During all the years of the overland travel, the military post at Fort Kearney was a point at which the travelers stopped to recruit. For years everything went on peaceably, and there was nothing for the soldiers to do, as there had never been any serious troubles with the Indians. But in August, 1864, a war that was to be fraught with many disastrous campaigns and fights broke out against the combined forces of the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. This war began with the massacre of freighters and emigrants at Plum Creek.
There were various causes that led to this war, the principal one being the cruel and inhuman persecutions of the Indians by the white men. To mention them all in detail would require a volume, as the story of their wrongs extended over a period of many years. The following are a few of the local causes: The winter of 1863-64 had been an exceptionally cold and severe one, and a great many of the cattle belonging to the freighters had wandered away and were lost. Whenever stock were lost, a reward was paid to whoever should find and return them. In one instance the entire stock belonging to an ox-train had been lost. The Indians had done a profitable business in collecting together and returning stray cattle. In this case the oxen had been found by a party of Cheyennes, who brought them in at once and claimed the customary reward. This the owners would not pay; upon which the Indians drove the cattle away with them, intending to hold them until the owners should be willing to pay them for their trouble in bringing them in. A body of troops was then sent to take the cattle by force. A fight ensued, and a great many soldiers, as well as Indians, were killed and wounded. There was now great excitement on the part of the white people, and great animosity was felt toward the Indians. Col. Chivington issued an order for the troops to kill all Indians they could find, together with their squaws and papooses.
It is also said, by those who lived on the frontier at that time, that there was a report that the western troops were soon to be sent South to fight against the rebels, and that, as many of the soldiers on the frontier sympathized with the secessionists, and did not with to fight against them, they did everything in their power to stir up trouble with the Indians, that they might be retained on the plains. On one occasion a band of Cheyennes were met about 150 miles southwest from the fort. It is said that the Indians were peaceable and friendly; but at all events they were attacked by the troops, when a desperate fight ensued, in which the soldiers were badly worsted. At another time, it is said that an officer, at the head of a body of soldiers, went into an Indian camp, and the unsuspecting chief advancing to give a friendly greeting, was shot down by the officer. After these occurrences the Indians determined to get rid of the white people, and they forthwith drove every pale-face from their camps. So strict were they in this, that even those white men who had squaw wives were driven from their lodges. They then sent word to the fort and to the different settlements that, unless they left peaceably, they would soon be driven from Nebraska. Now serious troubles commenced. Horses and stock were stolen by the Indians. Heeding the previous warning, many of the settlers left the country. They held councils, and it was determined to attack at the same time, or as nearly so as they possibly could, at the settlements outside of the regularly garrisoned posts. Preparations were made, and the first attack was made at Plum Creek early in August, 1864. At the other points of attack agreed upon by the Indians they were a little late, and the news of the bloody massacre at Plum Creek was soon flashed over the telegraph line to all the other stations. By the time, therefore, that the Indians had arrived, the white people were prepared for defense. But thinking a general massacre along the entire line bust take place, the settlers and ranchmen, nearly to a man, deserted their establishments and fled to the East. Vast crowds of teams and cattle now poured down the valley, and the fort was continually thronged with these frightened families. But they did not stop at the fort, except for supplies and a little rest, before they hurried of to the East. For a short time all travel to the West was stopped. When it was again resumed, the freighters and emigrants were stopped at the fort and organized into trains of not less than fifty wagons to each, the men in attendance thoroughly armed and trained, when they were allowed to proceed, each train being under the command of a captain. The stage and mail lines again resumed their travel, but were attended by an armed guard.
Excited by fears of an attack from the Indian foe, improvements were made at the fort and every possible preparation made for defense. Ditches with a drawbridge were constructed and rifle pits dug.
Many regiments of soldiers were sent to Fort Kearney to assist in guarding the mail and to try to vanquish the Indians. During the war many fights and skirmishes on the plains took place, and many hardships were endured, in which many soldiers laid down their lives; for the few victories gained and the small number of Indians killed, the sacrifice of the soldiers was great.
Among others, the Nebraska troops were stationed at Fort Kearney during the war, and they, from their knowledge of the enemy and the country, did more good in proportion to their numbers, than did the troops from the more Eastern States. The last of the Nebraska soldiers were mustered out on the 22nd day of September, 1866, by Gen. Wessels. A great number of the officers and privates that composed the Nebraska regiments are still living in the State.
Though there were fears of an attack on Fort Kearney, there was never in its entire history, an attack made by the Indians or any other enemy. On two different occasions the garrison was thrown into a commotion by seeing large bodies of Indians approach, as they supposed, with a hostile purpose. On the first of these occasions, the terrified garrison made hasty preparations for defense, but as the Indians came nearer, they were found to be a large band of Pawnees going out to fight their enemies, the Sioux. They came into the fort and made a friendly visit with the soldiers. The next scare was also caused by the approach of a large number of Indians, and the soldiers were again drawn up in line of battle; but, when the red men reached the fort, they were found to be a band of 1,000 Arapahoes, on their way to fight the Pawnees. They came into the fort and made themselves at home, but made no attempt to molest the soldiers.
In the spring of 1866, a plan was made to improve Fort Kearney. It was intended, by the United States Government, to enlarge the fort, surround it with complete fortifications, and make it a central military depot for supplies. Gen. Pope made a visit to the fort for the purpose of making an examination, He was favorably impressed with the location and gave orders that work should be commenced at once. This was done. Steam saw mills were erected, logs were obtained from the inland, and three sets of new soldiers' quarters were erected, also three large stables for cavalry horses, a new building for the officers, a hospital, a Bakery, large storehouses for the quarter-master and commissary departments, an adjutant's office and a large powder magazine. While the improvements thus commenced, were being pushed forward with rapidity, Gen. Pope was removed, and Gen. Sherman took command, and made a tour of the West to inspect military posts. On his arrival at Fort Kearney, he fully intended to carry out the plan of Pope, relative to the improvements at the post, but before leaving, he took a ride with the officers, west of the fort and through the town of Kearney City; previous to this, the hero of the campaign to the sea, had during his tour received only the applause of admiring citizens, but Kearney City was a den of unrepentant rebels, and as he rode along the streets he was hissed and hooted at by the common mob. The proud and sensitive spirit of the grand old commander is well known, and this insult wounded his quick feelings. It is said that he remarked to an officer, to the effect, that he had fought such rebels as these, and that he should have nothing done that would help enrich them. However this may be, he soon gave orders that the post be abandoned.
As the Sioux were dangerous, Moses Sydenham sent a request to Gen. Augur, then in command of the department of the Platte, asking that a few soldiers be left to help protect the settlers. The General gave orders that one company, under command of a Lieutenant, should be left. Fort Kearney, therefore, remained a one company post until 1871, when it was abandoned altogether.
In 1866, the Union Pacific Railroad was completed up the north side of the Platte River, and from that time until the abandonment of the fort in 1871, that place was generally a pleasant one. The fort was frequently visited by large parties from the cities of the East, the officers of the fort were social and ever ready to receive guests. Many were the buffalo hunts by excursionists on a visit to the fort, under the guidance of the officers and soldiers of the post.
In the fall of 1867, a large party of the editors of the United States, made an excursion to the terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad, and 100 or more of them visited Fort Kearney, which was then commanded by Col. A. J. Dallas. He, with his men, took them out on a grand buffalo hunt, which was vividly described in a large number of the journals of the East.
During the latter years of the occupancy of the fort, the garrison had abundant leisure for peaceful occupations. In many cases, the officers and soldiers had their families with them, and the chaplain of the post would attend to their religious instruction. A school was also established under the charge of the chaplain, and was kept up whenever there were any children to attend. Among the different chaplains at the fort, were Thomas Tipton, ex-United States Senator, from Nebraska, now residing at Brownville, and Thomas Munhall, proprietor of a hotel in Bloomington, Neb.
After the post was abandoned, in 1871, everything about the fort that was not removed soon went to ruin. All that is now left to mark the spot where Fort Kearney stood, is a space of uneven ground, the partially filled ditches, and the large grove of trees, that was planted on the establishment of the post in 1848. These trees have now grown to a very large size.
As soon as the railroad was completed in 1866, the immense freighting business and travel on the overland route past Fort Kearney, in the northern part of Kearney County, was cut off and the temporary population around the fort decreased very rapidly. When the fort was finally abandoned, nearly all of the old settlers left the county.
A short time after this, however, settlers began to come in to other points and quite a number of homestead claims were entered in the county. In the spring of 1872, the population had increased to such an extent, that measures were taken to organize Kearney County under the laws of the State of Nebraska. This arrangement was effected and an election held on the 17th day of June, 1872. County officers were elected, and the county seat designated at Lowell, in the northeastern part of the county, and on the line of the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad, which was then nearly completed to that point.
During the year 1872, the increase in population was quite large and a great acreage of prairie land was broken up and put under cultivation.
In 1873, the immigration to the county continued, a large amount of breaking was done, and the land which was brought under cultivation the year before, was planted to crops, which resulted in a fair yield.
In the spring of 1874, settlers continued to come to the county and enter homestead claims. A very large acreage of crops was planted this year, and in the early part of the season, everything looked favorable for a large yield, but during the summer and before the harvest of small grain was completed, the vast hordes of grasshoppers, which devastated the entire State, put in an appearance. In a few days all kinds of crops that were not already harvested were destroyed. There was a fair yield of small grain that had been planted early, but the other crops were an entire failure. As a result of this, the next winter and the next year until another crop could be raised, was a season of hard times for the settlers. There were many hardships, if not absolute suffering undergone by the settlers and their families, but aid was sent them from the East, and they managed to exist until another crop could be raised.
For a year or two succeeding the general failure of crops in 1874, there were dull times experienced by the citizens of Kearney County, but after that time the population began to increase slowly and steadily, farms were gradually being opened up and improved, and the citizens were generally prosperous, up to the present date, at which the condition of the settlers of the county may be said to be good. They are working hard and making money. Many of the farms are ornamented by large groves of forest trees that have been planted and as all kinds of trees grow rapidly in this soil, they have already attained great size and add much to the attractive appearance of the country.
The educational interests of the county from the time of its organization have been given careful attention. School districts have been formed in every community, school houses have been erected, good teachers are provided and an excellent order of schools sustained.
Church societies have also extended their organizations into all parts of the county, and the religious element is well represented. Sunday schools also are kept up and have a large attendance.
In November, 1876, by a vote of the people, the county seat was removed from Lowell to Minden, in the center of the county, but the Lowell people served an injunction and prevented its removal until May, 1878. At Minden are now good county buildings.
A history of Kearney County would not be complete without a mention of what was called the town of Centoria, and which at one time attracted some attention. This place was never a town, however. Its location was nearly south of the present town of Kearney Junction, and on the south side of the Platte River. Its existence began in 1872. The St. Joseph and Denver City Railroad was then in progress, and their land grant provided that they build to Kearney Junction, on the line of the Union Pacific Railroad. The route had been surveyed and certain officials had given Moses Sydenham assurances that a town should be started at a given point. Acting upon this, Sydenham entered a claim on a tract of government land and made preparations for starting a town. He opened a store and began the publication of the Central Star, a newspaper which soon gained notoriety, from its striking originality, and the peculiar ideas promulgated by its editor. He worked hard to encourage the settlement of Central Nebraska, and his paper was a curiosity. He displayed considerable literary ability, and the large head or title of the paper, extending perhaps one-fourth of the way down the page, was ornamented with various emblematic signs, indicating the name of the paper, and the fact of its being published nearly in the geographical center of the State and of the United States. He advocated removing the capitol of the State here, and not only this, but the capitol of the United States as well, giving many reasons therefor, among which was, that aside from its central location which made a removal necessary, it could also be done at that time without a very great expense, as the Government already owned the military reservation, and that in case of a removal, the value of property would increase so rapidly throughout the West, that the same rate of taxation would soon pay the national debt, and that the value of property in the East would not decrease, on account of other interests there. The St. Joseph & D. C. R. R. however, made its terminus at Hastings, and the prospects of Centoria were ruined forever. In 1873, the paper ceased to exist, and there is now nothing to mark the location of what was Centoria.
There have been but few murders in the county since its organization, and but two murderers have been convicted.
In december, 1878, Stephen D. Richards murdered in cold blood, the Harlison family, which consisted of Mrs. Harlison and her three children, the oldest, Daisy, being ten years old; then next Mabel, four years old, and Jessie, a baby two years old. He beat out their brains, and then took the team and other property which had belonged to the dead woman. He had been on intimate terms with the family. Some time after, suspicion having been excited, a search was made and the bodies were found buried under an old straw pile.
A short time after this brutal murder, Richards went to the house of a Swede, named Peter Anderson, who was living alone. He remained with him some time as they were acquaintances. One day he killed him by pounding him over the head with a hammer, crushing his skull badly, and causing instant death. He buried the body of the dead Swede under a pile of coal in the cellar and then helped himself to the property. Suspicion was soon excited and a search made which resulted in the finding of the body. The evidence of guilt now being so strong against him, Richards took refuge in flight. He first went to Republican Valley, then to Hastings, where he remained some days, when he took the train for Chicago. He was on the same train with detectives who were looking for him, but coolly proceeded to interview them and found out all he wished to , without being recognized. From Chicago he went to his old home in Ohio, where his parents and relatives lived. In a short time he was traced to this place, and followed by the officers of the law who arrested him as he was out for a walk with two young ladies. He was at once taken to Nebraska, and in a short time had his trial. He was tried for the murder of Anderson and was sentenced by Judge Gaslin to be hanged on the 16th day of April, 1879. After his trial he was taken to Lincoln and confined in the penitentiary until the day set for execution should arrive.
S. D. Richards was only about twenty-three years of age at that time, was of rather a fine appearance, but was a fiend incarnate. Before execution he confessed to having committed nine murders, one of which was that of a man at the south end of the railroad bridge which crosses from Buffalo into Kearney County.
On the day previous to the one set for his execution Richards was brought from Lincoln to Minden, the county seat, and as there was no jail he was confined in the office of the County Clerk during the night. Early the next morning a large crowd of people had collected around the jail, and as they were clamoring for a look at the monster murderer, Sheriff Kieran put him in a wagon and drove around the public square. The scaffold had been erected within an inclosure, but this was soon torn down by the crowd. At the appointed time the prisoner was led out and placed on the scaffold. He made a speech after the usual order of those of condemned murderers, who profess to be on the way to heaven. The noose was then adjusted, the trap sprung, and the brute Richards was launched into eternity.
There was one other murder in Kearney County, since the time of its organization. It was that of a man named Vroman and his son, who were killed by a man named Williams. This took place in 1875.
Vroman and his family were living at the home of Williams. Some difficulties had arisen between them in which the Vromans got the best of the quarrel. Williams' team died soon after and he thought the Vromans had poisoned the horses. From that time trouble began in earnest. The parties ceased living together. One night Williams' pony got loose and was shut up by the Vromans. When the owner came for it trouble ensued, when Williams shot both Vroman and his son, with a double-barrel gun. From about one-fourth of a mile distant, Mrs. Vroman saw the trouble and hurried to the scene, but found both her husband and son dead, having been shot in the back.
Williams, the murderer, after having several trials, was at last taken to Adams County, on a change of venue, where he was tried and convicted, and sent to the State Penitentiary for a term of ten years.