Nebraska Roundups in the 1870s

Lee Brothers Ranch at Brownlee, Cherry County, in 1900. RG2608-1837

By the mid-1870s Nebraska’s open-range cattle industry, centered in the western Platte Valley and the Panhandle, was experiencing growing pains. Concerns included introduction of Texas cattle to supply the Indian agencies, unregulated “round-ups” that caused ownership disputes (in winter, long hair made brands hard to see), and bulls running at large year round. These problems prompted cattlemen to meet at Ogallala on February 11, 1875, to organize “The Stock-Growers Association of Western Nebraska” encompassing Lincoln, Keith, and Cheyenne counties and all unorganized territory lying to the north. The association asked the state legislature to authorize stock inspectors and limiting the roundup period to May 15 through November 15. The law was promptly passed. 

Cowboy and herd in Cherry County in 1889. NSHS RG2608-3300

The association drafted a constitution and by-laws, membership qualifications (ownership of at least 100 cattle), and organized the first official “round-up” to begin May 15, 1875. It would commence at Sidney. “The course to be pursued from Sidney shall be up Pole Creek to Pine Bluff, thence to Creighton’s herd on Horse Creek.” The round-up would then work east down both the South and North Platte rivers. At the same time another party would start from Nichols Station on the Union Pacific Railroad west of North Platte and proceed west along the two rivers. “They will work the cattle as far up as Ash Hollow.” By June 24, the North Platte Western Nebraskian could report, “Thus far, the round up as been very satisfactory in every respect.”

The association soon adopted more detailed rules. In 1876 the stockmen were to assemble at Nichols Station on May 20. Then, “the round-up will proceed west until they reach Ogallala at which point a sufficient force shall be stationed to keep all cattle west of that point that have not been rounded-up. From thence, the party will proceed west until they meet the party conducting the Cheyenne County round-up.” For the first time the association specified the number of men each member was to furnish, based on the number of cattle owned. A member with 100 cattle had to provide one man; those owning from 2,500 to 3,000 cattle were to furnish nine men. One additional cowhand was requested for each 100 head exceeding 3,000. 

Nebraska cowboys at Round Valley in Custer County, 1888. NSHS RG2608-1423

An eyewitness account of the 1876 roundup appeared in the North Platte Western Nebraskian, June 17, 1876, under the headline, “The Round-Up; A Graphic Description by one that has often been with the Cow-Boys; An Annual Scene in Western Nebraska. 

“. . . The cattle [were] sighted, scattered here and there in bunches, ranging from five to two hundred head, which at sight of a horseman would break and run. Then comes the excitement—up gulch, down canyons, over hills and table-lands, on a long steady run, in their vain efforts to escape from the boys who are pursuing them, horses and riders equally thrilled with the excitement of the chase; ‘tis grand, exhilarating, and as the cattle are overtaken, checked and put with another bunch or bunches, they are then driven to the rodeo ground. Then comes the separation or ‘cutting.’ A band of a thousand head [is] surrounded by twenty horsemen or more. One party, employees of the owner, enter the herd, select the animals bearing the owner’s brand and mark, cutting each animal from the main herd and making a bunch of that brand until all are separated. This ‘cutting’ is exciting work. Now going at full speed as the animal makes an effort to get again with the main bunch; now stopping and wheeling as quick as a flash of lightning, dodging, twisting, until the animal perceives the folly of its efforts and permits itself to be driven to the bunch or brand where it belongs. No horsemanship can excel that which is displayed by an experienced cow-boy. As they dash over the rough prairie at the top of their mustang’s speed, [avoiding] great numbers of holes, the work of prairie dogs and our family of sub-soilers, the utter disregard of their peril is something as courageous as it is rash. The training of the ‘cutting’ horses is something wonderful. No matter what distance the cutting horse has traveled, how fatigued it may be, the moment you ride it into the herd every muscle, every faculty, is on the alert and the intelligence they display is something almost human; and occasionally you hear a cow-boy speaking of his favorite, ‘He knows more than most of men,’ is the usual expression.  

“All the cattle separated, each man holds his brand separate, another bunch is gathered and separated until night. . . . Such is the routine, each day having its incidents. In case of dispute as to who owns an animal, the animal is lassoed, thrown down, and all marks examined and the ownership is readily proven. A great many true gentlemen can be found among these wild fellows, men that are honest, intelligent, and when one offers his friendship, it is a friendship that will stand all tests.”  

An exhibit on the Nebraska cowboy is scheduled to open September 23, 2013, at the Nebraska History Museum in Lincoln. Watch for more details at and on our Facebook page.–  James E. Potter, Senior Research Historian/Publications

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“Devil Clouds” Marks Centennial of Omaha Tornado

logo for "Devil Clouds" NET programTune in to NET on Friday, March 22, at 7:00 p.m. (Central) for Devil Clouds: Tornadoes Strike Nebraska, a look at the infamous 1913 Omaha tornado.

From NET’s website:

“Easter Sunday 1913 dawned as a spring-like day of celebration. It ended as a day of mourning. With little warning, seven tornadoes roared through eastern Nebraska, turning this into the deadliest natural disaster in Nebraska’s history.

“The most devastating tornado cut a seven mile swath through Ralston and Omaha, killing 100 people. All told, the tornado outbreak would be responsible for 168 deaths and nearly $10 million in damage (more than $200 million in today’s dollars).

Devil Clouds: Tornadoes Strike Nebraska is an NET News documentary project that tells more than a storm story. Developed in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the event (which took place on March 23, 1913), it’s a story full of heroes and colorful characters; a story of tragedy, but also recovery and resolve; and the story of a city and state in transition. It’s a story so well documented visually that it offers an intriguing glimpse into the disaster, and the lives of 1913 Nebraskans in places like Omaha, Ralston, Yutan and Otoe (called Berlin at the time).” Continue reading

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Nebraska’s Honey Creek Coal Mine

Miners at the Honey Creek Coal Mine, Tunnel No. 2, Peru, Nebraska NSHS RG2304.PH8-58

Many of the early searches for coal in Nebraska were prompted by the settlers’ pressing need for fuel, but they also realized that a supply of coal could be a big economic boost for the state. By the early 1870s coal had been found at several sites in southeastern Nebraska. However, the only mine ever discovered here that yielded an appreciable quantity of coal was the Honey Creek mine near Peru, Nemaha County, opened in 1906. The mine was visited soon after its discovery by state geologist Erwin H. Barbour of the University of Nebraska. His subsequent illustrated report discussed the Honey Creek mine and the search for coal in Nebraska.  

Barbour reported: “Prior to 1906 no bed of coal exceeding eighteen inches in thickness had been reported in Nebraska. Black outcroppings on the banks of Honey Creek on the farm of A. M. Borst, four miles southeast of Peru, had long attracted attention, and on February 11, 1906, the work of development began.”  

He reported optimistically that conditions in the Honey Creek mine area seemed favorable, “for the coal bed is accessible and readily worked, drainage and ventilation are easily and cheaply provided, and transportation is at hand. As to the quality of the coal, whether good or bad matters little, for any coal is good in a state supposedly destitute of natural fuel.” 

Geologist E. H. Barbour of the University of Nebraska. From Charles Henry Morrill, The Morrills and Reminiscences (Chicago, 1918).

The developers of the Honey Creek mine applied for a bounty originally offered by the Nebraska Legislature offering $4,000 for the discovery of a twenty-six-inch seam of workable coal and $5,000 for a thirty-six-inch seam. In response to a request from Nebraska Governor George Sheldon, Barbour again visited the mine in February 1907, and reported: “Eight miners are regularly employed and the present output is six to eight tons daily, with a promise of double that capacity soon.” 

The coal was hard and compact when first mined, but it soon crumbled when exposed to air, and was used chiefly by the local communities of Auburn, Brownville, Nemaha, Peru, and as far west as Republican City. Work at the site continued for about twelve years, at which time the vein began to thin, making further working of the mine unprofitable. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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Ashland, the First Saunders County Seat

First Saunders County Courthouse, built at Ashland in 1870. NSHS RG1121.PH8-28

An unusual feature of the boundary of Nebraska’s Saunders County is Ashland Precinct, which forms a wedge on the southeast corner, projecting down between Lancaster County on the west and a small piece of Cass County that extends northward between the wedge and the Platte River on the east. This area was detached from Cass County and added to Saunders County in 1866. 

Alvin W. Saunders, governor of Nebraska Territory, 1861-1867. NSHS RG2501.PHO-1

One of the reasons for adding this area to Saunders County was to provide the county with a county seat, namely Ashland. Originally named Calhoun County, the name was changed by an act of the legislature approved January 8, 1862. The new namesake, Alvin Saunders, was then serving as the last governor of Nebraska Territory. Following his death on November 1, 1899, the Omaha Daily Bee on November 5 republished an 1896 interview with Saunders in which the ex-governor recalled the circumstances of Ashland’s becoming the county seat of Saunders County.  

Saunders said: “Ashland was nothing but a small hamlet located on the edge of Cass county and just outside the border of Saunders county. The man who owned nearly all the property in the town suddenly conceived the idea that it would become a large city if it were only made the county seat. To make it the county seat of Cass county was out of the question. So he and his friends came to me with a scheme to annex part of the township in which Ashland lay to Saunders county and to make it the county seat of that county.”  

Ashland Precinct is at lower right on this 1907 map of Saunders County townships. From NEGenWeb Project

Governor Saunders at first objected to dividing a township between two counties, “[b]ut that seemed to make no difference. The parties interested set to work and procured the consent of both the counties. When the bill was presented to me for my signature, I still objected, but finally signed it on the theory that it was not my place to prevent a transfer desired by the people of the two counties to be affected.”  

An election to determine the site of the county seat was held in October 1867 with Ashland and a site in the center of the county north and a little east of the present Wahoo on the ballot. Ashland won this election easily, and was county seat until 1873, when agitation to move the seat of government nearer the center of the county forced a new election won by Wahoo, which remains the county seat. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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NSHS on YouTube: Listen to Homesteading Songs

The Nebraska State Historical Society has made its first music videos! In the Spring 2013 issue of Nebraska History, Peru State College professor Dan Holtz writes about “The Folk Songs of Great Plains Homesteading.” But why just read about folk songs when you can also hear them? NSHS has created three videos providing examples of classic homesteading songs mentioned in the article.

Describing “Little Old Sod Shanty on My Claim,” folklorist Roger Welsch writes, “This song, better than any other, expresses the problems, good humor, loneliness, and faith of the sod-house settler.”

“Nebraska Land” laments the fickle Great Plains weather and the hardships of drought. This song was sometimes known as “Dakota Land” and “Kansas Land.”

The most heated of homesteading songs were the political ones, often directed at groups that farmers felt were oppressing them, such as railroads and politicians. Political songs are usually not as well known they were based on events of the time, making them more difficult for later audiences to understand. “Hayseed,” however, is clear enough. A song of the populist movement, it called for respect and fair treatment from the government and big businesses.

Holtz states that these songs “give us worthwhile portraits of the economic, political, social, and personal lives of the homesteaders.” We hope that these videos help you better connect with the work, dreams and struggles that helped build the Nebraska we live in today. The music in the videos was taken from Dan Holtz’s CD “Welcome to Historic Nebraska!” Call 1-800-833-6747 or 402-471-3447 to order.

- Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant

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Treasures from the Civil War Veterans Museum

Treasures from Nebraska Museums logoThe NSHS works hard to collect and preserve Nebraska history, but we don’t do it alone. Historical organizations and museums dot our ninety-three counties and contain many treasures. To support their work in preserving our collective history we’re showcasing items from the collections of various Nebraska Historical organizations through our Treasures from Nebraska Museums program.

Civil War Veterans Museum

Civil War Veterans Museum in Nebraska City

Our featured organization from January through March of 2013 is the Civil War Veterans Museum in Nebraska City. The Museum is housed in the Nebraska City G.A.R. Hall which was built in 1894. The G.A.R. (Grand Army of the Republic) was a fraternal organization composed of Union veterans who served in the Civil War. The building is being preserved and is filled with artifacts and displays relating to the G.A.R. and Civil War history. Also featured in the building is the Ralph Kruger Research Library that contains books, magazines, and videos available for visitors who want to learn more about the Civil War and the G.A.R. or who want to explore genealogical ties to veterans. Continue reading

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The Unicameral’s Unwritten Rules

Policy-making has always been a delicate business with a lot of formal rules that must be followed. But as Nebraska State Senator Bill Avery explains in the Spring 2013 issue of Nebraska History, there is an equally important set of unspoken “folkways” that regulate the Nebraska Unicameral.

Opening day of Nebraska's first unicameral legislative session, January 5, 1937. U. S. Senator George Norris, a staunch advocate of unicameralism, is standing on the back of the platform. RG2183-1937-105-2

As in any professional setting, respect is vital. Avery explains how collegiality is especially important in such a small legislature where it is possible to get to know everyone. Members are addressed as “Senator,” debates should not become personal, and profanity is prohibited.

This respect also means acknowledging others’ areas of expertise. Since issues come through the legislature on a wide variety of topics, senators who try to be a main player in every bill may lose credibility; it is better for senators to specialize on specific areas. It is considered rude to undermine the authority of committees by using formal rules, since legislators generally belong to a committee based on their particular interests and skills.

Another folkway concerns legislators’ relationships with lobbyists. Avery describes the push and pull between needing lobbyists and checking their power.

“Members always have recognized…that lobbyists are an important and vital part of the legislative process. To be sure, lobbyists are advocates for special interests, but more importantly they are sources of information. In order to perform their duties in a rational and informed manner, senators rely on lobbyists to provide them with reliable and factual information on the vast number of issues they confront in every session. Despite the need for lobbyists, senators are expected to respect the arm’s length relationship that has evolved over the decades…Members do not enhance their standing among their colleagues if they are perceived to be a consistent voice for a particular segment of the lobby in making policy.”

On the floor of the Unicameral, from "Nebraska for the People, Part 1: Legislature," a 1974 documentary film produced by University of Nebraska television.

The stereotype is that all unspoken rules in politics have to do with back-room deals and party dogma. However, as Senator Avery illustrates, many unspoken rules in the Unicameral serve to make it more efficient and professional. Whether helpful or not, these folkways are a part of our state leadership, and understanding them can better help us understand the political decisions that affect us all.

-Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant

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Nebraska’s Miss America: Teresa Scanlan

NSHS staffers Laura Mooney (left) and Laura Mohr box up a dress Teresa Scanlan wore during the 2011 Miss America pageant.

The first Miss Nebraska to be crowned Miss America, Teresa Scanlan, will be featured in a new exhibit to open March 1, 2013, Nebraska Statehood Day, at the Nebraska History Museum in Lincoln. The Gering, Nebraska, resident was the ninetieth Miss America when she was chosen in 2011. Then age seventeen, she was the youngest Miss America since 1921. 

Museum visitors will see many of Scanlan’s pageant outfits, including the gown she wore when competing in the Miss Nebraska pageant and her various costume changes from the Miss America pageant. 

Although her dresses may have changed, one thing remained constant in all the pageants Teresa competed in since the age of thirteen: her shoes. The shoes Teresa wore when she was crowned Miss America were the same shoes she wore in 2004 when she was crowned Scotts Bluff County Teen Queen. 

Teresa Scanlan received this duct tape bouquet as a gift.

Pageant contestants have various talents, but Scanlan’s involve an unexpected product: duct tape. One of her many hobbies includes making clothing and other items out of this versatile product. When the Duck Tape® brand learned she was a fan, they invited her to be the grand marshal for their festival in Avon, Ohio. A sash and bouquet made entirely out of duct tape will be on display, along with a ring given to her and made by students. 

During her reign as Miss America, Teresa traveled more than 240,000 miles, visiting thirty-five states and several foreign countries. She served as a goodwill ambassador for the Children’s Miracle Network, visited many hospitals, and worked with the USO. She was a spokesperson and advocate for many organizations and causes, including the American Cancer Society, National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, Special Olympics, and many more.  

What’s next for Teresa? Since ending her reign as Miss America, she has continued to work for various causes, including raising money for an orphanage in Haiti and an organization supporting education for Kenyan girls. She is currently attending Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia. Her career goals include becoming a Supreme Court justice and running for president.  

Shoes from the Miss America pageant.

Visit the Nebraska State Historical Society website for hours and directions on how to reach the Nebraska History Museum. The Nebraska’s Miss America exhibit is scheduled to close September 3, 2013.

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Harrison Johnson’s History of Nebraska

Gage County Courthouse, Beatrice. From Johnson’s History of Nebraska (Omaha, 1880)

“Our work is done,” wrote Harrison Johnson (1822-1885) as he concluded his History of Nebraska, published in 1880. “The volume is completed, and only awaits the Introduction. The printers are clamoring for this, and only a few more lines and the History of Nebraska, on which we have spent so many anxious hours, will be in type for the use of our numerous friends and subscribers, who are found all over the State, and, indeed, all over the country.”

Johnson dedicated his work, the state’s first extended history, “[t]o the People of the State of Nebraska: Through whose large enterprise, indomitable energy and great liberality, in the brief space of twenty-five years, an unorganized Territory has developed into a prosperous Commonwealth, that now occupies a proud and important position, politically and commercially, in the Union of States.”  

Hall County Courthouse, Grand Island. From Johnson’s History of Nebraska (Omaha, 1880)

The author wrote: “The work has been no sinecure. It covers the history of sixty-five counties, extending over a State of 80,000 square miles, and illustrates a period of time–the most eventful of the Nation’s existence–of a quarter of a century.” He told his readers that his aim was to present details of Nebraska’s topography, climate, soil, timber and water supply, railroads, and religious and educational advantages in a “condensed, reliable and readable form” for the benefit of prospective settlers.

Johnson, a native of Ohio who had entered Nebraska Territory in 1854, represented Douglas County for two terms in the territorial legislature and served on the territorial board of agriculture. About 1880, the year his History was published, he moved to Brown County, Nebraska, taking up a homestead on Plum Creek near Johnstown. He died October 6, 1885.  

Fur trading post at Bellevue, 1854. From Johnson’s History of Nebraska (Omaha, 1880)

A brief biography included in an 1887 publication of the Nebraska State Historical Society said: “Mr. Johnson, being one of the first settlers in the territory, an active participant in all that was going on, became well-acquainted with its history. . . . He was a deep thinker, good scholar, and writer. He was widely and favorably known all over the state, in the advancement and development of which he always took a lively interest.” – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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Drilling for Oil at Shelton

Solomon D. Butcher photographed the Morris oil derrick at Shelton, Buffalo County, in 1910. NSHS RG2608-2413

Nebraska’s first producing oil well was drilled in Richardson County in 1940, but prior to that date some drilling had been done in other parts of the state. One such project was at Shelton in Buffalo County. The Kearney Daily Hub reported on June 23, 1910: “The Shelton Oil Well company is pushing work as fast as men and material will allow. There is now on the ground four carloads of material, two cars of oil well machinery, the heaviest and best that has ever been shipped into the state, including a powerful engine and all necessary tubing and drills. The large tower is now up to seventy feet in height and will be completed in a few days. Then the balance of the work of placing the engine and other machinery will be pushed and boring will be begun some time in July.” Local farmers and businessmen were said to be supporting the project liberally.  

Work on the well progressed and by October 26, the Hub reported that backers were elated over the prospects for success. Dirt taken from the excavation contained crude oil and when thrown into water, a thin film formed on the surface. Local expectation was that striking oil would “make” not only Shelton, but every town in central Nebraska. Solomon D. Butcher photographed the Morris oil derrick at Shelton in 1910. 

Bird’s eye view of Shelton in 1910. NSHS RG2608-2420

However, all didn’t go as planned. Newspaper coverage during the next five years reveals that the drillers worked on through various mechanical and financial setbacks to sink several wells but never struck it rich. A drill was first sunk to a depth of about 1,300 feet before it became stuck and work was abandoned. In 1911 drilling was resumed but later stopped due to lack of funds. In 1912 more financial backing was obtained and work was again commenced, only to be abandoned and a receiver appointed for the defunct project. 

The Hub reported on December 11, 1915, that after five years and the expenditure of more than $20,000, “the Shelton oil well prospect has gone glimmering. The original company . . . has been defunct for some time and all that remains of the original project is a hole in the ground choked with a diamond drill and a dilapidated collection of shafting and machinery.” The property was later sold to pay the outstanding indebtedness. A Tulsa firm removed the machinery and equipment to Oklahoma. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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