   The total population of Saunders County by the census of 1910 was 21,179. The land area of the county included 756 square miles, thus showing a population of 28.0 people to the square mile. Of the total number of people 21,157 were white and 21 negro. In 1890 there were 21,577 white and 17 negro,


and in 1900 there were 22,067 white and still 17 negroes. There were 7,400 people with native parents, against 7,640 in 1900; there were 9,135 people with foreign or mixed parentage, 6,595 of the former and 2,540 of the latter; the total number of these two classes in 1900 was 8,991. There were 4,622 foreign born residents in 1910, in comparison with 5,436 in the year 1900. The principal nationality of the foreigners in the county is Austrian, which includes the Bohemians; then comes the Swedes and Norwegians with a close second; and third in numbers the Germans, and quite a number of Irish and a few Canadians.

   There were in 1910 10,943 males and 10,236 females in the county; 5,980 males were of voting age. In regard to the citizenship of the foreign born whites, 1,797 were naturalized, 303 had their first papers, 136 were aliens, and the data on 206 was unknown. There were 105 males of voting age who were illiterate and 232 illiterate over ten years of age. There were 6,837 persons between six and twenty years of age, that is, of school age, and 4,868 were in attendance.

   There were 4,710 dwellings in the county and 4,741 families.

   In 1910 there were 2,796 farms, 1,708 operated by owners and 1,074 by tenants. In 1900 there were 3,141 farms. There were 483,840 acres in the county. Of this total acreage 464,526 acres were in farms, in other words, 96 per cent of the land area is devoted to the pursuit of agriculture. The total value of the farm property was $52,799,056, an average of $32.56 per acre.

   In the county there were 43,687 head of cattle, 17,535 horses, 1,588 mules, 65,307 swine, 1,379 sheep and 246,427 pieces of poultry. Eight million, three hundred thirty-nine thousand, two hundred and ninety-five bushels of cereals, mostly corn, were produced in 1909.

   It is interesting to compare these county statistics with the state notations taken at the same time. In Nebraska there were 1,192,214 people in 1910, 129,678 farms, 49,157,120 acres of which 38,622,021 acres were in farms, an average of 297.8 acres to the farm, total value of farm property $2,079,818,647, showing an average value per acre of $41.80. This is almost $10 higher per acre on the average than the land in Saunders County alone.



   In 1870 the population of the county was 4,547 people; in 1875, 10,382; in 1880, 15,810; in 1890, 21,577; in 1900, 22,085; and in 1910, 21,179. The population of the county in 1915 is estimated to be about 22,500. The following table presents the population of the different precincts and towns for the years 1880, 1890, 1900 and 1910; the figures are taken from the United States Census Reports.



   The biennial report of William H. Smith, auditor of state, issued in December, 1914, gives many interesting figures pertaining to Saunders County. A few of them follow:

   There are 471,421 acres of improved land in the county, valued at $7,242,813. There are 9,064 improved city and village lots, worth $687,043. There are 14,359 horses in the county, value $244,106. There are 29,221 head of cattle, valued at $175,993. There are 23,650 hogs, valued at $55,899. There are 102 traction engines, worth $10,724. There are 806 gasoline engines, value $6,489. There are 110 typewriting machines, value $495. These are assessed values and cannot be taken as entirely correct.

   The C. B. & Q. Railroad, from Ashland to Schuyler has 37.14 miles of track in the county, worth $6,000 per mile. The same road has 26.55 miles on the Sioux City branch. The Oreapolis to Ashland branch has 2.90 miles of track. The Plattsmouth to Colorado state line branch has 3.91 miles. The Union Pacific has 41.84 miles. The Chicago & Northwestern has 44.01 miles of track in the county. The total railroad mileage in the county is 156.35 miles.


   There are not many people now living within the boundaries of Saunders County who know that several locations in the county were, in 1867, seriously considered as the site for the future state capital of Nebraska. In this year commissioners, namely, David Butler, Thomas P. Kennard (still living in Lincoln) , and John Gillespie, were appointed by the legislature to view and locate the site of the seat of government for the state within a prescribed area. They did this and in their report to the legislature of 1869, wherein they selected the Town of Lancaster in Lancaster County, mention is made of their prospective tour through Saunders County. The following quotations are taken from the original document:


   Report of the Commissioners to Locate the Seat of Government of the State of Nebraska

"To the Honorable the Senate and the House of Representatives of the State of Nebraska:

   "In pursuance of the requirements of the act of the Legislature entitled, 'An Act to provide for the location of the Seat of Government of the State of Nebraska, and for the erection of public buildings thereat,' approved June 14, 1867, the Commissioners thereby appointed assembled at Nebraska City upon Thursday, June 18, 1867, and prepared for a personal examination of the district, viz.: 'The County of Seward, the south half of the counties of Saunders and Butler, and that portion of the county of Lancaster lying north of the south line of township nine,' within which a selection was to be made for the contemplated seat of State Government.

   "Having provided an outfit, and employing Mr. Aug. F. Harvey as surveyor, to ascertain the lines of the proposed sites, we left Nebraska City on the afternoon of the 18th of July, and arrived at Lancaster, in Lancaster County, on the evening of the 19th. The 20th and 22d were occupied in a full examination of the town sites of Saline City, or 'Yankee Hill,' as it is more familiarly known, and Lancaster, the adjacent lands on both sides of Salt Creek, and the stone quarries from two to eight miles south of the village.

   "The 23d was spent in reviewing the townsite proposed on the high land west of and adjacent to the Village of Ashland, in the southeast corner of Saunders County. The surface of this site declined gently to the north and east, sufficiently for thorough drainage, and is of such evenness that but little expense will ever be involved for grading. From any part of it a widely extended panorama is spread, embracing, as it rises, many square miles in the valley of the Platte and Salt Creek. Timber is abundant, and inexhaustible quarries of fine rock outcrop along the bluffs near the mouth of Salt Creek and along the Platte, within one to four and five miles from the town. Salt Creek affords excellent water power for manufacturing purposes in Ashland. The distance of the site is about thirty-five miles from Plattsmouth, near the efflux of Salt Creek to the Platte.


   "On the 25th we went northwesterly along the old California trail through Saunders County, covering the Wahoo River near its head, and arriving at nightfall at the residence of J. D. Brown, in Butler County. Upon this route we observed no situation of commanding advantages."

   These commissioners investigated Butler County and eventually returned to the Town of Lancaster, which had impressed them very favorably on the 19th. They remark in their report that "The state lands which we observed in our tour were mainly away from considerable bodies of timber or important water courses, and did not possess, to all appearances, any particular advantages, nor was the title of them so far vested in the state at that time (the report of the selection of lands by the governor, under the acts of Congress admitting the state to the Union, not having then been certified or approved at Washington) as to warrant us in making a selection where there was a possibility that the title might fail, or in waiting until, by confirmation at Washington, the title had been secured."

   A number of attractive concessions were granted the commissioners by the citizens of the Town of Lancaster and "In the afternoon of the 29th of July we assembled in the house of W. T. Donovan, of Lancaster, and after a comparison of notes and the discussion of advantages of the many points examined, proceeded to ballot for a choice.

   "On the first ballot Lancaster received two votes and Ashland one. On the second vote Lancaster received the unanimous vote of the commissioners."

   The name of the Town of Lancaster was then changed to Lincoln.


   On the last day of August, 1903, the county newspaper editors met at the city hall in Wahoo and proceeded to organize the Saunders County Press Association. The following journalists were present at the meeting: J. B. La Chapelle, of the Ashland Journal; George A. Byrne, of the Mead Advocate; I. S. Boulier, of the Cedar Bluffs Standard; J. B. Hemphill, of the Valparaiso Visitor; Eric Johnson, of the New Era; N. J. Ludi, of the Wahoo Democrat; and T. J. Pickett, Jr., of the Wahoo Wasp.

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