Plateau Caught Eye of '49er; He Stayed to See Omaha Start
William D. Brown First Visioned Great City on West Bank of River; Towns of Bellevue, Florence Started First
William D. Brown's sudden decision in 1849 to abandon a perilous westward journey that promised to lead to a lucrative future in California probably was the most important and certainly the most profitable in his life. Yet, it is unlikely that he was aware of it.
He had been Henry County's first Sheriff at Mount Pleasant, Ia., and had been only one individual in a long stream of fortune-seekers drawn to the far-off Pacific Coast by the magnetic power of gold. Too, he had been one of the many of those same emigrants who at that time never went farther westward than the Missouri River!
Their change of mind was understandable: The fertile resources and natural beauties of the land along the Missouri could neither be duplicated anywhere across the widespread, unorganized Nebraska Territory which stretched to the foothills of the Rockies, nor could the vast, unknown country beyond, be accurately evaluated.
Those who dropped out of the west-bound wagon trains in 1849 and 1850 soon made new homes for themselves in a little Western Iowa village, first inhabited by an advance party of Mormons. In the year of Mr. Brown's arrival this settlement was known as Kanesville. Some years prior to that it had been Miller's Hill, a name mostly unremembered today because of its short duration.
The latter designation had been contributed by Mormons who had paused there in 1846 during the Mexican War. These people had liked the location and had named the place in honor of a Mormon elder. Later a government request for a Mormon battalion brought about the formation of a group of volunteers headed by Col. T. L. Kane. Miller's Hill quickly became Kanesville and remained such until 1853.
From this tiny village emerged a vision born of an idea, then a beginning. The idea was Mr. Brown's. The rush of emigrants across the plains toward California offered him the opportunity to establish the organization which in only a few years was to bring a new settlement into existence a city on the west bank of the Missouri. From the moment of his arrival, he had often viewed the Nebraska hills from the Iowa bluffs and had been just as frequently reminded of the then popular belief that cities located on the west banks of rivers in the line of westward emigration had always seemed to thrive.
His center of interest, however, had been a scenic plateau opposite the Kanesville (Council Bluffs) plain. Not only had he been impressed by the commanding position of the site, but in his mind had actually pictured a town perhaps even a sprawling, populous city!
Too, this man reasoned that ideas and capital were synonymous in the establishment of any business venture and that the former never could materialize without the latter. With this thought, he had given careful consideration to the money-making possibility of a regular and permanent ferry across the river. In 1850 he secured a charter from the Pottawattamie County Commissioners in Iowa and went into business with an oar-propelled flatboat. Thus the Lone Tree Ferry was born the name having been taken from a lone tree where his boat arrived and departed on the Nebraska side.
He made numerous visits to the plateau. By 1853, when he staked what was generally credited as the first claim, he already had become tirelessly active in attempting to originate and promote the township plan.
However, Kanesville again had taken a new name; and at this time attention was being temporarily diverted from the Nebraska plateau to more important affairs in the newly-organized community of Council Bluffs City.
This name had its earliest mention in the journal of Lewis and Clark who reached the mouth of the Platte on the Missouri late in July, 1804. Not long afterward, these explorers came upon "a large sand island in the middle of the river. . . . We saw and examined a curious collection of graves or mounds," their journal relates. "Not far from a low piece of land and a pond is a tract of about two hundred acres in extent, which is of sand; and some of both earth and sand: the largest being near the river. These mounds indicate the position of the ancient village of the Otoes before they retired to the protection of the Pawnees."
Most students of Omaha history contend that this description generally identifies that part of the present city between Farnam Street on the south, Eleventh Street on the west and the river bottoms on the north and east.
On August 3 the explorers held a council upstream with Otoe and Missouri Indians to acquaint them with the Louisiana Purchase agreement between the United States and France. They met on a spot later to be identified as Fort Atkinson, near the present town of Fort Calhoun. When the talks came to an end, they named the meeting place the Council Bluff.
This term in years to come was to be used on two other separate occasions andd at two completely different places: A future Indian agency at Bellevue and the sub-agency and postoffice at Traders Point, a short distance south of Kanesville.
After the coming of the fur traders, the Government established what it called the Council Bluffs Indian Agency at the Bellevue post and in 1849 gave the unorganized territory its first postoffice on the site. Across the river below Kanesville was the Indian sub-agency and Iowa postoffice, also called Council Bluffs, located at Traders Point. A thriving business was enjoyed there toward the middle of the century when there were enough emigrants scattered between
Sioux City and Sidney, Ia., to keep the mail flowing in regularly from the East.
This circumstance caused Kanesville's early citizens to look enviously upon the growing popularity of Traders Point, most of them uncomfortably aware of the importance of the Council Bluffs postoffice. And since many had been sour on the Kanesville name, anyway, it seemed only obvious that the best means of attracting the mail would be to obtain a postoffice and take the name of Council Bluffs City.
Once the change in name was made, the rival postoffice at Traders Point was abandoned. Council Bluffs City soon became firmly established, the people obtained a charter and the word "city" was dropped. The man who introduced the bill for Council Bluffs in the Iowa Legislature was Hadley D. Johnson, later the unorganized Nebraska Territory's first elected delegate to Congress and a future resident of Omaha City.
The Lone Tree Ferry was operating at what was then the head of commercial navigation on the river. This advantage helped influence those on the Iowa side to obtain Nebraska land. A treaty with the Indians had not yet been drawn up, but interest had increased to a point by late 1853 where many residents of Council Bluffs made steady use of Mr. Brown's ferry to visit the plateau either for mere pleasure excursions or for the more likely purpose of inspecting the site with the thought of mailing claims.
Even as parties of hopeful prospectors continued plans for settling on the new plateau, the towns of Florence to the north and Bellevue to the south already were becoming established communities.
Florence owed its existence irrevocably to the Mormons, who set up Winter Quarters there in 1846 by agreement with the Maha and Pottawattamie Indians. The latter tribe had been in full sympathy with the west-bound travelers, since they had suffered a similar fate in being driven from their homes in Illinois.
By the grace of a friendship with the Mahas diplomatically opened and only delicately maintained there were seasons when as many as six thousand Mormons camped at Winter Quarters in comparative safety and comfort untilafter the spring thaws. And as the newly-founded Mormon settlement grew at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains in Utah, Winter Quarters became a thriving community. It served as a flourishing wagon-outfitting point until the emigrants were ordered by the Indian agent to move because of a complaint from the Mahas that Mormon families were cutting too much timber.
The deserted camp, however, was not to be long abandoned. In 1853, a development-minded pioneer, James C. Williams, employed a surveyor to lay out a town close to the site. Among the newcomers. who planned the village and organized the Florence Land Company were Philip Chapman, J. B. Stootsman, B. R. Pegram, J. M. Parker and J. C. Mitchell. Resettlement followed.
A second survey was made in 'the fall of 1854, and the town was platted into 270 blocks, buildings were erected and the Bank of Florence was established by Mr. Parker. Mr. Mitchell named the community in honor of Miss Florence Kilbourn, his wife's niece.
But while towns were beginning to flourish on the Omaha plateau's flanks, the idea for the proposed new city lay temporarily dormant. Mr. Brown had made his idea and township plan known, and there was no hiding the fact that other men of vision were needed. Once these could be obtained, the ferry operator knew that settlers themselves would create the actual beginning.
His chief barrier to success at the start was his lack of means to carry out the plan alone. His ferry business had been profitable but still did not provide sufficient monetary returns to carry out the plan.
He therefore sold six-eighths of his ferry interest and his claim in June, 1853, to a group of far-sighted Council Bluffs business men composed of Dr. Enos Lowe, Jesse Lowe, Jesse Williams and Joseph H. D. Street.
Here, then, were the men of vision. In July, they organized the Council Bluffs & Nebraska Ferry Company, incorporated under the laws of Iowa and chartered for 20 years. Dr. Lowe was named president. Other members included S. S. Bayliss, Bernhart Henn, Samuel R. Curtis, C. H. Downs and a Mr. Tanner (the future firm of Tanner & Downs), Milton Tootle and James Jackson (later to be the Tootle & Jackson merchandising firm). The new business quickly improved its service by the purchase of a steam ferryboat, the General Marion, in Alton, Ill., and the actual beginning then was near.
A first sign of it was carefully observed from high above the plateau one crisp November afternoon in 1853...
The day was typically autumnal, with warmth still living in the rays of the sun but a chill in the breeze that swept the slumbering prairie grass across the tiny plain. The small band of Indians who steadied their mounts atop a commanding hill to the west gave scant attention at that moment to the approach of winter. They stood like bronze statues draped with skins and furs and their gaze was to the eastward: down a long slope and across a broad flatland toward the wooded banks of the winding, sprawling river.
Their vantage point was from the highest of a low, curving range of hills which came out of the north from the Missouri's west-bank upstream and departed in a south-easterly direction along the river's edge. Lying in the protection of this range was the plateau - a wide plain which in summer scented the air with the fragrance of wild flowers, but which in this season was barren of blossoms and cold beneath brown, wind-flattened prairie grass.
Trees sleeping along the river's edge were stripped of foliage and silent like sentinels. The erratic Indian trails
had lost their summer pattern, their former course blending colorlessly and without direction into the sod.
Beyond this vast expanse of nothingness, the movement of a tiny river craft on the far side of the Missouri became a strange attraction to the curious observers on the hilltop. They watched the slowly-moving speck on the Iowa bank for several minutes, then silently turned and dropped from sight.
What these Indians saw was a small, frail scow. Once launched, it required a "crew" of three men to handle it - one to row, another to man the helm and the third to bail, water. It leaked like a sieve!
Alfred D. Jones, Thomas Allen and William Allen were hardly qualified navigators of such swift, unpredictable currents as the Missouri could generate; but they set out from the Iowa bank west of Council Bluffs, crossed the turbulent river, rounded a menacing sandbar and came in to the Nebraska side a short distance below where the Union Pacific Railroad Bridge now stands.
Rowing in, they parted tall, stiff grass with their hands, waded across a wide slough and crawled over the tops of fallen trees to get ashore. They were wet, cold and hungry.
Night was falling when they set up their camp in the flattened grass. Cooking their supper seemed more important to them at that moment than any thought of setting out immediately to explore the timbered ground. Once darkness had settled upon the cold terrain they slept soundly to the chorus of the singing breeze and the distant echo of prairie wolves. Their only awakening during the night was to replenish the dying fire.
At dawn they ate a breakfast of corn bread and bacon, then set out to prospect across the semi-wooded land above the marshy west bank of the river.
Mr. Jones soon was to become one of the best known of the early settlers. He had been called from Glenwood, Ia., in 1852 when the citizens of Kanesville had been in need of a surveyor for their town. In undertaking the task for Kanesville, he had placed himself in the advantageous position of being able to seize an early opportunity for making a claim on the Nebraska plain.
He had observed this land many times while running lines on the Iowa side of the river, months before he actually made the crossing with the Allens. When he propositioned the Allens in November, 1853, the brothers sub-contractors in the construction of the grade for the Council Bluffs & Nebraska Ferry Company obtained the scow from Mr. Brown.
The territory was still unorganized, inhabited only by jealous, vigilant Indians. There was as yet no law opening the country to settlement; and land claimants moving in advance of public surveys were merely squatters and as such held no valid title to the acres they took. Thus, it was only with the tribal chiefs' unwritten consent that these, men made their strike. They still were without legal right.
The north line of Mr. Jones's claim was on the north side of what later was to be the Herman Kountze residence, which in future years was to be converted into St. Catherine's Hospital. Despite Mr. Brown's claim, Mr. Jones steadfastly maintained the belief that he blazed the first tree. In 1888 he described his claim to Alfred Sorenson for his "Story of Omaha:"
"With a hatchet I blazed a corner tree hear our camp and stamped the initials of my name thereon with a survey-marking iron. I then blazed lines north to the place later occupied by the Herman Kountze residence, thence south to C. F. Goodman's place, which I wished to include in my claim as it was a very prominent location.
"I next marked a corner on the ridge east of Tenth Street, and then proceeded eastward, blazing live trees, until I reached a deep ravine heavily timbered with tall trees. I gave the name of Purgatory to the valley, by which name it was long afterwards known. In the lower end of the ravine I discovered a bed of excellent building stone of lime formation.
"Upon regaining the plateau, I located my fourth corner and marked a line along the margin of the plateau to the place of beginning. The next step was to lay claim foundations which was regularly done in compliance with all the requisites for making a good and valid claim according to the laws and customs among squatters... Meantime, the Allens each marked out a claim..."
Mr Jones, anticipating the extinction of the Indian title, made another survey of his claim. Encroachments by the squatters, however, were not going unnoticed by the Indians, and they soon requested the Indian agent to order Mr. Jones to vacate Park Wild, the name he had given to his claim. Other squatters received similar notices.
But Mr. Jones was not of the character to surrender that easily. He quickly applied for a postoffice. As a result, he became postmaster of a town which as yet did not really exist. How he carried the mail in his hat was for many years a favorite tale among surviving early settlers.
Not long after Mr. Jones staked his claim, Mr. and Mrs. William P. Snowden moved into a log cabin built to hold its claim by the Council Bluffs & Nebraska Ferry Company a dwelling first known as the Claim House because the Snowdens boarded ferry workers there. Distinction of being the actual first white settler probably goes to a trader, T. B. Royce, who built a cabin on the Omaha site when he had a trading post there from 1825 until 1828.
But the Snowdens have been accepted as having been the first white settlers to reside permanently in Omaha City.
At Bellevue in February, 1854, Maj. James M. Gatewood of Missouri, Government agent for the Indian tribes in the area, opened negotiations with representatives of the Otoes, Missouris and Mahas for the transfer of their land to the United States.
In this same month the Bellevue Town Company was established by Peter A. Sarpy, Stephen Decatur, Hiram Bennett, Isaiah N. Bennett, George Hepner, William R. English, Major Gatewood, George T. Turner, P. J. McMahon, A. W. Hollister and A. C. Ford.
Colonel Sarpy, the American Fur Company's trader at Bellevue from 1823 until shortly after 1855, was an eccentric but interesting frontiersman who already had made a name for himself in the year of Mr. Brown's first glimpse of the Omaha plateau.
He frequently went by the Indian name Ne-Ka-Gah-He, or Big Chief, but called himself "The Old Horse on the Sandbar." His influence in those years was never underrated, and Omaha pioneers were to find in him a stout champion of his favored Bellevue on such issues as location of the eastern terminus of the proposed Pacific railway and of the much-talked-about Territorial Capitol.
Bellevue then was a part of Douglas County. Not until February, 1857, did the Legislature divide it, naming the south half after the old horse on the sandbar.
Major Gatewood's councils opened the way for treaties with the three Indian tribes In March and April of 1854. Legal right to the first claims on the west side, of the Missouri came May 30, with the signing by President Pierce of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, organizing and admitting Nebraska as a territory.
The Maha Indians early In the Eighteenth Century were located west of the Missouri River near the mouth of the Sioux and extending at times across country to the Niobrara. Hostile Sioux tribes, however, made their existence in this region untenable, and gradually they were driven down the Missouri to the vast area immediately west of the Missouri River and north of the Platte.
Their tribal name was derived from the Indian word e-ro-ma-ha, In reference to their original position. Translated it meant "Above all others upon a stream." Lewis and Clark referred to them as Mahas, and this name was consistently used until shortly before the settlement of the plateau when the prefix "0" was added. Thus, when Nebraska became an organized Territory, the name Omaha Indians was in more common use.
With the signing of the Indian Treaty between the United States and the Omaha and Otoe tribes June 21, 1854, the way was opened for settlement in July, and officers were appointed to set up a territorial government. The time then was at hand for the ferry company to take steps in laying out a town.
Mr. Jones was employed to survey the site for the company. He laid out a town of 320 blocks, each 264 feet square, with streets one hundred feet wide and lots staked out at 66 by 132 feet each. Famam Street was the only thoroughfare, however, to remain one hundred feet wide for any great distance. Three squares were reserved: Capitol Hill, six hundred feet square; Jefferson Square, 264 by 280 feet, designed for a city park; and Washington Square, bounded by Farnam, Douglas, Fifteenth and Sixteenth Streets. The latter was left open because it was swamp land that nobody wanted. Later, the southwest corner section of Sixteenth and Farnam Streets was designated for a courthouse.
A seven-block-long park was also set aside between Davenport, Jackson, Eighth and Ninth Streets and shows on an early plat of the city, but this park quickly disappeared.
Capitol Avenue and Twenty-first Street were purposely made 120 feet wide. Capitol was to lead east and Twenty-first was to stretch north from the top of the most impressive hill west of the plateau the elevation selected as the site of the proposed Territorial Capitol which was to replace the first Statehouse, a small, brick structure located on Ninth Street between Farnam and Douglas Streets.
But while a city had been mapped on paper, the framework was nowhere to be seen on the land itself. The barren loneliness of it was in sharp evidence on Independence Day, 1854...
That year's Fourth of July was celebrated by excursionists from Council Bluffs crowding aboard the ferry, crossing the unruly river, climbing the Nebraska bank, wading through brush and tramping through tall, swaying prairie grass on a "long hike" to their picnic site on Capitol Hill.
A team hauled an old wagon up the grade, the only cargo being picnic baskets and two blacksmith's anvils. Huffing and puffing behind were swaggering men and breathless women, the latter holding their skirts high as they shuffled through the grass. Boys and girls screeched, squealed and frolicked all over the place. After the picnic lunches had been spread, there were a few resolutions and the usual speeches.
Hadley D. Johnson, one of the leaders in the creation of the organized Nebraska Territory, climbed aboard the wagon while a salute was "fired" by the clanging together of the two anvils, then eased into a long and ringing oration accompanied by spread-eagle gestures and growing hoarseness.
The echoes of the clanging anvils brought a number of Indians into view. The sight of them sent the frightened picnickers scattering like chickens in a barnyard. Hurriedly, they piled baskets and anvils back into the wagon and scampered down the hill toward the waiting ferry almost as fast as the snorting team pulling the bouncing wagon. Mr. Johnson's speech came to an Ignominious conclusion.
On that date the only building on the site was the Snowden's Claim House then just a cabin built up to the square. But the spirit of settlement already had come alive. Lots could then be bought for $25 each, and the Town Association was offering to deed lots to any one who would build on them at once.
The United States marshal, however, was on hand the day of the Independence celebration to make certain prospective settlers did not locate in Nebraska before ratification in Washington of the Indian Treaty.
It was a place where one could get a tract of land almost for the asking, could build on it but still could not live on it all this in an uninhabited "settlement" which, even as a desolate plateau, the ferry company that preceding June had taken pride in officially naming Omaha City...
End Installment I
Omaha's First Century - Installment II
Omaha's First Century - Introduction