Andreas' History of the State of Nebraska

Harlan County
Produced by
Connie Snyder.


Location and Natural Features | First Settlements | Organization
Early Events | County Seat Troubles


Alma:  Settlement of the Town | The Press of Alma | Local Interests
Biographical Sketches


Orleans:   Early History | Biographical Sketches
Republican City:   Early History | Biographical Sketches

Harlan County Names Index

Part 1


   HARLAN County is located in the great Republican Valley, and is in extent twenty-four miles square. It lies between Phelps and Franklin counties on the northeast and Furnas on the west; on the south is the State of Kansas.

   The county is well-watered by some of the finest streams in Nebraska. The Republican River enters the county about eighteen miles north of its southern boundary, and flows in a southeasterly direction until within about six miles from the Kansas boundary, from which point it flows nearly in an eastward direction until the limit of the county is reached. On the south side of this river are many tributary creeks, two of which are more than one hundred miles in length. One of these,--Sappy Creek--enters the county about ten miles from the southern boundary, and flows east, entering the Republican River near Orleans. The Prairie Dog Creek enters the county from Kansas, and flows in a northeasterly direction, entering the Republican at Republican City. Both of these are deep, swiftly-flowing streams of great value for manufacturing purposes were the power but utilized. There are also several small creeks that are tributary to all the streams mentioned. On the north side of the Republican is Spring Creek, in the western part of the county, which flows nearly south and enters the river at Watson. Turkey Creek flows in a southeasterly direction across the northeast corner of the county, and finally enters the Republican, at Naponee in Franklin County. There are also numerous small creeks that enter the river from the north side. All of these creeks are clear and transparent, and in many places the country bordering them is very beautiful and picturesque in appearance. They are fed by clear cold springs, which render the water very pure and health-giving.

   The Republican Valley is broad, level and fertile. The smaller streams also have their own level valleys that vary in width, some of them being quite wide. From the valleys of all these streams to the uplands, the surface of the land is much diversified. Sometimes it ascends by steep and high bluffs which extend back for some distance, to the uplands; in other places the ascent is very gradual, ascending by gently sloping and step-like terraces. The uplands, themselves are generally slightly rolling; the curves of the surface and slight elevations extending in every possible shape and direction. There is only a small percentage of the lands of the county which is not tillable and those rougher lands afford the very best of pasturage. The soil, either in the valleys or on the uplands, is rich and fertile and capable of producing any kinds of crops common to this latitude.

   The streams are all skirted with narrow belts of timber that add much to the general appearance of the country and contribute to its wealth. The natural timber of the county, however, is found only on these streams, and were it not carefully protected would soon be exhausted. Everything in the geological structure of the country goes to show that the growth of trees is natural to this region, and has only been kept down in the past, by the great annual prairie fires that swept over the country. Therefore groves of trees, when planted, grow with rapidity, and require but little attention, to reach, in a few years, a size sufficient to supply the owner with an abundance of fuel and lumber.

   The Burlington & Missouri River Railroad in Nebraska, extends through this county from east to west up the north side of the Republican River and on it the following stations and towns are located: Republican City, Alma, Orleans.


   Previous to the year 1870, what is now Harlan County was the natural home of countless herds of buffalo, and the favorite hunting-grounds of the Indians. In no other locality on the western prairies were the buffalo so numerous, for here was every natural advantage and the very best of pasturage. Here were the richest of wild grasses and many streams of clear running water. So numerous were the buffalo that it required but little effort to slay hundreds of them. Not only was this species of game abundant, but also all the fur bearing animals and wild game common to the plains. So highly was this country prized as a hunting-ground by the Indians that they only relinquished it after a long and protracted struggle, in which many braves perished, and a large number of their women and children and ponies were captured. There were soldiers to the south of them at Fort Hayes, soldiers to the north of them at Fort McPherson, and they were pressed with unrelenting vigor. It is true they were hostile and committed many cruel and atrocious deeds; but these, we should remember, were committed while the red men were smarting under a sense of injustice done them, and they realized fully that only for a little while could they retain their best hunting-grounds before they were driven back, to give place to the white hunter and settler. They also feared that the wholesale slaughter of the game by the former would soon deprive them of their only means of subsistence. Therefore they fought with a desperate madness, and did their utmost to try to keep the white men from encroaching upon their hunting-grounds. Occasionally small parties of hunters or trappers would venture to make short visits to the northern tributaries of the Republican River and sometimes to the valley itself, but this was attended with great danger. Many of them lost their lives, though they were always on the alert for the first glimpse of an Indian foe, when no time was lost in trying to find a place of safety.

   Whenever the hunters returned to the eastern settlements, their praise of the beauty, fertility and grandeur of the Republican Valley country created a strong desire on the part of many who proposed going west, to make this their future home. But the danger of attack from the Indians was so great, that for a long time, no settlement could be made. So late as in the summer of 1869, Buck's party of United States surveyors were attacked while surveying Town 2, Range 19, in Harlan County, and all killed. This massacre, as near as can be ascertained, took place near the mouth of Sappa Creek. But the forfeit of their favorite hunting-grounds was the price paid for this dastardly murder. A sort of Indian war had been in progress for many years, and now the famous and successful Indian fighter, General Carr, was in command at Fort McPherson, and had already made several quite successful campaigns against the Sioux Indians who occupied the Republican Valley. In his campaigns he was assisted by Buffalo Bill (W. F. Cody) as Chief of Scouts; and Major Frank North with his famous regiment of Pawnee scouts. As soon as the news of the murder of Buck's party reached the General, he determined with one well-directed blow, to put an end to the Indian troubles in the Republican Valley. Having discovered them here, he made an attack and defeated them. He then followed hotly in pursuit, and overtaking them on the Platte River, July 11, 1869, he completely annihilated them, and hundreds of their women, children and ponies were captured. This practically put an end to Indian troubles in the Republican Valley, and it was not long before several parties were organized to make examinations as to the desirability of the Republican Valley as an agricultural country. During the fall of this year and the summer of 1870, many explorations were made.

   In the following account of the settlement and early progress of Harlan County, the writer must acknowledge his indebtedness to Hon. William Gaslin, Judge of the Fifth Judicial District of Nebraska. A large portion of this early history is taken bodily from a history of Harlan County, prepared by him, which he kindly placed at the disposal of the writer.

   In the year of 1870, prompted by the glowing reports of the Republican Valley, a party was organized in the eastern part of the State for the purpose of establishing a settlement, should a suitable location be found. This party arrived in what is now Harlan County, but then a portion of Lincoln, some time during August, 1870.

   The party consisted of forty men with nine wagons. Among these men were: J. W. Foster, F. A. Bieyon, Gen. Victor Vifquain, John Olson, Frank Hofnagle, V. Toeppfer, S. Watton, Henry Melchert, N. Peterson, G. Hanson, J. B. Mitchell, Lewis Lorson, George F. Jones, Joseph and Lewis Hubner, and Andrew Rubin.

   On August 31, 1870, the party camped a short distance southeast of the present town of Orleans, near where the mill now is, and cast lots by wagon loads for a choice of claims, as they regarded this a good location for their future settlement. The first choice fell to Sullivan and Guillet's wagon, and they selected Elm Swamp, west of the point now known as Melrose, but subsequently abandoned this location and took claims elsewhere.

   J. W. Foster won the second choice, but having already selected a location south of the present town of Alma-- where he still resides--he gave up the claim that, by lot, fell to his choice, to Frank Hofnagle.

   Vifquain and a few others secretly selected the old town-site of Napoleon, near Orleans. This tract consisted of 320 acres. The proper steps, however, were not taken to secure this site under the town-site act, and soon after Judge Wm. Gaslin homesteaded one half of this land, and C. H. Cary pre-empted the remainder, which in due time was proved up, and afterward bought by Judge Gaslin, who owns 1,000 acres in a body here. Vifquain, failing in his town-site enterprise, abandoned all settlement in the valley, and returned to the eastern part of the State. Thus was disposed of the first town of Harlan County, and this had only existed on paper, for no buildings had ever been erected.

   Immediately after the choice of claims, and early in September, 1870, J. W. Foster erected a house on his claim south of Alma. This was the first building erected in the county. When this house was completed, he returned to Nebraska City, from which place on his return he hauled into the county the first load of lumber and building material. On and in the vicinity of Foster's farm, is the place where Gen. Sidney Johnston's army, sent to Utah to subdue the Mormons, camped for some time. Ten years ago, the whole valley was covered with the debris of soldiers.

   After prospecting the country, the most of the party returned east. F. A. Bieyon and his friends, to the number of ten or fifteen, remained and built the old stockade on or near the Melrose town site, where they spent the winter of 1870-7l. There were no grave troubles with the Indians, but they were continually on the alert. A few horses were stolen, which deed was attributed to Indians. All that winter a large party of Sioux Indians were camped and engaged in hunting, some twenty-five miles west of the stockade, on the Republican River.

   In the winter of 1870-71, James Duncan and wife came to the stockade at Melrose. Mrs. Duncan was the first white woman in the county.

   In 1871, the Bartlett family came to the county. Mrs. Bartlett is supposed to have been the second white woman in the county. Her children were the first to arrive here. Her daughter Mary was the first white child born in Alma Precinct.

   In February, 1871, Thomas Harlan, Mark Coad, Thomas Murrin, Thomas Mullaley, John Talbot, and J. H. Painter, organized a party in Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory, to visit the Republican Valley in search of permanent homes. Richard Sydenham accompanied the party from old Fort Kearney, as guide and driver. They struck the upper waters of Turkey Creek, which they followed till they came to the river, then they followed the Republican westward. Foster's house was the only habitation they found outside of the stockade. At this time, though so early, the grass was green, the weather pleasant, and wild turkeys, buffalo, and other game were abundant. Many rumors of Indians were received by the party, but none were met. After selecting claims this party returned to Cheyenne, arriving at that point February 17, 1871. They were delighted, and gave glorious accounts of the Republican Valley.

   In 1871 the greater number of the party returned, accompanied by J. W. Ballou, Thomas Sheffrey, Richard O'Donell, N. A. Arrington, Henry Wise, D. Young, Alex. and John Burke, John Burgess, N. P. Cook, Wm. Carr, James Ryder, and others. The Bartlett family and the Bloom brothers, one of whom is dead, accompanied them from Fort Kearney. The Friday family also came with this party, or about the same time they did.

   The officers of this Cheyenne Colony were: president, Thomas Harlan; vice-president, J. H. Painter; secretary, Thomas D. Murrin; treasurer, Mark Coad; directors, N. P. Cook, .J. E. Ryder, Thos. Sheffrey, J. O. Phillips, and Thos. Mullaley.

   The greater number of this Cheyenne Colony made their settlement around what is now called Alma. Thos. Sheffrey, with a few others, settled some miles west of the stockade, near what was afterwards known as Watson. The colony having some difficulty about claims, quarrels soon arose, and Joseph H. Painter withdrew from the colony and settled on what is now known as the Painter claim, and afterwards being appointed postmaster at Alma, he kept the post office on his farm, three miles west from that town. Immigrants, now beginning to feel that they could live in safety from the Indians, began to take claims away from the centre localities. Large numbers of Swedes and Danes settled around the stockade. This was the largest, and for some time the most effective, settlement in the county. The vicinity of Alma received large accessions from the East. Settlers poured into the county, and by June 1, 1871, there was not a tributary of the Republican on which there were no settlers. The last of June, A. C. Robbins, with a number of associates, came here from Iowa and selected lands on the south side of Sappa Creek, in Town 2, Range 20 west, and by the 20th of the following July they had removed here with their families and made a permanent settlement. This was the first settlement of any importance away from the Republican river. Judge Robbins relates that although many had fears of the Indians, and though the soldiers that patrolled the south side of the Republican, every three weeks, from Fort Hays, Kansas, continually told them they were liable to be attacked by Indians at any time; yet during the entire summer, they saw but two, and these were friendly Otoes.

   In the extreme eastern part of the county, settlements were also made this year. Near the present site of Republican City this was notably the case. H. M. Luce was east of Republican City, W. H. Coon, Lewis Coon, Still and Elihu Main, located on the table land just below the present town. A little later, Dr. John McPherson, of Brownville, Nebraska, his son Charles, and others, located the town of Republican City on and near the mouth of Mill Creek. Thomas Mullaley and others located on Turkey Creek.


   Settlements had progressed quite rapidly, and the citizens were anxious to have a separate county organization, this territory then being a part of Lincoln County. Therefore measures being taken to bring the matter before the State Legislature, that body, on the 3d day of June, 1871, by a special act, appointed an election for the following month, and appointed Mark Coad, Thomas D. Murrin, and J. O. Phillips county commissioners until their successors were elected and qualified.

   On the 3d day of July, 1871, in accordance with the act of June 3, an election was held at Alma for the purpose of designating county officers and locating the county seat. This election resulted as follows: Judge, Joseph Gould; Clerk, Alex. J. Burke; Superintendent of Schools, H. M. Luce; Treasurer, G. R. Parish; Sheriff, James E. Ryder; Coroner, Wm. P. Carr; Commissioners, Thomas Sheffrey, H. Trimble, and J. W. Foster. Forty-two votes were cast for county seat, thirty-seven for Alma and five for Napoleon.


   The first meeting of the county commissioners was held soon after, they meeting at a point near N. P. Cook's house. The first county business was transacted here, the commissioners being seated on a log.

   The first death in the county was that of John McBride, at Alma, who was shot and killed by soldiers, during the progress of a drunken fight, on July 4th, 1871.

   In the summer of 1871, Mrs. Gilbert Parish gave birth to the first white child born in the county. The second child was born to Mrs. Levi Schrack.

   During the year 1871, immigration poured into the county, and numerous were the farms opened up in different parts of the county, but most of the settlement was in the valleys of the Republican River and its tributaries. A very large acreage of prairie sod was put under cultivation, though no crops were raised except those of sod, corn and a few vegetables.

   During the winter of 1871-72, the early settlers had a hard experience with the great storms and terrible cold weather. Hon. Wm. Gaslin, in his historical sketch of the county, describes the winter in the following language: "After a warm and pleasant autumn, when the settlers were totally unprepared for and least expected it, on the 16th day of November, 1871, a terrible snow storm set in, which lasted three days and four nights. It was very cold and the suffering intense. Judge Robbins, Walter Ferguson, and others, on their way to Grand Island, got caught and were out through the entire storm. Two poor fellows were caught near what is now known as Walker's Ranche. They hitched their horses to their wagon, rolled themselves in their blankets, laid down, and the snow drifted over them and saved them from freezing to death.

   Wagons, harness, loads of buffalo meat, goods and provisions were abandoned on the divide, and men mounted their horses and fled for life.

   A large number of buffalo hunters were caught, some of whom froze to death and others suffered severely. A party of six were caught on the divide between the Republican and Solomon rivers, and five of them perished. This long and severe winter was also very destructive to the game in the country. Many were the wild animals that perished.

   During the winter there were many severe storms, in which those traveling across the divide were caught. It will be remembered that at that time, Grand Island, on the Union Pacific Railroad, was the nearest point of any importance, and to that place the settlers had to go for supplies. The scarcity of provisions made frequent trips necessary, and much suffering was experienced by the travelers when overtaken on the bleak and desolate prairies by one of these blinding snow storms. Judge Gaslin was with one party that was compelled to camp on the prairie for three days, during one of these terrific storms, but none of them perished.

   The snow was very deep and the weather very cold most of the time until the latter part of February, 1872. Mrs. Brown had a herd of 750 cattle and all perished but 125. Out of a herd of some 2400, in the east part of the county, all perished but 450. The Coad Brothers hauled meal, corn, and grain from Grand Island, and yet lost nearly half of a large herd of nice cattle.

   That winter, on account of the privations then endured, will be long remembered by the early settlers. At that time, however, buffaloes, wild turkeys, and other wild game, were plentiful, and the timber that skirted the streams furnished abundance of fuel, so there was no danger of actual starvation or of perishing from the effects of the cold. Wild animals, suffering from the lack of food, penetrated into the settlements, and were easily killed. The wolves in particular, were numerous, and were very annoying. Various methods were resorted to to get rid of them and many were destroyed. In one night twenty-one large wolves were poisoned, on the Republican River, near Mark Coad's residence.

   The spring of 1872 showed an increased activity in settlers coming to the county and taking claims, so much so that nearly all the claims, having both timber and water, were taken up that year.

   There were several Indian scares during this early settlement, but no serious troubles. The fact of there having been so much trouble before the settlement of the county, made the settlers fearful, and they were ever on the alert lest they should be surprised.

   The first wedding in the county was that of John Ballou and Miss Mary Smith, who were married by Rev. John Whiting, March 1st, 1872.

   In the spring of the year 1872, a number of the citizens, not being satisfied with the result of the first election in 1871, and claiming that there had been some irregularities, and that the votes had. been cast illegally, sent a petition to Acting Governor Wm. H. James, praying that he call another election for June 29, 1872. This petition was acted upon by Governor James, it being from the citizens of all parts of the county, without respect to location, and with the understanding that there was no legal organization of the county up to that time. The election took place after a full registration of votes. The officers elected at the second election entered upon the duties of their respective offices. Since this time the county has been regarded by all as duly organized for all county purposes. The fact, however, of the second election sowed the seeds of many years of factional strife, and at this time was begun that series of county seat fights that have disturbed Harlan county for a number of years. At this election a large number of the citizens ignored the fact that an election had been held the year previous, which established the county seat at Alma, and voted for a location of the county seat. The places voted for were Alma, Republican City, Melrose, and Judge Gaslin's homestead. The latter point was the old site or the proposed town of Napoleon.

   Since the days of the first settlement of the county, the population has steadily increased, with but few events of interest, other than incidents relating to the early settlements, an account of which has been given. In 1874, the grasshoppers devastated Harlan County, in common with other portions of the State. The citizens of the county were poor, and as this was but the first crop for a large number of them, and some of them had been obliged to wait about a year and a half or two years from the date of their settlement for this, they were of course placed in a desperate condition. Only the receipt of aid from friends and from the aid societies prevented suffering and starvation. During the winter following this destruction of crops, it is true many privations were endured, but there were no cases of actual suffering. Prominent among the citizens of this county who took part in organizing aid societies, and soliciting aid from eastern States, was Rev. W. H. Tibbles, who was than a resident of Harlan County. Mr. Tibbles has since become well known first as a newspaper writer in Omaha, and then as an advocate of the respect and maintenance of the rights of the Ponca Indians, in which cause he labored long and earnestly, with both voice and pen, and still later as having, by his efforts, started out Bright Eyes, an Indian maiden of that tribe, as a lecturer. He has since married Bright Eyes.


   Ever since the organization of the county there have been dissensions and quarrels regarding the location of the county seat, and many times the sectional strife arising from this cause has been very bitter. At the first election held for the organization of the county, the county seat was located by a vote of the people at Alma, by a vote of thirty-seven to five for Napoleon. Therefore, the county seat was designated as situated upon section thirty-three, town two, range eighteen, west of the sixth principal meridian. At the new election of June 29, 1872, the county seat fight began, and Melrose, on the Republican River, about two miles west of Orleans, came out victor. The other places voted for, were Republican City, Alma, and Judge Gaslin's homestead. The three towns mentioned then became rivals for the county seat. Each town was but just starting, and one writer describes them thus: "Republican City and Melrose each had a store, a hitching post, and a clothes line, while Alma had only her buffalo skull." After the election of 1872, the records were removed to Melrose. After several contests the county commissioners decided the county seat to be at Alma, one of the three members of the board dissenting, however. Notwithstanding this ruling, Republican City, in 1873, caused a mandamus to be issued demanding that Melrose show cause why the former should not be regarded as the legal county seat, and that the latter give up the county records, as by virtue of an election in 1872, Republican City had been declared the county seat. When the case came up before Daniel Gantt, then district judge, Wm. Gaslin filed an interpleading to have Alma made a party to test her right to the county seat, under an election held July 8, 1871, by an act of the legislature of June 3, of the same year. At the next term of court Judge Gantt, after a hearing of the mandamus, ruled that as there was a record of the election of July 8, 1871, in the office of the Secretary of State, this election must be held as valid, until set aside by decree of court, or by the proper statute vote of the county.

   Since that time the county seat has continued at Alma, but the strife has ever since been kept up, and much bitterness of feeling has been generated. In the late years of the contest the towns of Orleans and Alma have been the contesting points, and Republican City, once the rival and enemy of Orleans, now joins in the effort to remove the county seat to the latter town. There is a good courthouse built at a large cost at Alma, and everything is arranged for a permanent location of the capital of the county here. On the other hand, Orleans is confident of securing it in the end, and a large and substantial court house has been built by the citizens, as a gift to the county when the county records are removed here.

   The contest between the two towns has given rise to many lawsuits, and the matter is still before the courts. It has seriously retarded public improvements in the county, and has at the same time prevented that harmony among the citizens that should exist in any new county in order that it be prosperous.

   There was an election on the county seat contest in the fall of 1881. The contesting points were Alma and Orleans. Each town claims the victory and the matter is now before the courts.

   The county has, since the date of the earliest settlements, continued to progress. The settlers have ever been of an industrious and energetic class, and fertile and well improved farms have been opened up in all parts of the county. The population is now more than 7,000, and is constantly increasing. There are nearly 6,000 of these who reside on farms. While there have been some bad seasons, taken all in all the farmers have been prosperous. But they do not depend on farming alone, they realize that in order to make money a mixed farming must be carried on; and a liberal quantity of all kinds of crops common to the locality are planted, and stock raising is combined with this business. The raising of grain, hogs, and cattle, or sheep, has ever been found profitable when combined. The farms have been well improved and in no new county are more pleasant homes to be found.

   In the matter of public improvements the county has kept pace with others in the Republican Valley. At an early period in its history, bridges were built where most needed, across the principal creeks and across the Republican River. The court house at Alma is a good and substantial structure and fully adequate for the needs of the county, while the court house building at Orleans, will, should the county seat be removed there, answer the purpose equally as well.

   Among the earlier settlers of the county, some of whom are still residing here were several men, whose names are familiar in all parts of the State. Such men as Hon. Thomas Harlan, in whose honor the county was named, who did much to assist in the early development of the county, and who now has a position under the United States government in the territories; Hon. Geo. H. Roberts, for four years attorney general of Nebraska, and who still resides here; Rev. W. H. Tibbles, the defender of the rights of the Ponca Indians; Hon. Wm. Gaslin, now residing in Kearney, who has, since 1875, been judge of the fifth judicial district of Nebraska, which comprises about one-half of the entire State, and who has a wide reputation as an honest and upright judge, and whose very name is a terror to criminals in his district; Joseph H. Painter, now a resident of Lincoln, and his wife, Mrs. H. K. Painter, a practicing physician in that city, and well known throughout the state, and several others who have achieved considerable distinction.

Top of Page   Next

County Index    Table of Contents    Kansas Collection