THE BEGINNING OF OMAHA
To Omaha belongs the distinction of being the first permanent settlement made by white men within the present
confines of Douglas County. After the Mormons were ordered by the United States authorities to vacate their settlement
at Florence in 1847, the western bank of the Missouri River remained a "wild and devious solitude" for
some five years. In 1849, when hundreds of emigrants from the East were crossing the plains to the newly discovered
gold fields in California, the steamboat El Paso was engaged for several weeks in ferrying the goldseekers across
the Missouri, a short distance below the plateau on which the City of Omaha now stands. One day William P. Wilcox,
clerk of the El Paso, accompanied by Charles M. Conoyer, a boy about eight years old, walked up to the plateau
and some writers credit these two persons with being the first ever to set foot upon the site of the city. At that
time, and for several years afterward, the lands on the west side of the river belonged to the Indians and had
not been opened to settlement. In anticipation of a treaty, a number of land-sharks, speculators and prospective
actual settlers began congregating at Council Bluffs, then a city of 2,000 population, in the fall of 1852. The
number was increased in the spring of 1853, but still no treaty had been negotiated with the Indians for the cession
of their lands.
BROWN'S LONE TREE PERRY
On June 3, 1853, William D. Brown, who had been operating a ferry a short distance up the river, made an investigation
of the banks of the river opposite Omaha, with a view of establishing a ferry at that point. He foresaw that as
soon as the lands west of the river were thrown open to settlement there would he a rush on the part of those gathered
at Council Bluffs, and that a ferry would quickly become a paying institution. Along the east bank there was a
wide slough; in the middle of the stream was a sandbar, and the west bank was marshy. Mr. Brown found landing places
where he could dodge all these obstacles and soon had his ferry in operation. He called it the "Lone Tree
Ferry." When asked how he came to select that name he replied that there were several isolated trees on either
side of the river any one of which might be designated as the "Lone Tree," and it made no difference
to him which one might be selected.
Later, in the month of June, 1853, several residents of Council Bluffs conceived the idea of uniting with Mr. Brown
in the formation of a ferry and town company. On the 25th. Dr. Enos Lowe, Jesse Williams, Joseph H. D. Street and
William D. Brown, members of the company, accompanied by Jesse Lowe, crossed over to the Nebraska side to look
at the "lay of the land." They returned to Council Bluffs and reported that a good town site could be
located on the plateau, and on July 23, 1853, Dr. Enos Lowe was delegated to go to St. Louis and purchase a steam
ferry boat. He found a suitable boat at Alton, Illinois, brought it around to Council Bluffs, where he arrived
in September, and christened it the Marion. It was used until the spring of 1855, when high water threw it upon
the east bank and it was never again put in commission. This was the first steam ferry on the Upper Missouri River.
Other members of the town and ferry company were: James Jackson, Milton Tootle, Samuel S. Bayliss, Bernhardt Henn,
Gen. Samuel R. Curtis, and the firms of Tanner & Downs and Street & Redfield, all of Council Bluffs.
FIRST CLAIMS LOCATED
It has been claimed by some that William D. Brown, the proprietor of the Lone Tree Ferry, was the first man
to locate a claim upon the site of the City of Omaha, but this claim is not well substantiated. The following account
of the first attempt to locate claims on the west side of the Missouri, opposite Council Bluffs, is taken from
"Andreas' History of Nebraska."
"A. D. Jones had frequently expressed his determination to settle in Nebraska long before an opportunity was
offered to carry out his intention. He was a surveyor by 'profession and, when running lines on the Iowa side of
the river, made observations as to the most desirable location for a claim, and in his own mind had selected that
one of which he should endeavor to possess himself when occasion offered. The claim was subsequently selected as
contemplated and in time became the property of Herman Kountze and S. E. Rogers. Among those with whom he canvasser
the prospects and conferred in reference to the establishment of claims was William Knight, a decided character
of the day, and others.
"In November, 1853 a party of gentlemen from Council Bluffs visited the landing of the ferry boat Marion,
under a promise that the steamer would convey them to the Nebraska shore. A claim meeting was held, pending negotiations
with the managers of the ,boat, in which William Knight occupied a prominent position and unbosomed himself of
his views at every available period, the liveliest and most animated discussions occurring between Bones and Knight.
The officers of the steam ferry failed to respond to the wishes of the anticipating claimants. The latter returned
to their homes, with remarks from some that they would go to the upper ferry the next morning, cross in a canoe
and come down and make' claims on and in the vicinity of the plateau, now Omaha.
"Believing that then was the time to strike, A. D. Jones conferred with Thomas and William Allen, subcontractors
in the construction of what was formerly known as 'the grade' for the Council Bluffs & Nebraska Ferry Company,
to whom he set forth the importance of crossing the river at once. They agreed with his proposition and the trio
visited Mr. Brown, from whom they procured a small, leaky scow that lay on the bank of the river, in which they
proposed to cross, though it was considered a risky and dangerous undertaking. The plan of operations having been
agreed upon, the point at which claims should be made, etc., the three men went to Thomas Allen's residence and
obtained a supply of edibles preparatory to setting out. The frail craft was launched into the waters of the 'Big
Muddy,' with Thomas Allen as oarsman, `Bill' Allen to bail out the water, and Mr. Jones as helmsman. Thus situated,
these modem voyagers for the Golden Fleece struck out from the end of the grade opposite Davenport Street, passed
the foot of the sandbar in the middle of the river, and landed below where Iler's distillery was located at a later
day. The bottom was covered with a tall, stiff grass, much higher than the explorers' heads, which they were compelled
to parts with their hands to enable them to make their way through. They next came to a wide slough along the low
plat of ground upon which the distillery above mentioned stands. This they crossed by wading, crawling over the
tops of fallen trees. The bottom. was then heavily timbered, but is now (1882) covered with city residences or
manufactories. Being wet and fatigued, the explorers sought the first favorable place for camping for the night,
and, after building a fire and cooking their supper, seated themselves about the embers and congratulated each
other upon their safe arrival.
Being in a strange land, owned and occupied by aborigines, a feeling Of timidity and insecurity was experienced.
To the north, on the prairie bottoms, fires could be seen burning, and 'Bill' Allen informed his companions that
the Indians were coming, fortifying his assertion by drawing their attention to what seemed to be hordes of savages
moving rapidly to and fro before the flames to the northward, fed by the dry vegetation found in their path. The
patty gazed with wonder and alarm at the distant figures, but becoming satisfied that no danger menaced the camp,
and quieting the fears of the too susceptible each sought a log for his pillow, inviting sleep. occasionally awakening,
however, to replenish the dying fire, as the night was chill and crisp.
"Early the next morning, as soon as there was sufficient light to enable them to make their way through the
brush, the party arose from their primitive and unsatisfactory couches, ate the last morsel of corn bread and bacon,
and started out over an unknown region for the purpose of marking the claims which they had previously selected.
Mr. Jones, with a hatchet he had brought with him, blazed a corner tree, near where the camp was located, and put
therein the initials of his name with his survey marking iron. Then continuing, he blazed lines north (to the point
afterward occupied by the residence of Mr. Kountze), thence south to a point (Mr. Goodman's present place) which
he was desirous of taking into his claim, as it was the most prominent point on the hilt The Aliens now suggesting
that Mr. Jones had taken in his share of the timber, the latter gentleman marked a corner on the ridge (east of
Tenth Street) and started east, blazing line trees until he came to deep ravine heavily timbered with exceedingly
tall trees, but somewhat clear of underbrush. He descended into the valley and named it 'Purgatory,' by which name
it was afterward familiarly known. As he descended the valley he discovered that the creek which coursed within
its confines ran sometimes above the surface and sometimes was hidden from view for a considerable distance. He
also ascertained that the lower end of the ravine was the bed of an excellent article of building stone. Upon emerging
from the valley and gaining the plateau, rejoicing over his discovered acquisitions, he met the Aliens, who had
surrounded their respective claims, over which they were much pleased. Here Mr. Jones made his fourth corner and
continued to mark a line along the margin of the plateau contiguous to the slough to the place of beginning. He
then went above (to where S. E. Rogers afterward resided) and laid his claim foundations regularly, completing
the requisites for making a good and valid claim according to the laws and customs among squatters in other new
portions of the public domain.
"The previous afternoon, upon starting in the small boat, the captain of the Marion informed Mr. Jones and
the Aliens that he would come after them on the succeeding day when they returned to the bank, but for some reason
the captain failed to respond to their calls and signals. The river was filled with floating ice on both sides
of the sandbar, making it very dangerous for them to start out in their leaky craft, but there was neither house
nor living person anywhere about their surroundings, except one lone Indian who was seen on the bluffs, but who
refused to approach them. They were without anything to eat; and trouble seemed imminent, whether they ventured
into the floating ice or remained on the Nebraska soil. They finally concluded to try their luck in the ice, and,
dragging the scow up the shore for a considerable distance, launched it and struck out through the ice to reach
the sandbar if possible. They barely reached the objective point, and, pulling the boat high along the east side
of the bar, they again ventured into the turbid stream amid the floating ice, through which they drifted and after
hard work landed on the Iowa shore about opposite Iler's distillery.
"This was probably the first survey ever made in Douglas County, and the first claim made, not by right, but
with the tacit consent of the Indians, Mr. Jones and his confreres becoming squatters by their acquiescence in
the acts necessary to such privileges. During the remainder of that year, and in the winter of 1853-54, there was
some inspection of the lay of the land, but no claims or acts tending to establish settlements undertaken, other
than those cited_ The present state was still an unorganized territory, in possession of the Indians, who were
jealous of every intrusion and guarded their freehold with more than ordinary diligence. Such then are the facts
regarding the attempts primarily made to found a settlement west of the Missouri."
No apologies are offered for the introduction of this extended quotation, for the reason that the main facts in
the story as related in Andreas' History were furnished to the writer by Mr. Jones, who was one of the principal
actors. It is therefore probably as nearly correct as any account of past events can be, where human memory has
to be depended on for many of the details. The expedition of Mr. Jones and the Aliens was not made by the authority,
or under the auspices. of the ferry company, but was purely a personal undertaking, the participants hoping thereby
to forestall William Knight and his associates in the selection of the best claims on the west side of the river.
LAYING OUT THE TOWN
Nebraska became an organized territory under the Act of May 30, 1854, and on the 24th of June following President
Pierce issued his proclamation announcing the ratification of the treaty concluded with the Omaha chiefs in March.
This meant that the lands on the west side of the Missouri were opened to settlement and the Council Bluffs &
Nebraska Ferry Company lost no time in choosing a site and having a survey made of their proposed town. Alfred
D. Jones was employed to make the survey and was assisted in the work by Capt. C. H. Downs, who carried the chain
and drove the stakes. The original town plat consisted of 320 blocks, each 264 feet square. Capitol Avenue and
Twenty-first Street, respectively running east and north from "Capitol Square," were each 120 feet wide.
All other streets were made 100 feet in width. From Mr. Jones' plat the first "Map of Omaha" was lithographed
and printed in St. Louis. The late Byron Reed had one of these maps in his collection of historic relics. It bore
date of September 1, 1854, and in one corner was the legend: "Lots will be given away to persons who will
improve them - private sale will be made on the premises. A newspaper, the Omaha Arrow, is printed weekly at this
place; a brick building, suitable for the Territorial Legislature is in process of construction, and a steam mill
and brick hotel will be completed in a few weeks."
While Mr. Jones was engaged in making the survey, the question of a name for the new town came up for discussion
among the members of the ferry company, and it is said the name "Omaha" was adopted at the suggestion
of Jesse Lowe, who was for many years connected with the city's business interests. No better or more appropriate
name could have been selected.
CELEBRATING THE EVENT
On July 4, 1854, before the survey of the town was fully completed, a party of excursionists came over from
Iowa to celebrate Independence Day upon the site of the future city. Among them were Alfred D. Jones, Andrew J.
Hanscom, William D. Brown, Thomas Davis, Frederick Davis, Hadley D. Johnson, Harrison Johnson, John Gillespie and
several others. A number of women had prepared a quantity of food for the Fourth of July dinner and a wagon was
brought into requisition to convey the baskets of provisions to the place appointed for the picnic. This was doubtless
the first Fourth of July celebration ever held on Nebraska soil. In an address before the Nebraska State Historical
Association on January 12, 1887, Hadley D. Johnson, in speaking of the picnic, referred briefly to the fact that
it occurred before the white men had acquired the right to locate permanently on the Indian lands and added:
"I remember that some resolutions were adopted and a few speeches made. The stand on which the speakers stood
was a common wagon owned by my old friend Harrison Johnson, now no more, who, with some of the members of his family,
constituted a portion of the party."
John, Gillespie, who was the first state auditor of Nebraska after the, state was admitted in 1867, in a communication
to the Lincoln Journal the next day, said: "Now I wish to add to that brief bit of history of the early days
of Nebraska, that the Hon. Hadley D. Johnson, then reputed to be Nebraska's delegate to Washington, was called
upon for a speech. He responded and got up into the only wagon on the ground, that had hauled over the baskets
of provisions and two blacksmith's anvils to fire a salute. After the salute was fired Mr. Johnson commenced a
spread eagle speech, but had not gotten' very far along when the reports of the anvils brought in sight a number
of Indians. The women became frightened and baskets and anvils were piled into the wagon and the, driver. started
the team for the ferry - followed by the entire audience. The result was that the speech was never completed, unless
the honorable gentleman intended his speech of last evening as the finish. His modesty no doubt prevented him from
giving the details."
Gillespie was one of the party and at the picnic offered the toast - "Nebraska; may her gentle zephyrs and
rolling prairies invite pioneers from the muddy Missouri River to happy homes, and may her lands ever be dedicated'
to free soil, free labor and free men."
THE FIRST BUILDINGS
On: the day of the picnic above mentidnéd a log cabin was raised to the square" and made ready for
the roof, but the first completed building wads the one erected by Thomas Allen for the ferry company. It was a
ruder log cabin at the coiner of Twelfth and Jackson streets and was given the high-sounding name of the "St.
Nicholas," though it was generally referred to as the "Claim House." William P. Snowden and his
wife came over from Iowa: on July 1854, and soon afterward opened a hotel in the St. Nicholas.
The second house was built by M. C. Gaylord at the corner of Twenty second and Burt streets, and the third was
the "Big Six" grocery and saloon of Lewis & Clancy. on the north side' of Chicago Street, between
Thirteenth and Fourteenth.
William P. Snowden is entitled to the honor of building the first" dwelling in Omaha, the three structures
that preceded his house being used for- business purposes. The ferry company gave him a lot on the west side of
Tenth Street and before the close of the summer of 1854 he erected thereon a cabin, the opening of which was celebrated
by a big dance, in which most of the pioneers participated. At the time of this "house warming" the building
was not completed. Quilts were hung at the doors and windows while the guests "tripped the light fantastic
toe." to the music of Ben Leonard's fiddle. The ferry company also gave a lot to Mrs. Snowden as a prize for
being the first woman to become a resident of the new town. She held it for some time and then sold it for about
two hundred dollars.
P. G. Peterson. who was subsequently the first sheriff of Douglas County, ereeted the fifth building. It was
a frame structure and stood on the west side of Tenth Street, between Farnam and Harney. A. J. Poppleton, them
first lawyer to locate in Omaha, had his office in the Peterson block. Samuel E. and William Rogers built on the
south side of Douglas Street between Tenth and Eleventh.
Others who settled in Omaha before the close of the year 1854, most of whom erected buildings of some type, were:
George. Armstrong, Alexander, John and Thomas Davis, Lyman and Origen D. Richardson, John M. Thayer, Joseph W.
Paddock, Patrick and Thomas Swift, Andrew J. Hanscom, James G. Megeath, James Ferry, Alfred D. Jones, Experience
Estabrook, Hadley D. Johnson, Jesse Lowe, Andrew J. Poppleton, Dennis, Maurice and Michael Dee, Thomas Barry, Timothy
Sullivan, O. B. Selden, John Withneli, Thomas. O'Connor, Dr. George L. Miller, Dr. Enos Lowe and Lorin Miller.
SETTLERS OF 1855-56-57
Before the close of the year 1857 three hundred or more men brought their families to Omaha and established
their homes. Among these were quite a number who afterward became more or less prominently identified with the
business, professional and official life of the city. In this list appear the names of G. C. Bovey, James E. Boyd,
William N. Byers, Randall Brown, Clinton Briggs, Rev. Peter Cooper, the Creightons, the Crowells, George W. Doane.
Frederick Drexel, Rev. Reuben Gaylord, George I. Gilbert, Charles W. Hamilton, P. W. Hitchcock, John A. Horbach,
J. R. Hyde, Harrison Johnson, B. E. B. Kennedy, Augustus and Herman Kountze, George B. Lake, William A. Little,
Samuel Megeath, Ezra and Joseph H. Millard, Samuel Moffatt, Thomas Murray, Samuel and A. R. Orchard, A. S. Paddock;
William A. Paxton, John R. Porter, Patrick Quinland, John I. Redick, Byron Reed, J. Cameron Reeves. Jacob Shull.
Charles B. Smith and James M. Woolworth.
Of these men James E. Boyd was afterward elected governor of the state, P. W. Hitchcock, Joseph H. Millard and
A. S. Paddock served in the United States Senate; Samuel Moffatt was elected treasurer of Douglas County in 1856;
J. Cameron Reeves was elected sheriff at the same time; Harrison Johnson wrote a history of Nebraska, and several
others became prominent in professional and business circles.
The first sermon ever preached in Omaha was by Rev. Peter Cooper. a Methodist Episcopal minister, who held services
in the St. Nicholas on August 13, 1854, his audience consisting of twenty five persons.
There are some Contending claims, as is usually the case, concerning the first white child born in the city. Some
insist that William N. Reeves, son of Jesse Reeves, is entitled to that honor, but investigation has shown that
he was born outside of the town limits. A daughter was born to Mr. and Mrs. James Ferry in October, 1854, while
the family was living in a hay hut; not far from where the Union Pacific depot now stands, and she was doubtless
the first white child born in the town. The Reeves child was born about a month earlier.
The first marriage was solemnized on November 11, 1855, the contracting parties being, John Logan and Miss Caroline
M. Mosier. Rev. Isaac F. Collins performed the ceremony.
The first newspaper, the Omaha Arrow, made its appearance on July 28, 1854, less than one month after the town
was surveyed, though the paper was printed in Council Bluffs.
The first brick yard was started in the summer of 1854. The town company, being desirous of erecting a brick building
for the use of the Territorial Legislature, induced Benjamin Winchester to come over from Kanesville (now Council
Bluffs) and open a brick yard. The yard was located on the square bounded by Fourteenth, Leavenworth, Fifteenth
and Marcy streets. Mr. Winchester prepared a kiln ready for firing and covered it with canvass to protect it from
the weather. One night the canvass was stolen and a heavy rain reduced the bricks to a shapeless mass of clay.
Discouraged by his loss, Mr. Winchester gave up the yard and returned to Iowa.
O. B. Selden was the first village blacksmith. Soon after his arrival in the summer of 1854, he established a forge
on the north side of Howard Street, between Thirteenth and Fourteenth streets. No "spreading chestnut tree"
shaded his smithy, but he made the sparks fly from his anvil "like chaff from a threshing floor," and
proved to be a valuable addition to the population.
The first saw mill was built by Alexander Davis and Samuel S. Bayliss in the summer of 1854. It stood on Otoe Creek,
a short distance north of where the Union Pacific depot is now located, and was kept busy manufacturing lumber
for the pioneers. A little later it was traded to Thomas Davis for 400 acres of land.
Charles Childs was the proprietor of the first grist mill, which was built in the spring of 1856. It was not in
the town, but was located about six miles south, and consisted of one run of buhrs for grinding corn. He also had
a saw mill in connection and ran the grist mill but one day in the week. Farmers came from as far west as Grand
Island to Childs' mill. Subsequently he added a flour mill and made the first flour ever manufactured in Nebraska.
The first school was taught by Miss Adelaide Goodwill, the term beginning on July 1, 1855, one room of the old
state house being utilized as a school room. The school remained in session until Miss Goodwill was compelled to
vacate the room for the assembling of the second session of the Legislature.
The first hotel was kept by William P. Snowden and his wife in the St. Nicholas, as above stated. The St. Nicholas
was not a very spacious edifice, being only sixteen feet square, and the first building erected for hotel purposes
was a frame structure on the southwest corner of Eleventh and Harney streets. It was completed in the fall of 1854
and was opened as the "City Hotel."
Tootle & Jackson were the first merchants. Their store, which was located on the corner of Tenth and Farnam
streets, was opened late in the year 1854 or early in 1855, the first stock consisting of a few wagon loads of
goods suited to the wants of the few people then living in Omaha and vicinity. Other early merchants were James
G. Megeath and John R. Porter. Megeath & Company had a large trade with the Mormans, who purchased their final
outfits at Omaha on the way to Salt Lake, and while the Pacific Railroad was under construction this firm, by means
of portable warehouses, kept a branch at the end of the line, where a thriving business was conducted.
On January 17, 1867, the first railroad train from the east arrived at Omaha on the Chicago & Northwestern
Railroad. The occasion was one of rejoicing for the people, who were thus placed in touch with the eastern markets.
THE CLAIM CLUB
When the first settlements were made in Nebraska the land had not been surveyed, and the only way of perfecting
and protecting titles was by forming an organization among the settlers themselves for that purpose. Such organizations,
lcnown as "Claim Clubs," were established in every settlement in the territory. Their motto was: "An
injury to one is the concern of all," and woe to the speculator or land shark who tried to jump a squatter's
In the first issue of the Omaha Arrow was an account of the "Omaha Township Claim Association," which
was organized on July 22, 1854, at a meeting over which Samuel Lewis presided, M. C. Gaylord acting as secretary.
Officers were elected as follows: Alfred D. Jones, judge; Samuel Lewis, clerk; M. C. Gaylord, recorder; Robert
B. Whitted, sheriff. The organization soon became generally known as the Omaha Claim Club. Among its members were
such men as John M. Thayer, Andrew J. Poppleton, Dr. George L. Miller, Lyman and Origen D. Richardson, Byron Reed,
Gov. Thomas B. Cuming, Enos and Jesse Lowe, George E. and Joseph Barker, John I. Redick and James M. Woolworth
- in fact, practically all the male residents of the town, prior to the completion of the government survey and
the opening of the land office at Omaha in March, 1857.
The Omaha Claim Club differed from similar organizations throughout the territory, in that it permitted its members
to hold 320 acres of land each, the general rule being to protect members in claiming only 16o acres. Those who
"got in on the ground floor" with a claim for 32o acres, together with the fad that the Town and Ferry
Company claimed about six sections as town site, quickly monopolized all the most desirable lands in and around
Omaha. Later immigrants grumbled at the conditions that allowed such large tracts of land to be held by persons
who could not make use of them, and in a few instances claims were "jumped" by these later arrivals.
But the club was true to the purpose for which it had been organized. The intruders were notified that the land
was claimed by a member of the club, whose rights would be protected at all hazards, and that the trespasser must
vacate or there would be trouble. In a majority of such cases the would be "claim jumper" yielded to
force of numbers and surrendered the land to the original claimant. In a few instances, however, the new comer
offered resistance and the club was called upon to act in its protective capacity. which it never refused to do.
Early in 1855 Jacob S. Shull located on a quarter section just south of the town plat, which was claimed by another.
Being warned that the Claim Club was going to pay him a visit, Mr. Shull left his shanty and went to the store
of Brown Brothers, where he remained concealed under the counter for several days. He then decided to surrender
his claim to the land and was permitted to leave without further trouble, his shanty having been destroyed in the
meantime by members of the club. The following spring he returned to Omaha with his family and lived but a few
months after his arrival. Mrs. Shull then put in a claim to the land, which was finally allowed by the land department
at Washington, after a thorough investigation.
George Smith, a surveyor, commonly called "Doc" Smith, took a claim in the northern part of the town
in May, 1856. A few days later, when he had his house about finished, seventy five or one hundred armed men appeared
upon the scene, tore down the house, scattered the lumber to the four winds, and ordered Smith to leave the territory.
He went to Glenwood, Iowa, where he remained until the early part of 1858, when he employed a lawyer to prosecute
his claim to the land. The commissioner of the general land office decided that as Smith had been absent for a
year or more, without making any improvements on the land, he had forfeited all title to the same.
Thomas B. Cuming, acting governor of the territory, took a claim, on which he built a small house and hired a man
named Callahan to live in it, paying him forty five dollars a month, to perfect his title. Callahan thought he
saw an opportunity to get some land of his own, went to the land office and filed upon his employer's tract. The
Claim Club immediately took the matter in hand and demanded of Callahan that he surrender his certificate. He refused
and a committee of the club took him to the Missouri River, where a hole was cut in the ice and the obstinate son
of Erin was ducked until he changed his mind. He surrendered his certificate and afterward remarked to a friend
that he "did not want that land very bad no how." He disappeared soon after his ducking and gave the
club no further trouble.
On February 20, 1857, a mass meeting was held in the Pioneer block in Omaha, to which delegations from the claim
dubs at Bellevue, Elkhorn City, Florence and Papillion were admitted by acclamation. A committee was appointed
to draft resolutions, expressive of the dubs' attitude on the question of claims and titles, and the following
was submitted to the meeting.
"Whereas, It appears that evil disposed persons are giving trouble in different parts of this territory, in
attempting to preempt claims, or parts of claims, held by bona fide claimants, to the great annoyance of the rightful
owners, therefore, "Resolved, That wd have the fullest confidence in the power of the claim associations to
protect the rights of the actual settler, and we pledge ourselves as men, and as members of the different claim
associations of Douglas and Sarpy counties, to maintain the claim title as the highest title known to our laws,
and we will defend it with our lives.
"Resolved, That persons shielding themselves under the act of Congress, to preempt a man's farm under color
of law, shall be no excuse for the offender, who will be treated by us as any other common thief."
The resolutions were unanimously adopted and the captain of the "regulators" was authorized to appoint
a vigilance committee to see that their intent was carried out. About this time John I. Redick happened to incur
the displeasure of the Omaha Claim Club, although he was a member of the organization. Judge Redick afterward gave
the following account of the incident:
"Several of us who were boarding at the Tremont House, on Douglas Street, attended a temperance meeting one
night in the Methodist Church, just around the corner on Thirteenth Street. It was proposed to organize to secure
the adoption of the Maine liquor law, and I was asked to say something. I objected to the proposition and said
that such a law could not be carried out in Nebraska, and remarked, incidentally, that the United States laws allowed
a man to enter but 160 acres of land, while the Omaha Claim Club said he could hold twice that amount and declared
its readiness to defend him in claiming that amount Next morning I went to my office and was met with a scolding
by my partner, James G. Chapman, who said I had got myself and the firm of Redick & Chapman in a nice muddle.
He kept on with a regulars tirade, but I finally got him to explain what he was talking about, and learned, to
my astonishment, that I had been reported as using treasonable language against the Claim Club.
"I soon found that the town was posted with notices for a meeting of the club and concluded that I had stirred
up a good deal of a rumpus, unintentionally. The club was a powerful organization, I knew, for I was a. member
of it. I laid in a revolver that day, loaded it and put it in my overcoat pocket. Then I told Chapman that he owed
it to me to see that I had a chance to speak when the club met. The meeting was held in the Pioneer block. The
first speech was made by A. J. Hanscom, the president, who spoke in a very reasonable, moderate way. He was followed
by Mitchell, of Florence, who was very abusive of new people who were coming into the territory, to break down
local institutions. Then a man from Bellevue talked. He was followed by John M. Thayer in a ponderous way, and
in a tone similar to that of Mitchell. Then Jim Chapman said that his partner ought to be given a chance to explain
his views as to claim clubs and other domestic institutions.
"Thereupon I came to the front and for ten minutes dwelt upon the advantages of the Territory of Nebraska,
and predicted its glorious future. Then I praised the Claim Club, and said I had improved the first opportunity
I had to join it after coming to Omaha, a few months previously. I then said that I had no intention to reflect
upon the club, and that what I had said had not been correctly reported. I added that I knew every man present
was at least ordinarily a brave man, and with that I produced my revolver with one hand and took out my watch with
the other, and said: 'I denounce the man who has thus misrepresented me as a liar, a coward and a sneak, and will
give him just one minute to come out and face me. As the time was ticked off, no one moved, and when I announced
that the minute had expired, there was a burst of applause which convinced me I had nothing to fear."
FIRST LAND ENTRIES
The first document placed on the Douglas deed records was a description of the lands claimed by Alfred D. Jones.
It was dated November 6, 1854, and was recorded by Lyman Richardson, the first register of deeds, on February 20,
1855. No survey lines had yet been established and it is interesting to note the manner in which land owners of
that day would describe their holdings by "metes and bounds." Mr. Jones' description is as follows:
"Commencing at the mouth of Purgatory Creek and running thence east to the Missouri River; thence down the
said river to near the mouth of the slough; thence west to the bluff; thence up under the bluff to the place of
beginning, containing about forty acres between the slough and the river; and bounded as follows: North by Peterson:
east by the Missouri River; south by Reeves, and west by Hanscom and Allen. The lines are all distinctly and well
marked so they can be easily traced, and all the improvements are on the part of my claim south of Omaha City,
and also another part of my claim north of Omaha City, described as follows: North by H. D. Johnson; west by W.
Johnson; south by W. Clancy, and east by T. Jeffries, containing about 160 acres; and is well staked, so the lines
can be easily traced, and a furrow on the north, west and south."
One can readily see that the cutting down of blazed trees, the transfer of claims to others than those mentioned
as owners in the description of the boundary lands, or the obliteration of the "furrow," would have a
tendency to place a cloud on the title, but in the absence of the official survey such descriptions as the above
were common. They were the best the claimants could do, and as a rule they were respected by everybody. The government
survey of Douglas County was completed late in the year 1856 and the United States land office was opened at Omaha
on March 17, 1857. The settlers anxiously awaited this event, as they could modify their claim boundaries to conform
to the lines of the survey and obtain valid titles to their lands. Under the preemption laws each settler could
enter only 160 acres, but it was a common practice to hire some one to preempt other tracts, and through this method
some became large real estate owners. The first entry at the Omaha land office was made on the day the office was
opened for business by Jesse Lowe and included the Omaha town site. The patent for this land bears date of October
1, 1860. At a public sale on July 5, 1859, John McCormick, as trustee for the Council Bluffs & Nebraska Ferry
Company, bid in certain lands for which the patent was issued on May 1, 1860, five months prior to that of Mr.
EARLY DAY JUSTICE
In the settlement of the United States there was hardly a frontier settlement that was not the resort of men
who would rather live by appropriating the property of others than by honest labor. While the reign of law was
in its infancy, the machinery of the courts imperfectly organized or at some distance from the "margin of
civilization," and isolated settlements were without methods of quick communication, the outlaws stood a much
better chance of escaping the clutches of the law than they would have done in the older communities. It is therefore
not surprising that they sought the new settlements to carry on their nefarious practices.
Horse stealing was one of the most common of offenses. Early in the nineteenth century the notorious John A. Murrell
organized what was probably the first regular chain of horse thieves and highwaymen in the United States. It extended
from the central portion of the country to the Southern States, where there was at that time a great demand for
horses. A stolen horse could be concealed throughout the day in some convenient thicket and at night passed on
to the next station in the chain until the market was reached. Even after the death of Murrell, some of the men
educated in this school continued to operate in Indiana, Illinois and Iowa and no doubt the theft of horses from
some of the early settlers of Douglas County could be traced to this gang.
In the summer of 1856 two vagabond characters stole two horses near Omaha and sold them to the Pawnee Indians on
the Elkhorn River. The horses strayed away from the Indian village soon afterwards and returned to their homes.
The Indians followed the trail and claimed the animals, but the owners refused to give them up. After being convinced
that the horses had been stolen from the white men, the Pawnees agreed to hold the next persons who came to their
camp with horses for sale and notify the settlers. Not long after this the same two men again appeared at the Pawnee
camp and wanted to sell the Indians some mules. They were arrested and brought to Omaha. Douglas County was then
without a jail worthy of the name, and, the settlers, after a consultation, decided to give each of the thieves
thirty nine lashes on his bare back, shave one half of his head and then turn him loose, with the admonition to
get out of Nebraska and stay out. A colored barber named Bill Lee did the shaving, and it is said he hid an artistic
job, after which the thieves were taken to an old liberty pole that had been erected the year before on the block
bounded by Farnam, Harney, Twelfth and Thirteenth streets. One of the thieves was stripped to the waist and tied
to the pole, when the question came up as to who should wield the rawhide that had been obtained from a nearby
harness shop. It was finally suggested by someone that the Indians do the whipping. They assented and one of them
started in to administer the punishment, but he was too severe and was stopped by the crowd. It was then proposed
that the owners of the two horses first stolen should each whip one of the thieves and this arrangement was carried
out to the satisfaction of the bystanders. The thieves were then released and were never seen about Omaha again.
While the mob was gathering Chief Justice Ferguson ordered P. B. Rankin, then United States marshal, to disperse
the crowd, and confine the two men in order that they might be tried according to law. It is said that Rankin delivered
the order to disperse in such a low tone of voice that he could be heard only by a few persons standing close to
him and he was afterward charged by Judge Ferguson with being in sympathy with the mob - a charge he never took
the trouble to deny.
Early in March, 1858, John Daley and Harvey Braden, whose home was in Harrison County, Iowa, stole some horses
near Florence. After a long chase they were captured and brought back to Omaha, where they were confined in jail.
They were given a preliminary hearing and committed to jail in default of bail. A few days later a small crowd
gathered at the courthouse on the northeast corner of Sixteenth and Farnam streets, where the Paxton Building now
stands. There was no demonstration of any kind. One of the men walked quietly into the sheriff's office, probably
knowing that Sheriff Reeves was absent, took the key to the jail, and before Mrs. Reeves could give the alarm unlocked
the cells in which Daley and Braden were confined. The others then went into the jail, took the two prisoners in
charge and moved hurriedly northward. About two miles north of Florence they came to an oak tree with a convenient
limb extending almost horizontally over the highway. This was selected as the place of execution, but unfortunately
the crowd had but one roped. The difficulty was overcome by throwing the rope over the limb and hanging one of
the prisoners on each end of it, where their bodies were aftenvard found, back to back.
Public sentiment condemned the lynching and the coroner made a rigid investigation of the affair. Dr. G. L. Miller
was foreman of the coroner's jury and Byron Reed acted as clerk. Witnesses were brought in by main force by deputy
sheriffs, and though some of them admitted they witnessed the hanging they denied having a hand in it. The jury
could not determine who were the leaders. Four men were afterward indicted, but they took a change of venue to
Sarpy County, where they were acquitted. Sheriff Reeves was fined heavily by Judge Ferguson for dereliction of
duty in not protecting the prisoners placed in his charge.
Among the early settlers of Douglas County was George Taylor, who built his cabin on the military road, where it
crossed the Big Papillion Creek, about ten miles west of Omahas. In the spring of 1861 James Bouve and John S.
Iler went to Taylor's house while he was absent, tied Mrs. Taylor and threw her on the bed, where she was struck
several times by Bouve because she refused to reveal the hiding place of a sum of money which the robbers supposed
to be in the house. Bouve wanted to set fire to the cabin, but Iler objected. They then took what money and valuables
they could find and departed, leaving Mrs. Taylor bound. Mr. Taylor returned home soon afterward, and upon learning
what had happened he hurried to Omaha, where he swore out warrants for "John Doe" and "Richard Roe."
Thomas Riley, then city marshal, took the warrants and found Bouve and Iler playing cards in the back room of a
saloon. As they seemed to be flush with money he arrested them and took them before Judge Armstrong. They were
identified the next morning by Mrs. Taylor and they were confined in separate cells in the courthouse. Iler confessed,
telling where the booty taken from the Taylor house was concealed. The next day a mass meeting of citizens was
held in front of in Pioneer Block, on Farnam Street, at which it was decided to try the prisoners by lynch law.
Twelve men were chosen as jurors, William A. Little and Robart A. Howard were assigned to defend the prisoners,
and the trial proceeded. After hearing the evidence, the jury returned a verdict of guilty, but recommended leniency
as to Iler, on account of his confession and his restraint of Bouve in wanting to burn Taylor's house. When the
result was announced to the waiting crowd outside everyone seemed to be satisfied. About midnight that night a
body of masked men went to the jail, overpowered Marshal Riley, took the keys and hanged Bouve to a beam in his
cell. Iler was not molested. Coroner Seymour held an inquest and the jury returned a verdict that "James F.
Bouve came to his death by hanging, by persons unknowns to this jury." Iler was afterward released and entered
the army, where he made a good record as a soldier, being mustered out as a sergeant.
Vigilance committees were not unusual during the pioneer period, and Omaha was several times purged of gamblers
and other undesirable characters through their operation. On one occasion, late at night, a number of masked men,
with drawn revolvers, entered a gambling house and notified the proprietors that they must leave Omaha within twenty
four hours. Further warning was unnecessary. If a resident whose honesty or morality was not above suspicion happened
to find a placard bearing a skull and cross bones attached to his door some morning, he knew what it meant and
immediately departed for a more congenial climate. Sometimes this method of warning was abused by one who took
advantage of it to get rid of an undesirable neighbor, but in a majority of cases it was well deserved.
But times have changed. As the population increased the law abiding, order loving people came into such a majority
that outlaws stood no chance of escape from legal trial and punishment. Lynch law and the whipping post are no
longer appealed to as a means of preserving order and protecting property, and Omaha ranks high among cities of
her class in the enforcement of law and the preservation of life and property through her established courts.