History of Decatur, Nebraska
From: A History of Burt County, Nebraska
From 1803 to 1929
The Ludi Printing Co.
Wahoo, Nebraska - 1929


During the summer of 1819 Lewis and Clark came up the Missouri river from Ft. Calhoun and visited the grave of Chief Blackbird. The site is about 8 or 9 miles north of the original townsite of Decatur. Here they planted a small American flag. At this time the grave of the famous chief, about whom so many stories are told, was marked by a great mound of earth some 45 feet in height and 30 feet in circumference. For as many as 35 years no sign of the huge mound has been seen by those who visit the grave. The chief died in 1800 and on his death bed asked that he be buried on the highest hill overlooking the Missouri, and despite a century and a quarter of exposure to the elements it still has that distinction. Much has been written and told about the chief but all agree his influence over his people was great and that he used this influence to make peace between the red men and the pale face. His dying message to his people was much like this, "The white man is our friend; therefore let my spirit rest in peace on the highest hill of the Missouri, so that as they pass up and down, I may see them and welcome them to my children and my land of beautiful forests and prairies of peace and plenty." Tradition tells us Blackbird learned in some way the use of strychnine and used this knowledge in a strange way. Occasionally he would announce at every tent that a certain brave was soon to die or had been called by the spirit God, the doomed man always did die and so the story runs, no one but Blackbird Wa-kar-me, the medicine man, knew the real cause, so this might account for much of the obedience accorded Blackbird, but not for the love his people had for him nor for his dying wish for peace with the white man.

The first white settler in the present limits of Decatur was made by a man named Wood for whom Wood creek was named. This was the year of 1837. He came up the river with a party of explorers. He stayed here and later took sick and died here and was buried on a knoll back of the Henry Fontenelle home.

The next white settlers was several years later or in the spring of 1853 when Col. Peter A. Sarpy and Clement Lambert of Bellevue came up the river this far in the interests of the American Fur company. They made their camp at the mouth of Wood Creek and came to meet a band of Indians who were just in from a buffalo and deer hunt. They bartered with the Indians for their furs. To Sarpy, Lambert and Henry Fontanelle must go the credit for the origin of the town of Decatur and perhaps there is no place better than this for a short biography of each.

Peter A. Sarpy was born in 1804 and came to Bellevue, Nebraska, when he was 19 years old, took over the interests of the American Fur Co. there and showed his capabilities of dealing with the Indians and settlers from the first. He could not be swindled, neither did he wish to be unfair. He died at Plattsmouth in 1865, was buried there temporarily and later his body was moved to St. Louis, the home of his parents and his birthplace. Recently a portrait of Sarpy was unveiled at Papillion, the county seat of the county which is named for him.

Clement Lambert was born near St. Louis, October 2, 1807. Ran away from home when a young boy and joined John C. Fremont's expedition and was with Fremont when the first American flag was planted on Pike's Peak. Later went into the employ of American Fur Co., came here in 1854 and established trading post, which he operated for many years. Married Miss Beckstead, to whom the following children were born: Elizabeth, Mary, George, William, Laramore, Nevada, John, Olive, Susan and James. Mary, who was Mrs. James Dillon, is dead, and also John, the rest of the family are scattered now, but all figured in the early history of the town. They are located as follows: Elizabeth became Mrs. Riley Maryott, lived here years until after death of husband, now makes her home with her daughter, Mrs. J. E. Mose of Lincoln, Nebraska; Miss Olive also makes her home there; George, Denver, Colorado; William, Kansas City, Kansas; Miss Susan, teacher in Indian schools at Bismark, North Dakota; Nevada married to Alfred Page lived in Dakotas but following his death returned to Decatur where she now lives; Laramore, Decatur, blacksmith in early days, now has repair shop; James, Decatur, painter and paper hanger 25 years ago; later real estate and insurance, now with his son, Guy Lambert, in International Harvester or implement business.

Henry Fontanelle was at Fort Laramie, August 20, 1831. Educated under Father DeSmit, historical Catholic missionary. Was a wheel wright by trade and ran a general merchandise store in early days. Helped organize Thurston county. Married Miss Emily Pappan of St. Louis. She is now more than 100 years old, lives in the house she and her husband occupied before his death. To this couple were born eight children: Lucian A., Eugene, Victoria, Raymond, Emily, Emma, Ella and Nattie. All are dead now but Eugene who lives on the original farm and helps care for his mother. Henry Fontanelle was a brother of the famous Chief Logan Fontanelle who negotiated in person with President Pierce when the Indians gave up all but 30,000 acres of land and moved here for their home.

After log cabins were built by the Lambert, Sarpy and Fontanelle party the settlement grew rapidly. The houses were more than one room affairs and represented business houses as well as homes.

Perhaps the first list of business men was this one which reads: George Doan, first lawyer; David Collier, partner to Doan; Christopher C. Dunn, expert machinist; John Chase, Bellevue, village treasurer; S. T. Preston, plasterer; Adam Kerns, saw mill man; John Leonard, machinist; Mike Evans, carpenter; S. T. Young, farmer; A. B. Fuller, hotel man; E. D. Canfield, carpenter and contractor.

Harry Owens went to Onawa on horseback to get mail, $10 per trip.

In 1857 the first village election was held. Following men were elected: S. T. Young, mayor; Jacob Synder, D. B. Gaylon, aldermen; W. W. Wilson, city attorney; Frank Welch, recorder.

After the financial crash in 1857, new settlers did not come so rapidly but the land allotted for the town had already been all used as had also most of the money brought to the territory. During this depression little or no money was exchanged but there was much bartering of every sort. One advantage enjoyed by the few settlers who were here in '57, '58 and 60 was the facet that wild game in the form of deer, buffalo and all kinds of wild fowl were plentiful as was the wild hay which grew tall and was nourishing for horses.

After the depression, lumber came up by steamboat, houses and business places were built and the town of Decatur named for Stephen Decatur Bross really began to flourish.

The first term of public school taught in Decatur was in the fall of 1861 and was a winter term only. It was conducted in the town hall, Mrs. E. D. Canfield was the teacher and there were 10 pupils, T. R. Ashley, Lizzie Lambert, Will Hobbs, Gertie Fuller, Beattie Hobbs, James Calnon, Tim Calnon, Lizzie Thompson and Albert Kline. In a few years a small frame building served for a school house and in 1874 a fine brick building was erected, this at one time had as many as 300 on the roll and was located on the hill near the present M. E. church. Later the present school house was erected and recently has been made more modern by the addition of a fine gymnasium.

The Presbyterian church was the first to be built here in 1871. Dr. John M. Peebles was instrumental in securing funds to start the church and was its pastor for 10 years. Later Rev. Wm. H. Hamilton occupied the pulpit. While Rev. Hamilton stands out in history most clearly for being one of the first successful missionaries to the Indians with headquarters at the Old Mission, which he founded and whose building he superintended, yet Decatur people feel he was influential in Decatur history as well for he did spend the late years of his life here and his widow, Etta D. Hamilton, now 83, and his two daughters, Miss Lottie and Miss Julia, still live here.

The Episcopal church came next in 1862 and has held a steady membership through the years. Then followed the Catholic and the German Baptist. The Catholics no longer use the little building donated by John Henry but now have a fine new building and a strong membership, mostly nearby country people. Rev. Father Aughney, of Tekamah, has charge.

The Methodist and Presbyterian church are federated and at present have a Presbyterian minister, Rev. W. O. Jones, formerly of Cleveland, Ohio.

The Latter Day Saints, a branch of the old Mormon church, have a church here and also are in charge of the Indian Mission farm, under the direction of Mr. and Mrs. Bern Case. It is a model farm and is intended to assist the Indians in showing them how to make their farms profitable. It is located about 5 miles north of Decatur.

Prairie fires were not uncommon in the early days and many times the cemetery hill has been swept by one and the villagers terrorized.

There were several Indian scares and once word came from the north that the Sioux were on the warpath and intended coming on to the settlement at Decatur. This time many became so frightened that they left their homes and land and fled only to return in a few days when the rumor was proven false.

In the fall of 1869 Decatur was officially made a city of the second class and in the spring of 1880 reduced to a village again.

On March 29, 1879, the Decatur Bank was incorporated with following officers: James Ashley, president; Walter Drury, cashier. The capital stock was $10,000. On May 1st, 1898, the bank closed and paid out 100 cents on every dollar.

The first newspaper here was "The Decatur Herald," which printed its first issue in 1881. It has changed hands many times but at present is edited by M. Morgan who has had it about 6 years.

In 1890 many new business enterprises had their beginnings and also the big fire took place. On August 8th Byram Bros. store burst into flames and burned to the ground. Loveland's harness shop and John G. Ashley's which had just been filled with new stock burned too. Each place was only partly covered by insurance. There are many still in Decatur who will never forget this fire. Two days after the fire the whole town turned out and went to the H. D. Byram home where they celebrated that couple's 25th wedding anniversary. Mr. Byram, though now well along in his seventies, is still in the mercantile business.

In 1861 a commission was granted by George Armstrong, Grand Master of Nebraska, for a Masonic lodge at Decatur and in 1862 a lodge was formed with the following officers: O. H. Irish, W. M.; Charles F. Porter, S. W.; B. R. Folsom, J. W.; John S. Ramsey, Secretary; Wm. A. Amesbury, S. D.; Lorenzo Hobbs, J. D.; E. D. Canfield, Tiler. This lodge continued as an organization until 1874 when they gave up their charter, but in 1881 a dispensation was granted and the lodge reorganized. It has been a strong organization since and has as its officers at present: Chris Larson, W. M.; James Sears, S. W.; William Sears, J. W.; Virgil Hansen S. D.; Harry Olbrey, J. D.; John G. Maryott, Secretary; D. Roy Way, Treasurer; Rev. W. O. Jones, Chaplain; Ross McCluskey, Tiler; Guy Mussack and Arthur Morrow, Stewards.

The first Star lodge was organized here in 1882 when Lodge No. 88 received its charter. In 1891 the room where these lodges held their meetings was destroyed by fire and then a room was furnished over Borlow's store. Now they convene in the room in the 2nd story of the building owned by the Allen family.

Anna Goddel was the first white child born in Decatur. She was the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Goddel and when a young woman married John Eddie Connealy. She died during the summer of 1928 after having been bedfast for eight years following a stroke of paralysis. Mr. Connealy lives on their original farm.

The Missouri river has perhaps played the largest single role in Decatur's history. It was the means of the first settlers getting here. It formed a distinct boundary line on one side of which the early settlers were safe from Indians, but when they crossed the river they need not be surprised if they were raided, scalped and left to die on the prairie by warring Omahas or Sioux. Then the constant changing of the course of the river has caused the location of Decatur. to change often and what was originally the main part of town is now river bottom covered with a dense growth of willows. And now Decatur has been named as a point for a bridge across the Missouri. Woods Bros. of Lincoln have been given the contract the time of which has been extended from 1 to years.

There are men, women and families about whom much could be written in connection with Decatur's history up to 1900 but space will not permit this so a list of those more prominent will have to suffice. Some of them are no longer alive but have descendants whose families are prominent in community life at present, others are among our citizens still and some are living in other sections of the country: Mr. and Mrs. Robert Ashley, he was first Decatur blacksmith and later U. S. Agent for Omahas and Winnebagos, she has been dead many years, he lived to be past 90 and died during 1928, parents of Thomas R. Ashley living here at present.

Calvin Root emigrated from Wisconsin in '61 with two children, Frank and Nevada. Nevada is now Mrs. Frank Stillman and she and Mr. Stillman have now spent 54 years of married life together.

Mr. and Mrs. John Lewis. Mr. Lewis was first to operate a steam ferry here. Mr. Lewis has been dead many years. Mrs. Lewis lives at Macy with son William, one other living child, a daughter, Mrs. Stanley Wilder, of Rosalie.

Mr. and Mrs. George J. White, holder of many public offices in early day, Civil war veteran. He has been dead several years. Mrs. White makes her home with her children. Before her marriage was a pioneer school teacher.

Mr. and Mrs. Frank Y'Deen, natives of Sweden, Mrs. Y'Deen dead, Mr. Y'Deen hearty in his old age, lives here with son John. He was a sharp shooter in Swedish army.

Azariah B. Fuller and wife, both of whom are dead, among Decatur's earliest and foremost citizens. Youngest daughter now Mrs. John B. Choyce, now living in the home, built by her parents when they had brick factory here.

E. D. Canfield, early carpenter and contractor and school teacher. First wife was Sophia Root. After her death married Cora Blue who is now a resident of Decatur. He has been dead many years.

James Ashley, native of England, came to Decatur in 1864 as government blacksmith for Omahas. Filled most of local offices at some time. Both he and his wife are dead, one son, Charles, lives near Decatur on the home farm.

Rev. Charles Cross, pioneer minister, officiated at Henry Fontanelles funeral in 1899.

Jirah P. Page, native of New York state, who with his wife engaged in restaurant business here more than 20 years. Two daughters of their 5 children live here now. They are Mrs. Ada Young and Mrs. Ida Tellifero.

Michael Calnon, native of Ireland as was his wife, was victim of land sharks who forced him at the point of a gun to give up his claims to a rich piece of land, in what is now Hanscom park in Omaha, Nebr., then came to Decatur where he died. One son, James, is still a Decatur resident and was a pioneer blacksmith here.

Dr. Thomas A. Whitacre, first doctor to hang out shingle here, retired to his home in Ohio after years of useful practice here, died there.

Lorenzo Hobbs, located here in late '50s, contractor and carpenter.

Mrs. Samuels, mother of. Frank and Jessie James taught school here in 1862 was an exceptional character, both fearless and brainy, moved from here to Kansas where she died. Lost one arm and an infant son when trying to keep her notorious sons from capture. Officers threw a bomb into her home killing the baby and blowing off Mrs. Samuels' right arm.

Christopher Dunn, prominent in '70s, Decatur merchant. He is dead but widow still lives here. She is an aunt of Welch Eros. of Tekamah and Ben Evans of Decatur. Mrs. Dunn had the first millinery shop in Burt county. Marked out the first road from Decatur to West Point by plowing a furrow between the two towns.

Rev. Wm. H. Hamilton, born in Pennsylvania, in 1811, educated in east. In 1853 transferred to Omaha Indian Mission at Bellevue and continued in this work until his death in the late '80s. Spent many years at Old Mission whose building he superintended and whose site is of much historical interest today. He was the first to do any effective Christian work among Omahas.

J. B. Whittier, born in New Hampshire, came to Decatur from Colorado, invested in farms and later in First National Bank of which he had controlling interest many years. Heavy land owner at time of his death and Decatur's wealthiest man. Fell in his home in August, 1927, and broke his hip and was taken to Emmanuel hospital in Omaha where he spent remainder of his days. Left the bulk of his wealth to his widow, Ida S. Whittier, who makes Decatur her home.

Decatur's present population is around 800 people, that item not having changed much since 1900, her enterprises are all thriving. The latest addition in the way of buildings is the American Legion Hall completed in the fall of 1927 at a cost of $20,000. The building is the finest of its kind in the country and needless to say the center of community life. Generous donations by individuals and then donations at different times by workmen coupled with careful planning by Legion members made this building possible. The post has been named Rogers Crumb in honor of the two Decatur men who lost their lives in the World War.

The changing of the channel in the Missouri river in 1920 threw the main current against the bank at the end of main street and several hundred feet of ground caved away into the river, conditions looked serious for the safety of the village. Engineers were secured to put in rip-rap work, but the cables did not hold, and in time most of the money spent was wasted. The channel changed before another year nearly half a mile away from the bank and the old river bed is now a mass of willows. Many farms have been devoured however in years past by the stream. There is no permanent ferry boat landing due to the constant changing of the current, at present it is about a mile southeast of the town.

In the fall of 1926 the road from Tekamah to Decatur was graveled thus giving the inland town a year around road. Two mails from Tekamah arrive daily by automobile. In 1927 the Nebraska legislature passed a bill providing for a bridge across the Missouri river here. Congress in 1928 passed a similar measure to become effective within 5 years.

About 35 business firms and professional offices are located here, providing adequate accomodations for the needs of the people. The main street is graveled and city water and electric light plants both municipally owned.

Return to [ Burt County History ] [ NE History ] [ History at Rays Place ] [ Rays Place ] [Nebraska Biographies ]

All pages copyright 2009. All items on this site are copyrighted by their author(s). These pages may be linked to but not used on another web site. Anyone may copy and use the information provided here freely for personal use only. Privacy Policy