Ferries in Kansas, Part XI --
Great Nemaha River

by George A. Root

November 1936 (Vol. 5, No. 4), pages 378 to 380
Transcribed by Gardner Smith; digitized with permission
of the Kansas State Historical Society.
NOTE: The numbers in brackets are links to footnotes for this text.

THE Great Nemaha river is formed by two branches -- the northern and longer rising in Panama township, Lancaster county, Nebraska, in T. 7 N., and R. 8 E. The stream's course is to the southeast, through the northeast corner of Pawnee county, through Richardson county toward the southeast and east, where it is joined by the south branch. The Kansas branch (south fork) is formed by the junction of Hickory and Tennessee creeks in Nemaha county, which unite at a point about two miles south of Seneca, and flow northward slightly to the east of Seneca, past the village of Taylor Rapids and on into Nebraska, at a point near the eastern boundary of Range 18 E. The northern branch is joined in Richardson county, at the eastern edge of the city of Salem. From there the Great Nemaha flows in a slightly southeastern direction for about thirty miles to reach a point about fourteen miles east of the junction of its two branches, and then crosses the Kansas line three separate times within a space of about two miles, near the north-east corner of S. 5, T. 1, R. 18 E., on the old Diminished Iowa Indian reservation. From there the stream continues to the north and east for about five miles to join the Missouri river at a point about two miles north of the Kansas-Nebraska boundary.[1] The south branch of the river is approximately fifty miles in length, while the larger one is about 150 miles long. The Great Nemaha usually has a brisk current. It is broken at convenient intervals by rapids, which generally fall over rocks, and has sufficient fall to furnish power for milling purposes if dammed or otherwise controlled. The same can be said of nearly all its tributaries.[2]

     The earliest mention of the river we have discovered is in the account of S.H. Long's expedition, in 1818-1820, in which it is spoken of as the Great Nemahaw.[3] Prince Maximilian, in the account of his travels, mentions the stream as the Great Nemawha.[4] Father Paul J. DeSmet, in his Letters and Sketches, mentions the stream in 1841-1842.[5] The word "nemaha" in the Otoe language signifies "water of cultivation," "ne," meaning water; "maha," denoting planting or cultivation.[6]

     Very little is found in Kansas documentary history relating to ferries on the Great Nemaha, but from scattered data it is evident that an early-day trader named Roy or LeRoy operated the first ferry. George J. Remsburg, in a sketch of the Nemaha river, says that this early-day trader was John Baptiste LeRoy, of French-Canadian parentage, and originally from the French settlements in Illinois. The town of LeRoy, Ill., was named for the family. LeRoy was an interpreter for the Iowas, Sacs and Foxes, and also a trader with them, and it is thought that he may have come with the Indians in 1837. Their reservation embraced portions of what is now Brown and Doniphan counties, Kansas, and Richardson county, Nebraska. LeRoy married an Iowa woman and established himself on the Nemaha river near the mouth of the creek that bears his name. It is thought that he died among the Indians, living near St. Joseph, Mo., as a small stream coming out of the Blacksnake Hills south of that city is still known as Roy's Branch.

     LeRoy had a trading establishment near the mouth of Roy's creek, in Brown county. It stood on the side of a hill overlooking both streams. His ferry was close to the north line of the state. This locality was probably the scene of a sanguinary battle between the Iowas and Otoes on one side and the Pawnees on the other. Mark E. Zimmerman, of white Cloud, learned of this battle from members of the Iowa tribe. To the Iowas the Nemaha Roy's creek site is known as the "Old Pawnee Village." It is thought to have been occupied as early as 1765.

     Roy's ferry was located on a much-traveled route, and there must have been some sort of a crossing here at the time Kansas territory was created, for the first session of the territorial legislature established roads leading to that locality. It is said that most of the residents of this locality did their trading at Rulo, Neb.

     In 1860, John W. Foreman and D. Vanderslice were granted authority by the territorial legislature to maintain a ferry across the Great Nemaha at a point near Elisha's creek. This act gave them a fifteen-year privilege for two miles above and two miles below.[7] No further history of this enterprise has been located. Territorial roads had been established leading to the site of Roy's ferry as early as 1855, the first starting from the Wyandotte ferry on the Kansas river, and running by way of Delaware, Leavenworth, Kickapoo, Port William, Doniphan, Iola, and Iowa Point, to a point on the Kansas-Nebraska line, opposite Roy's ferry on the Great Nemaha.[8] Another ran from Doniphan to the Kansas-Nebraska line, via Roy's ferry to Iowa Point. James F. Foreman, Charles Blakesley and S.G. Fish were named as commissioners to view and mark out this thoroughfare.[9] Another road was projected by this same legislature, to start from a point opposite St. Joseph, Mo., via Whitehead, Great Nemaha agency, to Cramer's crossing of the Great Nemaha river, but apparently failed of passage.[10]

     So far as is known this is the extent of ferrying on the Great Nemaha river in Kansas.

     In the preparation of this story the writer has drawn heavily on newspaper articles written about the Great Nemaha river by George J. Remsburg.


1. Everts & Kirk, Atlas of Nebraska. Everts, Atlas of Kansas. Return to reading

2. Parker, Kansas and Nebraska Handbook, p. 143.Return to reading

3. Thwaites, Early Western Travels, v. 15, p. 132.Return to reading

4. Ibid., v. 24, p. 110. Return to reading

5. Ibid., v. 27, p. 227.Return to reading

6. Ibid., v. 15, p. 132. Return to reading

7. Private Laws, Kansas, 1860, special session, p. 288. House Journal, 1860, special session, p. 461. Council Journal, 1860, special session, pp. 521, 538, 539. Return to reading

8. General Statutes, Kansas, 1855, pp. 950, 951, 954.Return to reading

9. Laws, 1857, p. 186. Return to reading

10. House Journal, 1857, p. 46. Council Journal, 1857, pp. 80, 89, 111, 112, 119.Return to reading

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