Part 2: Indian Scares | Grasshoppers | Organization
Progress and Present Condition of the County
Criminal | Storms and Floods
Part 3: Plum Creek: Early History | Churches | Societies
The Press and Schools | Biographical Sketches
Overton | Cozad | Willow Island
Dawson County is in extent twenty-four miles north and south, and forty-two miles east and west. It covers and area of 1,008 square miles, or 645,120 acres. It is situated 215 miles west from the Missouri River and is bounded on the north by Custer County, on the east by Buffalo, on the south by Phelps, Gosper and Frontier, and on the west by Lincoln County.
The broad and meandering Platte River enters the county from the west, about six miles from its northern boundary, and flows a little east of southeast, until the extreme south part of the county is reached, from which point it flows due east about twelve miles to the eastern limits of the county. The Plate covers about 20,000 acres of land in Dawson County. Besides the Platte there are no streams of great importance. Plum Creek, however, flows into the Platte from the south side. On the north the tributaries of this river are Buffalo Creek and several very small creeks, most of them containing running water only a portion of the year. Flowing across the northwestern portion of the county is Wood River, which is a stream of considerable importance. All of the streams mentioned have small streams flowing into them have running water a portion of the year, and when the water does not flow they furnish an abundance of water for stock purposes. The beds of the streams are dotted with deep holes, that always contain water furnished by springs at the bottom. The many streams and cañons give the county an abundance of drainage and render Dawson as one of the best counties for stock raising in Western Nebraska; affording an abundance of water and at the same time fertilizing the land, which yields an abundant growth of rich wild grasses. Of the uplands there is but one small part unavailable for agricultural pursuits, and the county is fast gaining a reputation for the abundant yield of farm products.
During the earlier history of Nebraska it was said that no crops could be raised west of Fort Kearney, but this has long since been proved a fallacy. Yet the prevalence of this idea and the fact that Dawson County proved so valuable grazing ground for the immense herds of cattle that once roamed over these prairies, incited the cattle owners to efforts to prevent settlement by discouraging stories concerning the country here, have seriously retarded the farming interests of the county. But notwithstanding all this, the population is now about 4,000, more than three-fourths of whom reside on well tilled and productive farms. Further there is a steady and continued emigration to the county and nearly all new-comers engage in farming or farming and stock raising combined. At the present time, there are no large stock ranches in the county. Though the stock raising interest of the county is a large one, it is generally carried on in connection with crop raising and there are no herds in the county larger than of a few hundred head each. Nearly all the most successful farmers have either cattle or sheep. It is no uncommon thing to find on these well-tilled farms all the way from fifty to several hundred head of cattle, or sheep numbering from a few hundred to two or three thousand, and there is yet a sufficient acreage of unoccupied lands in the county to afford abundant pasturage. The grass is so nutritious in quality, even after drying on the ground, that except during extraordinarily cold and stormy winters, cattle thrive without feed; but the more careful and judicious farmers see that a sufficient supply of hay is put up and find that it pays.
The Union Pacific Railroad extends through the county along the north side of the Platte River, on which the following named stations and towns are located:--Overton, Joselyn, Plum Creek, Gould (formerly Cozad), and Willow Island.
In the times of the old overland freight and emigrant road across the plains, that route extended up the Platte river, on the south side, through Dawson County. The immense amount of travel and freighting carried on over this line is described on another page of this volume; so that it is unnecessary here to refer to events, other than those of mere local importance. The telegraph line was established through the county, and along the above-mentioned route in 1861, and in this county was the only place where it was ever injured by the Indians, except when they occasionally burned a telegraph station in time of war. The damage done here was small. They, during the early days of the telegraph line, looked upon it with suspicion. They saw the long poles and the wires stretched at the top and reasoned that the white men were building a high fence and supposed that the wires would extend all the way down to the ground; and thinking that this fence would impede their progress in hunting, set to work to cut it down. They were stopped, however, before much damage was done, and as soon as it was explained to them, no attempt was ever again made to destroy it.
There were ranches established every few miles along the route in this county. The most important of these was that on Plum Creek, which was a telegraph and stage station, and the most important one between Fort Kearney and Cottonwood Springs, or Fort McPherson, as it was frequently called after the establishment of a fort there. Here also was the scene of more Indian troubles than at any other place along the line. Just after leaving the station, and passing along the level valley of the Platte, the route led to a point where the bluffs and cañons were near to the road and afforded the most perfect concealment for hostile Indians. Here they would conceal themselves and as an emigrant train came slowly along, they would dash out, attack the train, capture it if possible, and if not, dash back again on their ponies and were perfectly secure, as it would be vain to try to capture them when so completely in ambush and able to retreat unseen were it necessary. Several murders were committed here by the Indians. The most notable of these was the Plum Creek massacre that took place August 7, 1864. The Indians had secreted themselves at the point above mentioned. As all had been peaceable for many years, the travelers were not on the lookout and as a train passed along, the Indians dashed out and killed the entire party, eleven in number, and after plundering the wagons of all they desired, they set fire to them. This took place near the telegraph station, and the people there believing that it was the outbreak of an Indian war that had been threatened for many months, telegraphed the warning at once all along the line. As was feared, arrangements had been made to begin attacks at the same time at different points along the route, and then to follow along up the river. But as this was the first point attacked, and the news was so quickly sent to the other stations, time was afforded to prepare for the savages, and but comparatively few white men were killed in the first general attack. This, however, was the beginning of a war against the Sioux and Cheyennes which lasted for several years. Immediately after this outbreak most of the ranchmen of what is now Dawson County, joined with the terror-stricken ranchmen and settlers from further west and fled from the country. For some weeks, all was panic and confusion. However, the stage stations were soon re-established and the regular mail and passenger stages again resumed travel, but were always accompanied by a heavy guard. In a short time after, the freighters, too, again resumed their business and the exportation of freight went on without interruption, to any great extent. They, however, were compelled to stop at Fort Kearney and thoroughly organize their men and form in large trains, before being allowed to go farther west. Each of these trains, after the men were thoroughly organized and drilled formed a formidable force. By preconcerted arrangements, their wagons could, at the very first alarm, be placed in such a position as to form a perfect barricade, and but little injury was ever done them, except when a freighter would occasionally try to get through with but a few wagons and men, when they were sometimes attacked and killed. These bluffs at Plum Creek were regarded as the most dangerous part of the way, and probably more men were killed here than at any other one point along the entire route.
After the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad in the fall of 1866, the immense travel and heavy freighting business was of course discontinued on the old overland route up the south side of the Platte River. Some of the ranch men and stagers with their assistants left the country, and others remained somewhere in the vicinity and engaged in other pursuits. .Among those who remained in what is now Dawson County was Daniel Freeman, who had carried on a ranch on the overland route since 1861. Some time after he removed to Plum Creek station on the line of railroad and opened a small store.
In 1872 the most of the settlement was made in the vicinity of Plum Creek, though occasionally a settler scattered out into other parts of the county. Capt. H. C. Stuckey, Jeremiah Smith and Simon Fetters settled in what is now Mellott Precinct, and each took a homestead claim. During the year immigration continued, and by fall, Dawson County had attracted considerable attention and land seekers, looking at the natural advantages of the county were numerous. During the spring and summer, a very large acreage of prairie land was broken or plowed, but of course only small crops were raised. There was, however, a great deal of sod corn planted out, and the yield was fair.
The first 4th of July celebration in the county was held at Plum Creek, in 1872. J. H. McCall, who settled on Plum Creek in 1869, was president of the day, and Daniel Freeman, the pioneer settler of the county, was the orator. The settlers from all parts of the county attended, and though of course they were few in number, an enjoyable and enthusiastic celebration was held. Numerous were the speeches made and the toasts responded to. There was a general social reunion among those who were acquainted, and those who were not spent their time forming the acquaintance of their fellow pioneers.
The first post office was established at Plum Creek, in the spring of 1872. It was kept at the Union Pacific depot. An old box was used as a receptacle for the mail, and the telegraph and station agent, J. A. McDonald, was the Postmaster. He died in January, 1873.
In 1872 there was but one school district, and that comprised the entire county, and when the census was taken in the spring, there were but six children of school age in the county.
The first Sunday school was organized at Plum Creek, in the summer of 1872, with J. W. Stuckey, superintendent. Though the school was small, it was a very pleasant one, and attended by nearly all the residents in the vicinity, both young and old.
Churches were soon organized and, during the latter part of the year, regular services were held, and the attendance was good. The greater number of these pioneer settlers were either church members or regular attendants at religious services.
The first party or social gathering known to have been held after the organization of the county was a dance held at Plum Creek, on New Year's night, that of 1872.
The first birth in the county was that of Esther M, daughter of E. H. and Mrs. Alice Krier, born the 18th day of July 1872, at Plum Creek.
The first boy born in the county, was Willie, son of S. S. and Mrs. A. C. Baldwin, born August 18, 1872.
As stated, Dawson County was visited by many during the year 1872. So well were they pleased with the county, and such encouraging reports did they give to their friends in the East, and so active was the County Immigration Society in using every effort to induce settlement, that, early in the following year, immigration began to pour in, and new farms were located in different parts of the county.
The greater number of these new settlers selected lands in the vicinity of Plum Creek, though a large number were scattered all along the Platte River, and its tributaries. The breaking plow was soon started, and by July a very large acreage had been added to the cultivated lands of the county.
The settlers of the previous year had been industrious in breaking the prairie and opening up their farms, and in the spring of 1873, these farms were planted out to small grain, corn and vegetables. These crops all thrived and grew rapidly, during the early part of the season, but late in the summer the grasshoppers appeared and did a great deal of damage. Though the crops were not entirely destroyed, they were cut short, so that the yield was very light. The settlers were thus brought to the necessity of practicing the most rigid economy, for it will be remembered that during the previous year they could raise no crops of any consequence, as the sod was then turned over and had to lie unused one season to allow the roots and fibers of the tough sod to decompose, before it could be planted or tilled. About the only crop ever attempted on the newly-turned sod was corn, which was planted in the following manner. After breaking, an incision was made in the sod with an ax or sharp spade and the corn dropped in, and the sod pressed together again with the foot. Some years, when the season has been favorable, very good crops of corn have been raised in this manner. The settlers of 1873 had no crops planted, except sod corn, and of course their entire crop was gone when the grasshoppers destroyed this, which was just coming into ear, and being green and tender was the first thing attacked. The settlers of both 1872 and 1873, were generally men of limited means, and the loss of this crop placed them in straightened circumstances, though enough was saved so that there was probably no suffering.
Among the settlements made in the spring of 1873 was that in the vicinity of Overton, on the Union Pacific Railroad. Amongst the first settlers here were James N. Patton, Prof. D. B. Worley, and George Slocum. The first house here was built by James N. Patton, and the second by George Slocum.
Platte Precinct was also settled in April of the same year, by P B. Danielson, who settled on one of the large islands of the Platte, and the island on which he settled still bears his name. This island affords some of the most beautiful and picturesque scenery to be seen anywhere in the county.
Coyote Precinct was settled in April, 1873, by S. S. Baldwin, who had taken a claim there, and during the spring and summer several more had settled in the vicinity.
In March, of the same year, settlement was made at Willow Island by Josiah Huffman, and during the season a number of farms were opened up in this vicinity.
During April, James P. Mellott moved to the Wood River Valley in the northeastern part of the county. He was the first settler in this beautiful valley, and for a long time lived miles away from any neighbor.
In the fall of 1873, John J. Cozad bought a tract of 40,000 acres of land near the western part of the county and sought to found a town to bear his name. He returned to Ohio and organized a colony, about thirty of whom made a settlement in December of the same year.
During the summer of this year, the population much more than doubled, and, as has been stated, settlements had been made at and in the vicinity of the railroad stations of the county; but the only town to assume any proportions as a village was Plum Creek, the county seat, the growth of which was wonderful.
The first newspaper published in the county was at Plum Creek. It was called the Pioneer, and was established by Daniel Freeman, the pioneer settler of the county. The first number was issued November 20, 1873.
In 1873, a nursery was established near Plum Creek by Thomas H. Tipton. For some years this nursery flourished but was finally given up.
During the year several churches, secret societies, and other social organizations were established in the county, and its citizens by this time began to have social advantages nearly as good, if not quite equal to those of the Eastern States from whence they came, to establish homes for themselves on the then wild and uncultivated prairies.
Though Plum Creek was already quite a village, it was not laid out and platted as a town until 1873. This was the first town in the county.
During the summer the public improvements of the county began to assume considerable proportions. As soon as they were fairly settled, the public-spirited citizens set earnestly to work to make such improvements as were needed to facilitate the business and social advantages of the county. School districts were organized and several good schoolhouses were erected this year. Two wood bridges were already built across Buffalo Creek, in Range 21, and an iron bridge across the same stream at Overton. A substantial bridge across the Platte at Plum Creek, had long since been commenced. This bridge was about one mile in length and was completed and opened up to travel with appropriate ceremonies, the county celebration of the nation's birthday being held here. This was the first bridge across the Platte River west of Columbus, and is an evidence of the public spirit and enterprise of the citizens of the county. Though this was a large expense for a small number of people to undertake, this was a wise investment. It opened up an avenue of approach to the Union Pacific Railroad, at Plum Creek, from the south side of the river and naturally drew the trade of the Republican Valley, which by this time had a large settlement, but no railroad nearer than the Union Pacific. Joining as it did the two fertile sections, the building of this bridge must be pronounced a most judicious outlay.
During the fall of 1873, a great deal of local excitement was created over what was supposed to be a gold mine, about one and a half miles east of Plum Creek. Pieces of metal said to be gold, were alleged to have been taken from the earth at this point, and it was but a short time until prospectors and gold seekers from all parts of the country flocked to this point in eager search for the precious metal, only to find their search to be in vain.
The date of the first marriage was November 24, 1873, when Hon. T. L. Warrington and Miss Mary A. Smith were united in wedlock at Plum Creek by Judge R. B. Pierce. This couple still reside here. Mr. Warrington is one of the leading men of the county. He has represented the county in the Legislature of the State and is now, in addition to his law practice, engaged in business and is also one of the editors of the Dawson County Press.