The Birth of a State - Nebraska - Part 2
From: York County, Nebraska and its people
T. E. Sedgwick, Supervising Editor
The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company
Chicago 1921


Next after the Mormons came the flood of emigrants to California, in search of the most seductive, most powerful, metal known to man. The fever of 1849, sweeping over the country, brought a veritable flood of emigration through the Platte Valley and played a material part in permanently blazing the numerous famous "trails" or "highways" through Nebraska. This event had other effects upon the state. "The moving host left here and there a permanent impress on the land." In many instances, the land so charmed the eye, and created so abiding an impression on the mind of many a beholder, that, wearied with the unequal contest of the camp, they abandoned the pick and spade for the surer implements of husbandry. Almost every Nebraska county can number among its earliest pioneers those adventurous spirits who chased the lure of the gold about so long, and then turned to the plow and herd for slower but surer competence and gain. Some stopped off; others went on farther and returned; and many traversed the entire weary trail, and then disheartened retraced their steps this far. Another effect of this emigration was the establishment of a ferry between what is now Omaha and Council Bluffs, by William D. Brown, in 1851 or 1852. In 1853, he laid claim to the site of Omaha The western travel, which had at first been crossing via "Winter Quarters," as Florence was then called, began to divert rapidly to "Lone Tree" as the site of Omaha was then called.


A beautiful word picture from the pen of Prof. Samuel Aughey, forty years ago, will prove a fitting climax to this brief review of pre territorial days of Nebraska.

"Life on the plains! What memories are awakened within the breast of many a resident of Nebraska at the 'sight and sound of those words.' When the golden spike was driven which bound together the iron links in the great national highway, the knell of that wild period in the history of the wild west was struck." The whistle of the first locomotive in its fierce rush across the hitherto trackless expanse ended forever that scene in the drama of progress, which was alike comedy and tragedy. 'I crossed the plains' are words, when spoken by the bronzed and hardy pioneer, which signify more than men of later generation can conceive of. The toiling caravan of emigrants to the El Dorado of the Pacific slope; the venturesome cavalcade of daring huntsmen; the solitary group of mountaineers - a class peculiar to the "Rockies" - have passed beyond the view, and all that now remain of them are scattered traces of forgotten graves, a few survivors of those scenes, busied with other tasks, and vague traditions of the times, which horrify or charm, as deeds of murder, robbery or love perchance to give the coloring to the tale.

"Nebraska was the highway to the West when lumbering wagons furnished the only means of transport, as now, when steam and palace cars augment the speed and comfort of the journey. Imagine - if you can - and you, survivor of the olden time, conjure up a vision of modern methods, as in fancy you live once more those days of hardship. You lift your head from the damp earth, and by the flickering light of waning camp fire, see the mighty engine dashing by, with train of sleeping coaches, freighted with slumbering voyagers. And, as you gather about the morning fire, with scanty meal, behold the men who look disgusted at their morning bill of fare within the dining coach, and sigh because their journey is a wearying one. They will reach their destinations within the week, while you can count the time by months since you stood looking eastward, as night shut down upon you and blotted out the last rude traces of the 'States'! And still long months of deprivation must ensue before you gain the end of that slow march.

"Let us give place in this history to mention of those events which were, if not direct, at least subsidiary, agencies in the original settlement of Nebraska, and which demonstrated the fact that the Valley of the Platte was the only route of travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific within the limits of the more temperate latitudes."

We must not run amiss and devote our entire time in a work that is chronological and analytical of the evolution of the wonderful State of Nebraska from the wild prairie, abode of the Indian and his companions, the wild animals of the wilderness, to its present stages of development, without devoting at least a small space to a recital of the hardships and struggles, characteristic of those endured by the many thousands of pioneers, emigrants and first settlers, who each individually played their part in this drama. It is not possible to pause here and compile the roster for each county, of its early settlers, as we have stopped to pay tribute to a score or so early explorers and adventurers who led bands of people into or across the state. But a few hundred more words will also allow to embrace in our narrative a characteristic account of the journeys across these plains, endured by the gold seekers and early settlers alike. This is also from the pen of Nebraska's notable early historian Prof. Samuel Aughey.

"In remote times - remote for the West - the beginning of the 'West' was at the Mississippi. Western Illinois and Wisconsin and Eastern Iowa were accessible by water by the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The region beyond was known only to the courageous few who had braved the perils of a wilderness inhabited by hostile tribes. But, in 1850, when the fever for gold had spread throughout the East, the limits of civilization had extended so far that supplies of horses, mules, cattle, wagons, coffee, flour, bacon, sugar and the indispensables of a trip across the plains were obtainable at points on the Missouri River, in the State of Missouri. Parties endeavored to reach that stream early in the spring, that they might take advantage of the growth of vegetation as food for their teams. While some caravans followed the Arkansas (in the present state of Kansas), many more chose to come up the Missouri, and thence travel westward along the rich Valley of the Platte. Thus was first opened up to observant pioneers the beauties of this region. Hundreds of improvident but eager men set out so late in the season as to encounter the rigor of the winter in the mountains, and many perished miserably from exposure and starvation: Others started early enough to safely pass the Rocky Mountains, only to meet their fate in the inhospitable fastnesses of the Sierra Nevada, where snow frequently piles to the depths of thirty and forty feet in localities Among the very early trials were the dangers incident to crossing a country inhabited by fierce Indians. If the truth could be known, probably every mile from the Missouri to the Pacific would demand at least one headstone to mark a victim's grave. The stages of life, from birth, to the closing of the drama, were here exemplified. Many a poor mother hushed her new born babe amid the rough scenes of a camp, while she herself was suffering from lack of those comforts so essential to maternity. Along the trackless plain many a maiden awoke to the revelation of love, and many a troth was plighted.

"At the time referred to, the whole region, from the Missouri to the Pacific, was vaguely known as 'the plains,' though it embraced almost every variety of country. First, the emigrant crossed the rich, rolling prairies of Nebraska. The soil grew thinner and thinner until it merged into dreary sand deserts. Upon these he found myriads of prairie dogs, sometimes living in towns twenty miles square herds of graceful antelopes bounded over the hills, and huge, ungainly buffaloes, which numbered millions then, blackened parts of the landscape. A day's journey was from ten to twenty miles. When the company halted for the night, they turned out their animals to graze, with such precautions as served to prevent their escape; lighted a fire on the prairies of buffalo chips, and supped upon pork, hot bread or 'flap jacks' and washed the frugal repast down with the inevitable tin cup of coffee. Their trusty guns were kept within easy reach, and the whitened skull of a buffalo, perhaps killed by some emigrant long before in wanton sport, served as a seat. At night, the travelers slept soundly, with the blue of heaven for a canopy. The wagons were covered with stout canvas, and afforded protection to the few women and children during the later years of excitement. All became inured to the conditions of outdoor life. When large streams were reached, the heavy wagons were floated or hauled, and where it was convenient to do so, rude bridges were constructed over smaller streams. Every source of ingenuity was developed. If a wheel gave way, and the mechanical productiveness of the party could not replace it, a cottonwood log, with one end dragging on the ground, was made to serve instead. If a pole broke, another was extemporized from the nearest timber. If an ox died, some luckless cow was yoked in his place. Sometimes one family, or one party of half a dozen men, journeyed alone, and sometimes there were a hundred or more wagons in a single `train' with their white covers enveloped in an increasing cloud of dust. During the seasons when emigration was very heavy, caravans could, from an eminence, be seen stretching out for miles and miles, and at night every pleasant camping ground was a populous village. The journey was not without its enjoyments, though one's philosophy was sorely tried at times. There were often long delays for hunting lost cattle, waiting for swollen streams to subside, or in climbing the mountains. Storms and mishaps frequently toyed the patience of all, and sickness came to feeble frame and hardy men alike. The first of a long line of trains often climbed steep hills, instead of going the longer and easier way through ravines, and the followers along the new roads were forced to desert the beaten track, and risk untried courses, or labor on in their wake. It was not uncommon to see from ten to thirty yoke of oxen hitched to a single wagon, working slowly up the mountain. The summit reached at last, the wagon would be emptied, and, with a huge log trailing behind as a brake, the teams would descend to repeat their experience in ascending with other loads. The wild, majestic scenery along the way may have been a partial compensation to some for the hardships they endured; but it is reasonable to believe that few would have refused to forego those delights if thereby they might have gained easier transit The tragedies of those days were numerous. The very nature of the journey, and the chances of sudden wealth, combined with the freedom of the manner of the living, gathered many a desperate character in the civil army. The baser passions were too often allowed full scope, and hence it must be recorded that many a villain found his end at the hands of outraged companions. The travelers were a law unto themselves, and greed or lust were summarily avenged."


In our present state of prosperity and happiness, we must not be prone to forget the aspect that nature wore in those primitive solitudes to the wandering view of the first inhabitants of our state. We can well pause a bit, to go into a little more detailed examination of the pathways and methods of early travel and transportation of our state. The mighty wave of travel which has just been described in the immediately preceding pages naturally traversed a few beaten paths, and it is an examination of those "beaten paths" we will now undertake.

There is as yet but scanty knowledge of Indian or prehistoric routes of travel through Nebraska. From the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Pike's expedition, Fremont's expedition and Thwaite's admirable compilation of early explorations in this vicinity, we find the accounts of the state of travel and the condition of the territory then. The chroniclers of the '40s intimate that there were then no well defined trails between the locations of the different tribes of the Indians, but that each tribe had its own trails between the locations of the several bands of its own tribe.

But whatever the story of the Indian trails may be, as they related to the earliest history of Nebraska, we know that a number of notable routes sprang up across the state, which became the main arteries of commerce to the Northwest, preceding the arrival of the transcontinental railroad.

Have you an eye, for the trails, the trails,
The old mark and the new?
What scurried here, what loitered there,
In the dust and in the dew?

Have you an eye for the beaten track,
The old hoof and the young?
Come name me the drivers of yesterday,
Sing me the songs they sung.

0 was it a schooner last went by,
And where will it cross the stream.?
Where will it halt in the early dusk,
And where will the camp-fire gleam?

They used to take the shortest cut
The cattle trails had made;
Get down the hill by the easy slope
To the water and the shade.

But it's barbed wire fence, and section line,
And kill-horse travel now;
Scoot you down the canyon bank-
The old road's under plough.

Have you an eye for the laden wheel,
The worn tire or the new?
Or the sign of the prairie pony's hoof
That was never trimmed for shoe?

0 little by-path and big highway,
Alas, your lives are done.
The freighter's track, a weed-grown ditch.
Points to the setting sun.

The marks are faint and rain will fall
The lore is hard to learn.
0 hear, what ghosts would follow the road
If the old years might return.

The most famous of these great transcontinental highways was known to the traders, ranchmen, and overland stage drivers, as the "Military Road," but more commonly and properly known as


A fairly accurate itinerary of this trail as it traversed the State of Nebraska can be taken from the notes of Fremont and travelers of his period, and indicate it passed as follows:

"From the point at Independence, Missouri, where the trail starts northwest, for a distance of 41 miles, it is identical with the Santa Fe Trail; to the Kansas River, 81 miles; to the Big Blue River, 242 miles; to the Little Blue, 296 miles; Platte River, 316 miles; lower ford of South Platte River, 433 miles; upper ford of South Platte River, 493 miles; Chimney Rock, 571 miles; Scotts Bluff, 616 miles. Adding the distance from the northwest boundary of Nebraska to Fort Vancouver, the terminus, yields a total of 2,020 miles. The trail crossed the present Nebraska southern boundary line at or very near the point of the intersection of the 97th meridian, about four miles west of the southeast corner of Jefferson County. It left the Little Blue at a bend beyond this point, but reached it again just beyond Hebron. It left the stream finally at a point near Leroy, and reached the Platte River about twenty miles below the western or upper end of Crand Island. Proceeding thence along the south bank of Platte River, it crossed the south fork about sixty miles from the junction and touched the north fork at Ash Hallow, twenty miles beyond the south fork crossing.

As it is the desire of the compiler of this historical review of Nebraska to preserve somewhere within its pages something of the many contributions to Nebraska historical records and lore, prepared by Hon. A. E. Sheldon, who has devoted many years to the preservation of Nebraska historical facts, it is believed that his brief but comprehensive recital of the "Overland Trails," in his "History and Stories of Nebraska," will appropriately serve this purpose. At the same time it is short enough to fit into our work here, yet cover the proportionate space we can devote to this particular subject.

Each of the old overland trails which crosses Nebraska from the Missouri River to the mountains had a story. It is a story written deep in the lives of men and women, and in the westward march of the American people. The story of these overland trails was also written in broad deep furrows across our prairies. Along these trails journeyed thousands of men, women and children with ox teams, carts, wheelbarrows, and on foot, to settle the great country beyond. Over them marched the soldiers who built forts to protect the settlers. Then the long freighting trains loaded with food, tools and clothing passed that way. So there came to be great beaten thoroughfares one or two hundred feet wide, deeply cut in the earth by the wheels of wagons and the feet of pilgrims.

The Oregon Trail was the first and most famous of these in Nebraska. It started from the Missouri River at Independence, Missouri, ran across the northeast corner of Kansas and entered Nebraska near the point where Gage and Jefferson counties meet on the Nebraska-Kansas line. It followed the course of the Little Blue River across Jefferson, Thayer, Nuckolls, Clay and Adams counties, then across the divide to the Platte, near the head of Grand Island in Hall County (missing Hall County by about two miles), then along the south side of the Platte through Kearney, Phelps, Gosper and Dawson to a point in Kieth County about seven miles east of Big Springs, where it crossed the South Platte and continued up the south side of the North Platte through Kieth, Garden, Morrill and Scotts Bluff counties, where it passed out of Nebraska into Wyoming.

The beginnings of the Oregon Trail in Nebraska were made in 1813 by a little band of returning Astorians as they, leading their one poor horse, tramped their weary way down the Platte Valley to the Otoe village, where they took canoes for their journey down the river. These first Oregon trailers left no track deep enough to be followed. They simply made known the way. After them fur traders on horseback and afoot followed nearly the same route. On April 10, 1830, Milton Sublette with ten wagons and one milch cow left St. Louis and arrived at the Wind River Mountains on July 16th. They returned to St Louis the same summer, bringing back ten wagons loaded with furs and the faithful cow which furnished milk all the way. Theirs were the first wagon wheels on the Oregon Trail across Nebraska. The track they made from the mouth of the Kansas River up the valley of the Little Blue and up the south side of the Platte and North Platte was followed by others, and thus became the historic trail. Their famous cow, and the old horse, which seventeen years before carried the burdens for the Astorians are entitled to a high place among the pioneers of the West.

In 1832, Captain Bonneville, whose story is told by Washington Irving, followed over Sublette's trail from the Missouri River to the mountains. In the same year Nathaniel J. Wyeth following the same trail, pushed through the South Pass in the mountains and on to Oregon, thus making an open road from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. With slight changes, this road remained the Oregon Trail through the years of overland travel. Every spring in May, the long emigrant wagon trains left the Missouri River and arrived on the Pacific Coast in November. It was a wonderful trip. Every day the train moved fifteen or twenty miles. Every night it camped. Every day there were new travelers. Children were born on the way. There were weddings and funerals. It was a great traveling city, moving 2,000 miles from the river to the ocean.

There are five periods in the story of the Oregon Trail. The first was the period of finding the way and breaking the trail and extends from the return of the Astorians in 1813 to the Wyeth wagons in 1832. The second period was that of the early Oregon migration and extends from 1832 to the discovery of gold in California in 1849. The third period was that of the rush for gold and extends from 1849 to 1860. During this period the Oregon Trail became the greatest traveled highway in the world, wider and more beaten than a city street and hundreds of thousands passed over it. The fourth period is that of the decline of the Oregon Trail and extends from 1860 to 1869. The fifth period, from 1869 to the present day, is witnessing its gradual effacement.

The best brief description of the Oregon Trail is that of Father De Smet, who knew it well and tells of its appearance when first seen by him and his party of Indians from the Upper Missouri in 1851:

"Our Indian companions, who had never seen but the narrow hunting paths by which they transport themselves and their lodges, were filled with admiration on seeing this noble highway, which is as smooth as a barn floor swept by the winds, and not a blade of grass can shoot up on it on account of the continual passing. They conceived a high idea of the countless white nations. They fancied that all had gone over that road and that an immense void must exist in the land of the rising sun. They styled the route the 'Great Medicine Road of the Whites.' "

In another place Father De Smet tells of the Great Government wagon trains he met on the Oregon Trail in 1858:

"Each train consisted of twenty six wagons, each wagon drawn by six yoke of oxen. The trains made a line fifty miles long. Each wagon is marked with a name as in the case of ships, and these names served to furnish amusement to the passersby. Such names as The Constitution, The President, The Great Republic, The King of Bavaria, Louis Napoleon, Dan O'Connell, Old Kentuck, were daubed in great letters on each side of the carriage. On the plains the wagoner assumes the style of Captain, being placed in command of his wagon and twelve oxen. The master wagoner is admiral of this little fleet of 26 captains and 312 oxen. At a distance the white awnings of the wagons have the effect of a fleet of vessels with all canvas spread."


"The second important frail across Nebraska is the one which started from the banks of the Missouri River near Bellevue and Florence, followed up the north side of the Platte and North Platte to Fort Laramie, where it joined the older Oregon Trail. This was the route across Nebraska of the returning Astorians in 1813 and some of the early fur traders. The Mormons made this a wagon road in 1847 when their great company which wintered at Florence and Bellevue took this way to the valley of the Great Salt Lake. It was often called the Mormon Trail. Some of the immigrants to Oregon and California went over this route and hence it is sometimes called the Oregon Trail or California Trail. There was less travel on this trail than on the one south of the Platte River because there was more sand here. (This is in recent years more commonly called the 'Overland Trail.') This north side trail ran through the counties of Douglas, Sarpy, Dodge, Colfax, Platte, Merrick, Hall, Buffalo, Dawson, Lincoln, Garden, Morrill and Scotts Bluff." (It will be noticed that this very closely parallels the route eventually selected for the transcontinental, Union Pacific, or Overland, railway.)

"The third celebrated trail across Nebraska was from the Missouri River to Denver, and was called the Denver Trail. It had many branches between the Missouri River and Fort Kearney. Near this point they united and followed up the south bank of the Platte to Denver. The route from Omaha to Denver was up the north bank of the Platte to Shinn's Ferry in Butler County, where it crossed to the south side and continued up the river to Fort Kearney.

"There was also a road from Nebraska City up the south bank of the Platte, which was joined by the Omaha road after it crossed the river. It was called the Fort Kearney and Nebraska City road. A new and more direct road was laid out in 1860 from Nebraska City west through the counties of Otoe, Lancaster, Seward, York, Hall and Kearney. This was the best road to Denver. It was called the Nebraska City cut off. It became very popular and during the years from 1862 to 1869 was traveled by thousands of immigrants and freighters. Over the Denver Trail went the Pike's Peak immigrants and the supplies and machinery for opening the mines in Colorado."


Upon the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869, the passage and decline of these trails started at a rapid rate. Short stretches from one town or settlement to another became regular roads, but remained no longer integral parts of a great through highway of travel. At many places through Nebraska, traces of the old wagon wheels or tracks remain visible.


Before we pass entirely from this period, it would only be fitting to give short consideration to the conveyances and methods of travel used in the period we have just been discussing. Overland stages had been the main means of travel before the advent of the railroad coach. The great trails just recounted, across the State of Nebraska served as highways for the Overland stage from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. The most commonly used vehicle for this work was the light Concord coach, so called because they were first built at Concord, New Hampshire. They accommodated usually nine passengers inside and often one or two sat outside with the driver.

With the Overland Stage developed the Overland Mail. The first contract for carrying this mail was let in 1850 to Samuel H. Woodton, of Independence, Missouri. This was a monthly service on a route with terminals 1,200 miles apart, St. Louis, and Salt Lake City, with the service later extended to Sacramento, California. Through Nebraska, this service substantially followed the Oregon Trail. The hard winter of 1856-7 blocked this route for several months. The California mail coach was then placed on a southern route through Arizona, but with the Civil war it was brought north again and in 1861, the first daily overland mail began running from the Missouri River to California. This mail at first started from St. Joseph. After a few months it ran from Atchison, joining the Oregon Trail a few miles south of the Nebraska state line and following it as far as the crossing of the South Platte near Julesburg, where it diverted making a new road, called the Central Route, through the mountains to Salt Lake City. This was said to be the greatest stage line in the world. In 1859, the mail contract had been transferred to Russell, Majors & Waddell, who afterwards became the most extensive freighters in Nebraska from the Missouri River. The stages taking the Overland route usually followed the south side of the Platte River, while the Union Pacific Railroad was later built on the north side of that river. These daily stage lines ran from 1861 to 1866 both ways, except for a short period during the Indian depredations of 1864.


The pony express system began April 3, 1860, and continued for eighteen months until the completion of the telegraph line to San Francisco. This system was originated by William H. Russell, of Leavenworth, Kansas, and was the forerunner of the great fast mail (postal) system of the United States. The pony express was a man on horseback carrying a mail bag and riding as fast as the horse could run. As the horse and man, covered with dust and foam, dashed into a station another man on horseback snatched the bag and raced to the next station. So the bag of letters and dispatches rushed day and night across the plains and mountains between the Missouri River and the ocean. It is reputed that the quickest time ever made by the pony express was in March, 1861, when President Lincoln's inaugural address was carried from St. Joseph to Sacramento, 1,980 miles, in seven, days and seventeen hours. The charges were originally five dollars for each letter of one half ounce or less; but afterwards this was reduced to two dollars and a half, this being in addition to the regular United States postage.


But in 1920, we can hardly realize the full force of the importance of these old roads. We now see our succession of thriving cities, towns and villages of Nebraska, connected by rail, by telegraph, in some places by paved roads and dotted all over the state, with the new, leveled, graded, smooth state highway.

Then the road led across the naked prairie from the Missouri River - wide, hard, and bare, except in real dry weather, with its terribly wrathy ruts. It followed no general course, unless in a general northwesterly direction. It crossed bridgeless streams, traversed through localities of great beauty, where the traveler might unwittingly scare away great numbers of antelope, buffalo, elk or deer, and even the worse, coyotes, wolves and animals of prey. Such a thoroughfare was traveled by as heterogeneous a mass of people as could be found anywhere - merchants, capitalists, freighters, prospectors, hunters, trappers, traders, soldiers, adventurers, pleasure seekers, home seekers, emigrants, Indians, Mormons, gamblers, outlaws, tourists and even representatives of foreign nations. Here and there some enterprising rancher supplied the freighters, soldiers, stage drivers, emigrants and travelers with food and drink - especially drink.

Now the roads lead along well defined courses, generally well graded, often marked from mile to mile with plain directions as to course and distance. Not only is the road definitely defined but along its side traverse the poles with wires for telegraph, telephone and electric power transmission. Streams are well bridged, though once in a while one still stumbles upon the old rickety wooden bridge, not yet replaced with steel or concrete bridge. Where there formerly was only endless prairie, now to the vista appears magnificent farm mansions, and wonderful barns, even splendid garages, and machinery and stock palaces, innumerable sheds and smaller buildings, and many a farm with an automobile or two, a tractor, a power plant, and much power driven machinery around. Instead of travel by foot, by horseback and stage coach, the most usual vehicles to dodge now are fast automobiles, chugging motorcycles, and occasionally a farm wagon or buggy of the type of a decade or two ago.

Out of it all is coming the permanently constructed highway. What the old national highway was to the plains, what the welcome transcontinental Union Pacific became, even now the great granddaughter of the old trail, the permanently constructed highway, bids fair to become - and very soon at that - unless the aerial highway for high powered aeroplanes, and passenger balloons, overpowers it.

"There are highways born, the old roads die-
Can you read what once they said,
From the way worn ditch and the sunflower clump,
And the needs of folk long dead."

Return to Birth of a State - Nebraska - Part 1.

Return to [ 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