New City Shapes Up on a Muddy Plateau; 'Claims Club' Is Ruler

Newspapers, Dry Goods Firm, Doctor, Others Set Up Shop; But Politics Hold's Town's Center of Interest

Not until fall were, there definite signs of growth. Omaha City's first year of existence was crowned by rather sporadic though quite feverish activity, but between these definite signs of embryonic development were few permanent residents on the plateau.

Many of the claim holders made frequent crossings from Council Bluffs to look over their land, or to make a minor improvement, but they were obviously reluctant at first to weather the elements in such flimsy structures as were going up on the plain. But progress was visible - even as early as September, 1854. The echoes of axes cutting into fresh timber, rasping saws and nails being hammered home filled the air. Here and there as the weeks passed visitors crossing the river could see a new but crude log dwelling or sod house come into view. Two small stores were in business by that time, and a hotel was in the planning stage.

The ferry company's Claim House, occupied by the Snowdens at what was later to be the corner of Twelfth and Jackson Streets, had already become the first "hotel," however, and was soon to be identified by the metropolitan-sounding name of "St. Nicholas!"

With building activity in mounting stride, new names were slowly being added to the list of settlers already living on the plateau—names that would become well known in Omaha in later years.

Cam Reeves's family became residents not long after the Snowdens settled in the Claim House, then came P. G. Peterson, M. C. Gaylord, Samuel E. Rogers and William Rogers, A. J. Poppleton, Dr. George L. Miller, 0. D. Richardson, Milton Tootle, James A. Jackson, William Clancy, W. N. Byers, Bird B. Chapman — all to join the company of Postmaster Jones and the original townsite founders.

Dr. Miller, Omaha City's first physician, came from Syracuse, N. Y. The young doctor's first patient in the West was an Omaha Indian child, which is said to have died. The Indian camp was on the river bottoms, and the Omahas, informed that a "white medicine man" lived among the new settlers, sent a brave to summon the doctor.

The physician and his party followed the redskin along winding trails, all the while attempting to make themselves understood in a rambling, one-sided conversation designed more to be self-assuring than to be sociable. Buf the Indian gave them not even a grunt in reply. When they reached the tepee in which the child lay, the Indian "shot through the triangular door like the arrow from a bow," the doctor later related. He said he squirmed his way inside. Two squaws and three bucks smiled and gestured toward a cushion on the ground. Dr. Miller, relieved then of the ugly creeping sensations around his head and throat, seated himself warily on the cushion of state and accepted the pipe of peace after it, had been passed from Indian lips that had just sipped bowls of dog soup.

They gave the little patient to him then, but the battle for life apparently already had been lost.

Practicing medicine in Omaha City in those first years was not conducive to making a living, as Dr. Miller quickly learned. Lack of patients caused him to seek other outlets, and he soon became active in territorial politics and later in local journalism. Twice between 1860 and 1865 he sought a more profitable life elsewhere, but in each instance returned and in the latter year established The Omaha Herald with Dan W. Carpenter, a practical printer.

He published the newspaper until its purchase in 1868 by Lyman Richardson and John S. Briggs. Dr. Miller, later buying Mr. Briggs's interest, remained as editor until the paper's ownership passed to John A. McShane in 1887. One more shift in control, to Chicago'an R. A. Craig, came about before Gilbert M. Hitchcock purchased the paper and consolidated it with his Evening World in 1889. -

The press in Omaha enjoyed a romantic origin' from the moment Joseph E. Johnson and J. W. Pattison camped beneath the stars on the Omaha plateau and wrote their salutatory editorial by firelight for the first issue of The Omaha Arrow on July 28, 1854. They called it "A Night in Our Sanctum." Their desk was the top of Mr. Pattison's battered beaver hat; their chair, the stump of an ancient oak.

This paper, printed in the Council Bluffs Bugle office, had only a short life, but it has supplied graphic accounts of the city's earliest days. It's editors were not many months in Omaha City, but the accuracy of their prophesy is indeed significant:

"...The night stole on," they wrote in their editorial, "and we in the most comfortable manner in the world — and editors have a faculty of making themselves comfortable together — crept between art and nature — our blanket and buffalo robe — to sleep and perchance to dream...The busy hum of business from factories and the varied branches of mechanism from Omaha City reached our ears.

"The incessant rattle of innumerable drays over the paved streets, the steady tramp of 10 thousand of an animated enterprising population, the hoarse orders fast issued from the crowd of steamers upon the levee loading with the rich products of the state of Nebraska, and unloading the fruits, spices and products of other climes and soils greeted our ears...

"The third express train on the Council Bluffs & Galveston Railroad came thundering close by us with a shrill whistle that brought us to our feet, knife in hand. We rubbed our eyes and looked into the darkness beyond to see the flying trains. They had vanished, and the shrill second neigh of our lariated horses gave indication of the danger near. The hum of business, in and around the city, had also vanished and the same rude campfires were before us. We slept again..."

The first private dwelling completed on the Omaha plateau was built by Mr. Snowden on a lot given to him by the ferry company on the condition that he erect a house on it. It was located, on the west side of the wagon track known as Tenth Street. The Snowdens moved into it after having kept the St. Nicholas boarding house for three months.

By that time lumber was becoming available on the plateau as T. Jefferys & Co. got their steam saw-mill into operation 2 1/2 miles from the townsite on the river bottoms. Bricks also were being turned out by Benjamin Winchester's yard, but this first brick-making business failed and the ferry company had to obtain a better grade of material from Council Bluffs. By November, the two-story, brick Statehouse was half completed.

Mr. and Mrs. Snowden pioneered future social seasons when they held a house-warming on completion of their new home.

"Completion" in those days meant a floor, walls and roof. The house was without doors and glass windows. Quilts and aprons served to cover the openings, and the Snowdens' guests danced on splintery flooring and sat on rough boards for seats.

Music was provided by an amateur fiddler who also did the "calling off." The festive dance opened with the "French Four," considered a favorite figure in that period.

By the end of the year most of the "firsts" of any new community had taken place.

Mr. Snowden dug the first grave, preparing it on the southwest comer of Tenth and Howard Streets for the remains of an old Otoe squaw who had been abandoned to die by a roadside.

The first white child bom in Omaha was Margaret Ferry, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. James Ferry. She was born in October, 1854. Mr. Ferry laid the first stone for the Statehouse foundation. The claim of some that William Nebraska Reeves was the first birth was generally disproved in later years because he was bom in the Park Wild area which was then outside the townsite limits.

A Council Bluffs Methodist minister, the Rev. Peter Cooper, came across the river on Sunday, August 13, 1854, to conduct the first religious service. It was held in the Alexander Davis house at Eighth and Jackson Streets. Fewer than 25 persons attended, and most of these poeple still resided in the Bluffs. Mr. Jones led the singing which had expression, enthusiasm and melody — everything but harmony!

In business as a "popular resort" was the third house built in the city — the Big 6. This was a sod-house dugout on the north side of Chicago Street between Thirteenth and Fourteenth Streets, the Lewis & Clancy grocery and saloon. It was a favorite loafing spot for any man who wanted to drop in for an informal discussion of public affairs — and of course to sample William Clancy's thirst-quenching facilities.

The city's first practicing lawyers-were Andrew J. Poppleton and 0. D. Richardson, both from Michigan, who arrived in October. They roomed together in Omaha for a while after their arrival and later organized a partnership to become the city's first law firm. Future years found each of them taking active parts in drawing up the Territory's first laws while they were members of the First Legislature.'

By December 23, 1854, the Omaha City Company, organized to co-operate with the Council Bluffs & Nebraska Ferry Company, had purchased claims adjoining the city amounting to 1,629 acres. This promotion organization was to take on the responsibility of building up the new town. James M. Love was elected president, Jesse Lowe secretary, and Samuel S. Bayliss treasurer. Other charter members were Dr. Enos Lowe, Milton Tootle, James Jackson and J. M. Palmer.

The firm of Tootle & Jackson by this date had become Omaha City's first and leading dry goods store. A new newspaper now came into existence, succeeding the old Arrow. It was Bird B. Chapman's Nebraskian. This publication was to be the town's steady journal for several years.

Fall of 1854 was just about blending into winter by the time Postmaster Jones grew tired of trying to carry mail around for delivery in his tall beaver hat. He moved his "office" from the top of his head to a new cubby in the completed front section of a building then under construction as the town's first hotel. This was the Douglas House, built by David Lindley, who had been acting as deputy postmaster for Mr. Jones.

As a means of sorting the mail, an axe box was divided into four pigeon-holes, nailed to the west wall of the front room; and now Omaha City could boast its first postoffice.

Mr. Lindley then obtained a Mormon named Frank — a fugitive from the Florence Indian scare — to manage the office. Frank put a bushel basket in the middle of the floor to hold the mail, and most any one could come in, shuffle through the basket, and depart either empty-handed or with his own mail. - *

At first the postmastership seemed to change hands about every wash day. The job in those days was not a plum handed out as a political favor; it merely went to the person who either didn't mind it or thought he had something to gain from it.

Mr. Jones, a lawyer as well as a surveyor, took it to keep his Park Wild. By the time he found a real office to hang his hat he had had enough and finally resigned the post in favor of Mr. Lindley, who decided he wasn't the type to be an unsung hero. The Mormon, Frank, was then appointed; but by the following spring he, too, seemed to be allergic to letters and parcels. W. W. Wyman finally took the job, with some semblance of permanency, and on June 5, 1855, he was commissioned.

The Arrow indicated in late September of 1854 that a "new and excellent steam saw-mill" was about ready to go into operation by Samuel S. Bayliss & Co. The modern newspaper reader might wonder what the opposition, or competitor (T. Jeffreys & Co., the city's first steam saw-mill), thought upon reading the Arrow's free use of the word "excellent"!

III.—The Raw Years

As the founding year slipped into 1855, Omaha City became a hotbed of political antagonism.

The First Legislature convened January 16 in the little two-story brick Statehouse on Ninth Street which had been built by the ferry company. A dozen sentiments — each favoring sacking Omaha as the Territorial Capital and only differing as to the place of removal — now were colliding head-on, inaugurating a legislative battle that was to continue at a feverish pitch for several years.

Omaha's cause was championed in the Council of the Legislature by 0. D. Richardson and T. G. Goodwill and in the House by A. J. Poppleton and Andrew J. Hanscom. Mr. Poppleton, a lawyer, a year later became associated with William N. Byers in the law firm of Poppleton & Byers.

It is said of Mr. Hanscom that he would as soon fight as eat. whether fisticuffs, debate or tactics, he was usually called upon to bring harmony where friction was uppermost. At the opening of the First Legislature, he was handed the assignment of gaining control of the House. He succeeded, was elected Speaker and thereby was able to secure the appointment of committees, a definite advantage to Omaha. Dr. Miller writes:

"Hanscom and Poppleton carried the art of winking to its highest perfection.... The latter was always first recognized by Speaker Hanscom when he wanted the floor. The Speaker was particular about keeping order. Any refractory member, opposed to Omaha, who refused to take his seat when ordered to was emphatically notified that if he didn't sit down he would be knocked down. The result was usually satisfactory to the Speaker. The excitement over the capltol question was at times very great. The lobbies, we remember, were once crowded with the respective parties to the contest, armed with bludgeons, brickbats and pistols..."

At the inaugural ball of Mark W. Izard, who became Territorial Governor February 20, 1855, pioneer Omahans found themselves opening the town's social life by dancing on ice. The City Hotel, a single-story, frame building on the southwest corner of Eleventh and Harney Streets, was the scene. The unheated rooms were "plastered" with a single coating of mud and ice — a frozen mixture that succeeded better in bottling the cold inside than in keeping it out. The unplaned floor, scrubbed for the affair, was quickly transformed by the near-zero temperature into a virtual skating rink. A Council Bluffs musician, Jim Orton, was the fiddler.

The dancing soon turned into various displays of acrobatics, with men losing their dignity doing a "split" and women falling flat one after another. There were more feet in the air than there were heads.

Tables were nowhere to be seen, so the midnight supper — coffee, with brown sugar and no milk, sandwiches and dried apple pie — was passed around. Dr. Miller described the sandwiches as "very thick, and made of a singular mixture, of bread of radical complexion and bacon."

Omaha City in the spring of 1855 was a mire of souplike clay, water holes, manure piles and flies, and these conditions were not to end for several years.

Rains soaked the churned-up plateau and accumulated above ground into puddles and even miniature lakes. There was no drainage. Water stood in wagon-wheel ruts, boot and hoof tracks like wax in a honeycomb. Only heavily-booted men ventured into the streets. Most women stayed home. There were no boardwalks. One braved the sloppy mud, feeling all the while like he might be going down in quicksand, or he stayed indoors.

But the plateau was a town now. In that year Surveyor Jones's pattern was shaping up. There were a few more streets that were discernible as such — even with names — and there were square-faced, pitch-roofed, frame store buildings and not just rough-looking log structures.

Scattered about the plain were small, frame houses, some neatly fenced and each with its conspicuous privy at the rear of the lot. Farther out, especially up the slope toward Capitol Hill, were a few larger homes, some of brick. And again the most predominant sounds were the echoes of carpentry that filled the air. ;,

A plodding horse drawing a' wobbly wagon almost hub-deep in mud was becoming a familiar sight. Even a prankster's board sign, crudely lettered and reading "Shortest Water Route to China-Straight Down" became evidence of expanding life on the ugly but once beautiful plateau.

This was Omaha City when the Claim Club's regulations seemed to be the community's only enforcible law.

Claim Clubs grew up during the early settlement of the Territory by force of necessity. They came into existence to safeguard the "right of possession" of the first settlers who, of course, were not legal title holders but merely squatters. The protection of their claims therefore rested chiefly upon the settlers banding together to protect their mutual squatters' rights against claim jumpers.

The Omaha Claim Club was first organized July 22,, 1854, as the Omaha Township Claim Association, with A. D. Jones as judge, S. Lewis as clerk, M. C. Gaylord as recorder and Robert B. Whitted as sheriff. The judge presided at meetings, the clerk recorded the proceedings, the recorder kept a register of quit-claim deeds and the sheriff executed the judgment of arbitrators and the orders of the club.

The sheriff was empowered to call out the entire township's club membership to carry out his duties. To enforce the club's regulations upon outsiders who attempted to infringe upon the rights of a member, moral suasion was employed first. Should the offender remain unconvinced, he might then face severe treatment. How harsh it was depended upon the offender's degree of stubbornness.

The Omaha Claim Club's organization was similar to those elsewhere in the Territory, except that the Omaha members were permitted to hold 320 acres of land as against 160 for members of other clubs under the pre-emption laws. The Omaha organization was first composed of such men as John M. Thayer, A. J. Hanscom, Andrew J. Poppleton, Lyman Richardson, Thomas B. Cuming, Dr. George L. Miller, Dr. Enos Lowe, Jesse Lowe, Joseph Barker, Sr., Joseph, Jr., and George E. Barker, 0. D. Richardson, Byron Reed, John L Redick, a young lawyer, and James M. Woolworth, in addition to the aforementioned officers. In 1855 the membership included nearly all the town's male residents.

The club served effectively in protecting its members' claims, but in so doing it frequently inspired mob violence. Such crowds incited to fury caused many instances of injustice, and since the Vigilantes mostly rode masked - and at night — efforts to identify those instigators of mob action were fruitless. Any effort of a conscientious and competent Federal judge, therefore, to protect due process of law by bringing the ringleaders to court was impossible.

Most conflicts arose over the 320 acres allowed in Omaha, a privilege which ran contrary to laws of Congress. Also, the original Townsite Company's claim of nearly four thousand acres did not set well with late-comers. They objected to such a vast extent of territory held by so few individuals and attempted to jump (occupy for themselves) the claims.

Whenever this happened, a Vigilante committee of the club paid a formal call on the jumper, informed him that he was trespassing upon land previously claimed and then warned the intruder that if he didn't vacate immediately he would be forced to. If the committee encountered resistance, the jumper soon found himself neck-deep in trouble — the severity depending upon the intensity of resistance.

Cam Reeves, who later became the town's first Sheriff, was the first figure involved in a Claim Club dispute. A Frenchman had staked a claim in 1854 on part of Alfred D. Jones's land and refused to move off. The club sent for Mr. Reeves, who had gained a reputation as a trouble-shooter in Missouri, and he took charge. The result was a long battle that drew crowds from Council Bluffs. The Frenchman took his beating and fled. Cam Reeves stayed.

On February 2, 1856, the club was reorganized as the Omaha Claims Association but its arbitrary powers continued as before — in several instances even more viciously.

In the beginning, when regulations provided that each squatter had to show a $50 improvement in his land and live on it to hold his claim, several Claim Club members even stretched the rules to such extremities as to build a shack on wheels and move it from one claim to another so that each might say that he had been living on his claim!

By spring of 1856, however, there was little need to improvise a means of occupation, as most claims were showing evidence of improvement.

Possibly the most sensational incident of injustice on the part of the Claim Club occurred in May of that year when George (Doc) Smith was driven off his claim in the north part of town. This Doc Smith, later Douglas County's Surveyor for many years, had his house half up when an angry mob, armed to the teeth, swarmed down upon him, pulled the structure apart and threatened to throw him in the river if he didn't leave the Territory at once. He took the "hint," withdrew to Glenwood, Ia., and hired a Washington lawyer to present his case to Thomas A. Henricks, commissioner of the General Land Office. This move only resulted in an adverse ruling to the effect that "the General Land Office could not take the place of the local law."

All the lengthy legal channels failed to settle the dispute.

Doc Smith had received a nerve-chilling threat while he had faced the Vigilante captain's drawn revolver on the night his house was wrecked, and the incident had been terrifying enough for him to obtain a lasting picture of the masked leader whom he recognized through poorly-concealed features. Years later he was asked what had become of the man who had directed the mob against him back in 1856.

Said Mr. Smith: "I met him once and he had nothing to say to me. He was as dumb as an oyster. I was running a line through Prospect Hill Cemetery and came across the spot where he was planted. I hopped to it and dance merrily on his grave."

John I. Redick also had a run-in with his fellow club members that same winter, but he came out much better than did most others. He stuffed himself into the Claim Club's doghouse over a remark to a temperance group that because Claim Club rules apparently could defy Federal laws, it possibly would be difficult to adopt the Maine Liquor Law in the Territory, as the group was recommending.

Next morning Mr. Redick arrived at his law office of Redick & Chapman to find himself on the carpet before his partner, James G. Chapman, for disgracing the firm by using "treasonable language" against the Claim Club.

Soon the town was posted with notices of a special meeting of the organization to decide what should be done with the mutinous Mr. Redick.

At the gathering in the Pioneer Block on Farnam Street, Mr. Hanscom, president of the club, "spoke in a very reasonable, moderate way," Mr. Redick writes, then Mr. Mitchell of Florence got up and was "very abusive of new people who were coming into the Territory to break down local institutions." Finally Mr. Chapman succeeded in getting the floor for his partner.

Mr. Redick strode forward, faced the sea of scowling faces and began to speak in a quiet, firm but reassuring tone. The
climax, in Mr. Redick's own words:

"I then said that I had had no intention to reflect upon the club, and that what I had said had not been correctly reported. I added that I knew that every man present was at least an ordinarily 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 one minute in which to come out and face me!'

"As the time ticked off, no one moved; and when I announced that the time had expired, there was a burst of applause, and I was convinced that I had nothing to fear"

The Claim Club's activities in time were not limited merely to disposing of claim jumpers. Its Vigilante Committee much of the time was the main law-enforcing agency, frequently co-operatjng with justice officials but just as often acting as lawmen, judges, juries and executioners. Public whippings and lynchings were common.

Frontier punishment varied according to the degree of harm resulting from the crime. The pioneers dealt with most horse thieves mercilessly. In March, 1858, a posse of angered farmers captured two desperadoes who had. stolen a few horses near Florence. The men gave their names as Harvey Braden and John Daley. They were jailed in the new Courthouse, then nearing completion on the northeast corner of Sixteenth and Farnam Streets.

Later a group of men gathered in front of the Courthouse. One of the group walked casually into the building, nonchalantly crossed the office, silently lifted the jail key from a nail on the wall, then just as unconcernedly walked out again. Sheriff Cam Reeves was absent, and the whole maneuver had happened so naturally that the Sheriff's wife in the office had not even sounded an alarm. By the time she took notice of what actually had happened, the Vigilantes were in charge and entered the building in strength.

They hauled the screaming prisoners out of the jail, dumped them into a wagon and set the team to a fast gait. On the main road two miles north of Florence, Braden and Daley were hanged from a noose at each end of a single rope looped in the center around the overhanging limb of an old oak.

This "necktie party" brought about an inquest at Omaha, and a coroner's jury was empanelled. Witnesses made themselves conspicuously scarce.

Sheriff Reeves had to swear in a force of deputies to help him bring in obstinate townsmen who may or may not have had something to do with the lynching. The result of all this investigation was the same as many others; the leaders of the mob went unrecognized.

The only outcome of the whole incident was that Sheriff Reeves was convicted of dereliction of duty for failing to prevent the hanging. Mr. Redick's law partner, Mr. Chapman, prosecuted the case before Chief Justice Fenner Ferguson. Sheriff Reeves received a stiff fine and that ended the matter. The Sheriff's only defense, it seems, was that he wasn't in his office to get trampled when the mob surged through. No sane person even then believed that he could have stopped it.

End Installment II homepage
Omaha's First Century - Installment III
Omaha's First Century - Introduction