Part 2: Indian Scares | Grasshoppers | Organization of the County
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
During the first three years after the settlement of the county, Indian scares were frequent. The Indians passed through the county in large numbers, and frequently remained for some time. They were never hostile, however and there was never a particle of danger, but the greater number of settlers were from the Eastern States, who had read and heard so many of the sensational stories afloat in relation to the dangerous character of the Indians, that whenever they appeared, it was the signal for a general fright. Many times frightened settlers sought refuge in flight to Plum Creek Station. To them the windmill at the railroad water tank here, towering, as it did, high above all else, was ever a beacon of safety. At Plum Creek the citizens had formed a company of militia to be ready to fight the Indians, should it prove necessary. The only danger from them, however, was that they would sometimes steal little things; and from their persistent habit of begging they were a source of great annoyance to the citizens.
When James H. Mellott first settled on Wood River, in 1873, he was twenty miles from the nearest neighbor. One day when he was working about one mile from the house, with only two little girls left at home, two Indians insisted on going into the house, but were stopped by the girls, and while one ran to call their father, the other, about thirteen years of age, seized a gun, and by presenting it toward them, with finger on the trigger, she kept them out till Mr. Mellott arrived and sent them away.
Though Dawson County was, at the time of its settlement, occupied as a herding ground by the cattle men, no serious trouble with them was ever experienced by the settlers. As fast as farms were settled up, the cattle owners gradually went back further with their herds, and beyond their efforts to discourage settlers from locating here, with stories of the unproductiveness of the country, the county was never injured by them. The county was for a long time the headquarters of many of the prominent cattle owners of Nebraska, and all was generally peaceable between them and the settlers.
In 1874, the court house that had been commenced some time before was completed. It is a fine and commodious building, and for general appearance, durability and convenience it is excelled by but few in Central or Western Nebraska.
During the summer of 1874, the grasshoppers appeared in immense numbers, and destroyed all vegetation that was yet green. The crop of small grain was, however, very good, as the grasshoppers came after the harvest had commenced and only exceptionally late fields of grain were destroyed. The corn crop was completely ruined, and with the fact that the settlers were generally men with limited means, and that this was the first crop of the larger number of them; and that some of them had only located that year and consequently had no crops planted; and last, that the crops were cut short the year before, the settlers were left in rather reduced circumstances, and want and suffering were imminent. Many privations had to be endured and the most rigid economy practiced, and it is probable that many families would have suffered from hunger, if not brought to actual starvation, were it not for aid so generously furnished them by the citizens of the Eastern States and by the Government. Many of them also had to accept aid the following spring to enable them to procure seed.
Many of the citizens were so discouraged with the failure of crops in 1874, that they left the county. Some of them, however, returned again to their farms, and are now prosperous farmers and have beautiful homes and well tilled farms.
Again in 1875, crops were planted out, and the farmers worked with a will, but again a few grasshoppers appeared and in some localities did considerable damage; however, the crops of the country in general averaged a good yield.
Since that time the grasshoppers have never appeared in sufficient numbers to do any damage.
Until the year 1871 the number of settlers in the county were but few. As a store was located there, Plum Creek Station was the center of settlement. These few settlers, early in 1871, began to consider the project of organizing Dawson County, and made a request of the Governor that he grant them authority to organize. Accordingly, Acting. Governor William H. James issued a proclamation June 26, 1871, forming Dawson County, and appointed an election to be held the 11th of the following July. He also appointed J. W. Delahunty, R. O. Keefe and Otto Hansen judges of election, and John Kehoe and E. Delahunty clerks. At this election, on July 11, 1871, the result was as follows: Clerk, Daniel Freeman; Treasurer, Patrick Delahunty; Sheriff, John Kehoe; Judge, Richard O. Keefe; Surveyor, David Meek; Coroner Patrick Gaffney; Commissioners, Joseph Smith, Otto Hansen end J W Delahunty. This election was held at the store of Daniel Freeman, at Plum Creek. At this time the entire population of the county was not to exceed forty persons. During this year the population increased but a very little. The first settlement after the organization of the county of any importance was at Plum Creek, and in some other parts of the county, in 1872. The circumstances of this settlement were as follows: In the winter of 1871-72, a colony was organized at Philadelphia for the purpose of forming a settlement somewhere in Nebraska. This county was chosen, and the colony, numbering sixty-five persons, left Philadelphia April 2, 1872, under the leadership of Capt. F. J. Pearson. Upon their arrival at Omaha, they stopped for supplies, and then came directly on, arriving here April 9, 1872. Upon their arrival, they lived for some days in the four cars in which they came. These cars were switched off on the side-track here, where they remained until temporary residence, could be erected. The colony at once drew lots for a choice of claims of land. Then a committee was elected, who were sent East for teams and supplies of farming implements. The county having appropriated money for immigration purposes, a County Board of Immigration was formed soon after the arrival of the colony. Among those who came with this colony were H. C. Stuckey, G. W. Carter, George B. Miller, C. W., B. F., and Edward Krier, William Manspeaker, J. E. Mellinger, W. H. Kennedy, C. Lamma and family, and Thomas J. Bender, John McDonald and Joseph King. each with their families.
Since 1875. when the immigration to the county was very small, the population has been steadily on the increase, and every year a large acreage has been added to the cultivated lands of the county. At the present time the population numbers about 4,000 and the immigration is still great.
For the past few years, aside from the history of the towns, there have been but few historical events of any importance other than an account of the steadily increasing progress and prosperity of the county.
The soil has a great depth, the fibrous roots of trees being frequently found at a depth of fifteen or more feet.
The natural supply of timber, except on the banks of Wood River, is very small. but the settlers at an early day began planting large groves of tree,; and it is now indeed rare to pass through any settled portion of the county without seeing the prairies dotted with thriving groves of trees. The planting and cultivation of trees for timber, fuel and windbreaks, will ever prove a profitable source of revenue to the county. With very little labor it is easy, too, for every farmer, within a few years from the time of ,planting, to have trees abundant for the purposes above mentioned, and by planting a liberal number of the slower-growing trees of the hard wood variety it will be easy for the next generation to have an abundant supply of hard wood lumber and timber.
A number of orchards have already been planted out, and, where they have received the proper care, are doing well. One thing that seriously retarded the growth of orchard trees in the earlier years of the history of the county was the fact that the settlers were unused to raising fruit trees in a country possessing such a peculiar quality of soil, and they did not understand how to protect them from the heat in summer or the cold in winter.
There are a great variety of wild grasses in the county which grow luxuriantly. They grow upon nearly every rod of ground above the water lines, and yield the finest of pasturage and hay, and furnish the basis for more net gain than any other resource of the county. Tame grasses grow as well here as in most Western States, though as yet but very few meadows have been planted, as the necessity of tame grasses has not been felt.
Dawson County is the stock-raisers' paradise. No where can there be found better grazing ground than this, and by carrying on farming in connection with raising cattle and sheep, the farmers have been very successful.
The yield of crops since the soil has been well under cultivation has been very good. All products common to this latitude can be raised here, and farmers are fast becoming wealthy.
The affairs of the county may all be said to be in an admirable state of progression. The bonded indebtedness of the county is considerable, but they have their full value in good improvements.
There are thirty-three school districts in the county, nearly all of which have substantial frame schoolhouses.
During the early history of the county there had been but little crime of any serious nature. There have never been but two murders committed in the county.
On the 17th day of June, 1876, Deputy Sheriff Charles Mayes, was shot and killed by Tom Hallowell, upon whom he was trying to execute a writ of ejectment.
There had been some trouble in relation to a homestead claim between Julius Trackett and Hallowell. There had been a contest suit commenced before the Government land office. Hallowell was living on and had possession of the land in question. Trackett got out a writ of ejectment. and the Deputy Sheriff, Mayes, was to serve it. Hallowell having threatened to shoot any man who attempted to remove him, Mayes secured the attendance of Julius Wien and R: C. Freeman. They started from Plum Creek to the land in question, which was on Danielson Island, about five miles from town. Upon their arrival, Hallowell ran into the house saying he would shoot the first man who entered. Mayes demanded that he open the door. He fastened the door and refused to open it. The officers broke open the door, Mayes taking the lead, and as he was entering Hallowell shot him, killing him instantly. Freeman and Wien then attempted to enter, when Hallowell fired again, wounding Wien slightly. This enraged the little German and he at once forced his way in, but Hallowell's gun was now empty and the murderer begged not to be shot, and gave himself up. He was then ironed and Freeman took him to Plum Creek, while Wien remained with the dead body of Mayes.
During the afternoon an inquest was held on the body, the jury deciding that he came to his death, while engaged in the discharge of his duties and at the hands of Thomas Hallowell.
Charles Mayes was universally loved by the people, and all the afternoon, groups of men were seen in and about Plum Creek, conversing on the subject, and feelings of indignation were freely expressed against the murderer, and there were some fears of violence.
About eleven o'clock that night a large number of masked and armed men came into town from all sides and collected around the court house. So quietly was this done that but few of the citizens, except those in the party, were aware that there was any unusual occurrence. Guards were stationed in different parts of the town to prevent the approach of any one not connected with the party. Only two persons, however, undertook to come up. One of these was Attorney General, C, J. Dilworth, then Prosecuting Attorney for that judicial district, who was then living on his farm in the corner of Phelps County, not far from Plum Creek. He having heard that there were threats of violence, started at once to endeavor to prevent it. But, arriving late in the evening, he was stopped by armed and disguised men. Though he remonstrated with them and tried to pass on, he was not allowed to do so, and after repeated efforts finally gave up the project of trying to enter the town.
This crowd of armed men formed around the court house and told the jailer to open the door. This he refused to do, at the same time telling them he had no keys and that he too was locked in, and that it was impossible to open the door. The door was then burst open, and five armed men entered. One immediately blew out the light, and the jailer was set upon and overpowered, and blindfolded carefully and bound down in his chair with a rope, and the chair made fast to a bedstead. The lamp was then relighted and the lock of the first door forced. They then proceeded to the iron cell in which the prisoner was confined. The lock was taken off and the culprit seized. He begged to be spared, if for but one day more, but was at once gagged and a rope placed around his neck. He was then dragged out and around to the back of the court house, from where a flight of iron steps, bordered with an iron rail, ascended to the court room, in the second story. He was then taken to the top of these stairs, the rope made fast to the railing, when he was thrown over. He was soon dead, and the crowd quietly dispersed, leaving the dead body of Thomas Hallowell dangling here with his feet about eighteen inches from the ground, where he was found by the citizens at daybreak the next morning. The coroner's jury sitting upon the case, brought in a verdict in accordance with the facts: but it was never known who were the participators in the deed of lynching Tom Hallowell.
Another tragedy took place on the 13th of June, 1881, when James Weaver was shot and killed by Henry W. Valck. The scene of this tragedy was about twenty-five miles from Plum Creek, on the south side of the Platte River. There had been considerable difficulty between these parties for some time previous. One of the subjects of dissension was a quarrel over a debt claimed to be owing to Weaver by Valck. This was a debt due to Weaver by Valck for having hauled the goods of Valck from Juniata the April previous, when he removed here. He did not pay this at the time, and Weaver, when he left the country to work on the cattle range during the season of the round-up, left a small bill owing to a neighbor, having made arrangements with Valck to pay this for him out of the money due. On returning, however, he was surprised to have the bill presented, and was angry because Valck had not paid it as he had agreed. He therefore went to him to talk to him on the subject. Angry words were exchanged, which resulted in Valck's drawing a pistol with which he shot Weaver dead. Valck, however claimed that Weaver had first attempted to shoot, and that he was obliged to kill him in self defense, and having employed a shrewd and successful criminal attorney, he succeeded in escaping punishment for the crime.
The winter of 1880-81, was a particularly severe one. The winter opened with a severe storm in October, which was succeeded by heavy storms every few days. Nearly every day during the winter the wind blew a. perfect gale. These storms were often so blinding and cold, that it was unsafe for the farmer or stock raiser to venture from the house, for days at a time, and even after the snow had ceased to fall, it was so dry and light, that whenever the wind blew hard the air was as full of snow as if it were continually falling. This long, cold and severe winter was very hard on stock in the county. The previous mild winters, during many of which the ground was never covered with snow, --cattle lived very well with little or no feed, and without shelter. Thus the farmers were unprepared, having but little hay and few or no sheds for protection, therefore the percentage of loss of stock from cold and hunger was very large. Added to the above misfortunes, cattle from the ranges further to the northwest, driven by the storms, came into the county by thousands and devoured all the hay, straw, corn stalks, etc., that came in their way, rendering the feed for the cattle in the county still more scarce.
The next spring, as soon as the snow began to go off, --it having covered all Western Nebraska--the small streams and drawers were all filled to overflowing, and then the larger streams and even the broad Platte River, flowed with a tremendous current, and the valleys of all the streams were overflowed and considerable damage was done to farm property. Several bridges in the county were washed out, and many more were seriously damaged.
The affairs of the county are ably administered. The following named parties are now the efficient county officials. Commissioners--Jos. H. Malone, Plum Creek; E. S. Rice, Ringgold; Thomas J. Shull, Overton. Judge--R. B. Pierce, Plum Creek. Clerk--J. H. MacColl, Plum Creek. Treasurer--C. L. Ervin, Plum Creek. Sheriff--Hugh MacLean, Plum Creek. Superintendent of Public Instruction--James M. Tipton, Plum Creek. Coroner--H. O. Smith, Plum Creek. Attorney--A. S. Baldwin, Plum Creek, Surveyor--R. C. Beatty, Plum Creek.