Andreas' History of the State of Nebraska
Holt County
Produced by Susan Martin-Rott.


Topography and Geology | Natural Productions | The Indians
The Pony Boys | The "Cow Boys" | Crimes and Casualties
Taxable Property | Public Schools | Organization | County Seat

O'Neill:  Biographical Sketches

Stuart:  Biographical Sketches
Paddock | Ford | Atkinson | Keya Paha | Long Pine | Other Towns
Unorganized Territory

Part 1

HOLT County is one of the largest in the State. It is bounded on the north by the Niobrara River, on the east by Knox and Antelope Counties, on the south by Wheeler County, and on the west by unorganized territory. It is forty-eight miles wide from east to west, and averages fifty and a fourth miles long from north to south, containing about 2,412 square miles, or 1,540,000 acres. There are but two counties larger in the State, Custer and Lincoln. Its boundary lines defined by statute are as follows: "Commencing at the southwest corner of Township 25 north, of Range 16 west; thence east to the southeast corner of Township 25 north, of Range 9 west; thence north to the middle of the main channel of the Niobrara River; thence up said channel to a point where the second guide meridian intersects the same; thence south along said guide meridian to the place of beginning."


This county is composed of the Elkhorn and the Niobrara Valleys and the low divide between them. The Elkhorn Valley comprises about two-thirds, the southern portion, of the county; the Niobrara something over one-half the remainder. The uplands or divide north of the Elkhorn, which in Antelope County rise sometimes to a height of 150 feet above the valley, here seldom rise higher than twenty-five feet, and always by gradual and easy ascent, except occasionally in case of some of the creeks tributary to the Niobrara, which having rapid currents have washed out considerable gulches. The whole county may be said to consist of level table-land or very gently rolling prairie. Particularly 5 per cent is bottom land, subject to overflow; 25 percent table-land; 40 percent rolling land, and 30 per cent draws, gulches, sand levels and hills. The immediate surface soil of two-thirds of the area of the county is a black, sandy loam, the remaining one-third varying from this to a light gray, sterile sand. A strip of this sand, averaging about four miles in width, extends across the county about four miles south from and parallel with the Niobrara River. The balance of it is south of the Elkhorn. This sand, however, is not absolutely sterile. From year to year, more and more of this land is being clothed with grasses, and it either is or will become, excellent for stock raising. Even in the "sand hills," when analyzed, it is occasionally found to contain alumina, potash, soda and lime, which may explain its fertility, where that exists. The black, sandy loam varies in depth from eighteen inches on the higher lands to from three to six feet on the bottom lands, is easily worked, and is sufficiently fertile to raise excellent crops of grasses and all the cereals, especially of rye. Beneath the surface soil is a sub-soil which is anywhere from ten to forty feet in thickness, composed of elements valuable to agriculture, furnishing natural drainage, and differing from the surface soil mainly in possessing a much smaller proportion of organic remains.

Limestone and sandstone are found still lower in the earth. Both crop out in the northern part of the country, along creeks tributary to the Niobrara, and are already quarried and used for building purposes.


Holt County produces very many varieties of grass, among which may be mentioned, as of most value, the buffalo grass, blue-joint, red top, chess grass, wild oats, and from twenty to thirty varieties of bunch grass. The buffalo grass grows more or less all over the county. In the Elkhorn Valley it is very scarce, but along the Niobrara and in the western portion of the county it is especially abundant. As the annual rainfall becomes more copious it slowly but surely recedes to the westward. As the buffalo grass steadily diminishes, blue-joint and other varieties as steadily increase. A species of wild oats or "needle grass" affords excellent early pasture, and it is noticeable that the "chess grass" grows above a clay subsoil.

In the northern part of the county there is considerable cottonwood, some basswood, scrub oak of good size, cedar and walnut along the creeks, and quite an amount of white ash. In the Elkhorn Valley also there is some cottonwood.

Along the creeks there are a good many wild grapes and raspberries, gooseberries and plums in abundance, the latter especially of a flavor almost as fine and delicious as the best cultivated varieties.

The farmers plant, for the most part, cottonwood, box elder and maple, but the settlement of the county is so recent and the estimate placed upon the value of trees so light, that but limited attention has been as yet devoted to this branch of industry. Some orchards of apple, pear, plum, and cherry threes have been planted, as also shrubbery and grapevines, the latter of the Concord and Clinton varieties.

The county is, as a general thing, better adapted to stock and sheep raising than to the cultivation of the cereals; though in certain portions of it wheat has yielded twenty-seven bushels to the acre; corn, fifty bushels; barley, thirty; oats, forty; and other crops in proportion.

Holt County has an abundant supply of water. The Elkhorn and its tributaries, Cache Creek, South Fork, and a few other streams, water the southern portion, and the Niobrara and its tributaries the northern part. Among these tributaries Red Bird, Turkey, Eagle, Brush, Beaver, and Willow Creeks are the most prominent. By digging wells to a depth of from twelve to thirty feet plenty of good soft water is anywhere obtained. Cisterns are not required.


The settlements in Holt County have been too recent for much serious difficulty with the aborigines. One or two of their visits may be mentioned. In the fall of 1874, a few Indians visited one of the settlers, and asked him for some flour. He gave them half he had on hand, for which they offered to pay. Payment being refused by the settler, the flour was returned by the Indians who thus in this one instance refused to be the recipients of charity.

On another occasion a party of about forty Indians visited the house of John O'Connell, in the western part of the county, when there was no one at home but the women, two little girls, and a little boy. The Indians formed themselves in a circle around the house, and then in file road up to the door, demanding of Mrs. O'Connell something to eat. She gave them the best she had of coffee, bread, meat, etc., prudence suggesting that their demands must not be refused. After partaking of the frugal offering, they, very much to the surprise of their enforced hostess, presented her with a large quantity of buffalo meat, mounted their ponies, rode up one by one, shook hands with her, and galloped away over the plain.


The early settlers of the county suffered considerable annoyance and some loss from horse thieves, who were known on the frontier by the name of "pony boys." Their principal business was stealing, herding, and selling horses and ponies. They were always thoroughly armed with knives and revolvers, and depended on these for protection. Having voluntarily placed themselves outside the pale of the law, they knew that it was not their friend. Numerous horses were stolen in Holt, Knox, and Antelope Counties prior to the breaking up of "Middleton's Band," in 1879, since which time but little has been heard of the "pony boys."


This is an appellation distinctive of a class of men who live by herding cattle on the frontier. A portion of them are educated and of good Eastern families, who from choice or from necessity have left their homes and adopted this mode of life. Of others a less favorable description might be given. They all, like the "pony boys," have as companions the knife and revolver, and though not, as a class, necessarily outlaws, it is not unfrequent that parties of them visit the settlements, drink freely of whisky, and terrorize the people ad libitum by firing their revolvers off in the air, through windows and the sides of houses to the great annoyance and no small risk of the occupants thereof. Occasionally an accident is the result, by which some one is wounded or killed, and at other times a quarrel ensues by which a private citizen or an officer is seriously or fatally wounded for not "minding his own business." It would doubtless be unjust to attribute troubles of this kind to be the "cow boys" as a class. It is only the worst of them that may be justly blamed, and their evil deeds are done, as is the case with criminals usually, when under the influence of whisky; but the influence these worst ones exert as terrorizers is sometimes very great, as is but too plainly indicated by the fact that in a county as large as Holt, a grand jury of twelve men cannot be impanelled with moral courage sufficient to indict one of these "cow boys" engaged in the business of selling liquor without a license. This state of things is incident to the frontier. As that is extended westward and as the inhabitants become more numerous, lawlessness will gradually diminish; neither will it be very gradual, for this portion of the state is all the better appreciated as it is better known, and is rapidly filling up with enterprising and intelligent men.


Holt County has suffered her full share of accidents and crime. Patrick Joyce was loading a log on his wagon, when his team started to run, knocked him down, the loaded wagon passing over him killing him instantly.

Daniel and George Bigelow, in digging a well, were buried twenty-eight feet deep by the caving in of the sides. As they were curbing it, they were not immediately suffocated, but were imprisoned from Thursday to Sunday, all efforts to rescue them proving futile. They died Saturday evening, their bodies being recovered Sunday morning.

February 1, 1882, Joseph Tomlinson was buried alive while cleaning out a well.

April 24, 1878, a cow boy in attempting to escape with a mule was apprehended, overtaken, and shot.

November 2, 1880, Stephen Keyes was shot by B. S. Gillespie in self-defense. Mr. Gillespie had been warned by some young men resident in the county not to locate certain parties on certain lands. This warning being altogether unauthorized, was not heeded. The young men attacked Mr. Gillespie in his house, with the above result. Mr. Gillespie was not indicted.

March 28, 1881, occurred perhaps the most aggravated case of shooting in the history of the county. The cow boys were in force in O'Neill that day. Considerable drinking was indulged in, and as a final result of a quarrel Bernard Kearnes, Sheriff of Holt County, was shot and killed by William Reed, one of the cow boys. The Coroner's jury brought in a verdict that Bernard Kearnes was feloniously shot by William Reed. Reed was tried at Oakdale, on a change of venue, and acquitted; the finding of the jury being that the shooting was done in self-defense.

January 24, 1881, C. S. Blanchard shot and killed a young man from Texas named Marion Henry Lasater, in the post office at Keya Paha. Blanchard had a preliminary hearing before E. H. Doty, a Justice of the Peace, but sufficient evidence to bind Mr. Blanchard over for trial was not developed, and Mr. Doty decided the shooting to have been done in self defense.


Numbers of acres of land, 14,366; value, $28,386; total value of realty, including town lots, $53,124. The total value of personal property was $363,090, distributed as follows: Horses, 2,618, value, $82,905; mules, 238, value, $9,201; cattle, 10,442, value, $107,062; sheep, 918, value, $1,046; swine, 2,091, value, $4,620; vehicles, 1,364, value, $25,576; moneys and credits, $6,468; mortgages, $7,948; furniture, $1,292; libraries, $238; money in merchandising, $14,582; manufacturing, $12,358; other property, $89,794.

There is no speculators' or railroad land in the county. All is not settled upon is subject to entry under the timber culture, homestead, or pre-emption laws. The county is constantly receiving large accessions to its number, through the generosity of the Government in almost giving its lands away. In the year 1881, 11,013 acres were "proved up" on, most of it as homesteads.

The Sioux City & Pacific Railroad crosses the county in a northwesterly direction, having fifty-two miles of road, which with their improvements will be on the tax list for 1882; taxable value, $182,000.


Holt County takes great interest in her public schools, notwithstanding she has no speculator's land to tax in their behalf. At the present time there are in the county seventy-three school districts, fifteen school houses, eleven hundred and eighty-one school children--six hundred and ninety-one males, four hundred and ninety females, fifty-nine qualified teachers--nineteen males and forty females. The school sites are valued at $272.50; school houses at $1,990.50; school furniture, at $87.50; and school books, at $6; total value of school property, $2,356.50.


In the year 1873 certain parties visited what is now Holt County, at which time there were probably not over fifty white inhabitants within its limits. In order that a new county might be organized, the law required that there should be 200 or more inhabitants within its proposed boundaries, that ten of their number should be taxpayers, and that these facts should be made known to the Governor upon the affidavits of three freeholders, whereupon he was authorized to issue a proclamation organizing the county, and appointing three special commissioners and a special clerk under whom a special election might be held for the completion of the temporary organization. A petition for organization, supported by affidavits that such a condition of things as the law required existed, being presented to Robert W. Furnas, then Governor of the State, he issued his proclamation as prayed for in the petition. Thereupon county and school district bonds were issued, aggregating several hundred thousand dollars, and sold to different parties mainly in the east, some as low as 30 per cent, others as high as 80 per cent of their face value. These bonds bear six per cent interest coupons, payable semi-annually, the bonds themselves maturing in the near future.

On June 29, 1876, Governor Silas Garber issued a proclamation appointing Elijah Tomphson, J. B. Berry and James Ewing special County Commissioners, and W. H. Inman special County Clerk, and designating Twin "Lasser" (Lakes) in Township 28, north, Range 11, west, at the house of H. W. Haines as the temporary county seat.

An attempt was made to effect the organization at a special election held August 26, 1876. At that election the first county officers were elected as follows: Judge, Ryland Parker; Clerk, M. H. McGrath; Treasurer, Wilson Hoxsie; Surveyor, T. N. J. Hynes; Sheriff, H. H. McEvony; Coroner, Herman Strasburg; Commissioners, Patrick Hagerty, Jacob Shrob and Austin Hynes. But the special commissioners, on account of numerous difficulties connected with the canvassing of the vote, declined to admit the validity of the election, and in consequence another special election was held December 27, 1876, resulting in the election of the following officers: Commissioners, James Ewing, Harry Spinder and H. W. Haines; Judge, John Cronin; Clerk, J. T. Prouty; Treasurer, J. L. Smith; Surveyor, J. B. Torbet; Sheriff, I. R. Smith; Coroner, Joseph Estep; Superintendent of Schools, E. L. Whiting.

The first regular election in the county was held November 6, 1877, and resulted in the following officers being chosen: Commissioners, H. W. Haines, Samuel Gregory and Harry Spindler; Judge, V. M. Ross; Clerk, Sanford Parker; Treasurer, Elijah Tomphson; Sheriff, Thomas Berry; Surveyor, J. L. Smith; Coroner, D. Wygent; Superintendent of Schools, E. L. Whiting.


In this, as in most new counties, the location of the county seat was a question in which all the people took great interest. At the special election held December 27, 1876, Paddock, a small settlement on the Niobrara, was chosen by a three-fifths majority. This selection gave great dissatisfaction to a portion of the people, in part on account of Paddock's being on the extreme northern boundary of the county, consequently the question was re-submitted to the people at a special election held for that purpose on May 12, 1879. The vote was divided principally among three places, O'Neill, the northwest corner Section 25, Township 31, Range 13, west; and Paddock. Total vote polled at that election was 391, O'Neill receiving 279; "northwest quarter Section 25," &c., sixty-two, and Paddock thirty -seven. Thus the question was finally settled in favor of O'Neill, to which place the records were removed August 1, 1879, by Sanford Parker, Clerk.

At the regular election of November, 1881, D. L. Darr, Republican candidate for treasurer , received 468 votes; M. D. Long, Democrat, 427; Hayes, Greenback, 34; scattering, 2; total polled 941, which was about two thirds of the actual number of voters then in the county.

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