Saturday, April 30, 2016


The Great Seal for Nebraska’s Sesquicentennial Celebration is popping up more and more with one year to go until March 1, 2017.

The Nebraska Sesquicentennial, its 150th birthday is just a year away and committees across the state are planning the celebration. How should we mark the 149th anniversary of Nebraska statehood this year?

Well, this month we’re going to look at what came before Nebraska statehood on March 1, 1867.

What is it like in the country when a new state joins the union? Do you remember the excitement when a new state is added to the country, when a new star is added to the flag? Maybe not. If you’re not into your mid-60’s that has not happened within your memory.

Hawaii is our newest state joining the republic on August 21, 1959 as our 50th state just seven months after Alaska made the old 48-star flag obsolete in January of that year. That 48-star flag served the country for 47 years and was the longevity record-holder until ten years ago when our 50-star flag passed that milestone and is now, by far, our longest-serving design for the star-studded blue field in the upper-left hand corner of the flag.

We remember that the United States began with just 13 states formed from 13 British colonies. But how did we get to 50 states and what was the 14th state?

First, when did the U.S. come into being? The Constitutional Convention stated that the constitution would become effective, and by extension, the nation would be formed when nine colonies had ratified the document. However, the original intent of the convention was to amend the Articles of Convention. Those attending that meeting had quickly scraped the Articles and started anew. But the Articles required unanimous approval by all 13 colonies to enact changes.


So our country began with a compromise, actually several. When New York became the 11th colony to ratify, the Continental Congress Confederation decreed the new constitution was in force in a resolution on September 13, 1788. The new nation was officially formed as far as they were concerned.

Creating our new nation was not a slam dunk. There was considerable opposition about details, some of them big ones. North Carolina took another year until November, 1789 to decide to join and Rhode Islanders finally approved of the United States after yet another year on November 29, 1790, almost four years after Delaware earned their title of The First State (still a big deal in that little state.)

So it took four years for the 13 colonies to become the 13 states. How long was it until there were 14? Not very long. Vermont was first in line.

Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution defined how new states were to be added, “New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the junction of two or more States or parts of States, without the consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.”

A couple of things. First, capitalization and punctuation was a bit of a novelty in the document. Next, did you notice that the Nebraska panhandle can’t join Wyoming unless we let it. And, this defines how a state becomes a part of the Union but makes no mention or how a state may leave. When that question came up about 70 years later we didn’t find any compromise, unless you count a suggestion that I’ll paraphrase as, “Let’s just go out and have us a civil war about it.”

So Congress exercised its authority on March 4, 1791 to admit Vermont as the 14th state, barely three months after Rhode Island got around to being #13.

Vermont was the first of 21 new states added to the union before January of 1861 when Kansas became a state just weeks before the beginning of the Civil War. That was averaging a new state about every three and a third years.

Then we even made two new states in the midst of the Civil War. West Virginia is a good story. After Virginia seceded from the Union to join the Confederacy, the west part of Virginia seceded from the Confederacy to rejoin the Union. Nevada was less contentious when it became a state.

After the Civil War there were 36 states. Let’s not bookkeep the sequence and dates that states in the defeated Confederacy wandered back home.

Nebraska became the first of 12 new states in the next 45 years until New Mexico and Arizona joined in 1912 for another average rate of more than one every four years. And there we sat with the 48-star flag until 1959.

So today’s Americans have been denied the excitement of seeing a new state join the Union. Our only opportunities to witness any part of the process would be to follow the low-volume discussions about the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico or the various separatist/secession noise. But there was a time when new states were almost routine news.

Or was it?

How “routine” was the process that led to bringing Nebraska Territory into the U.S. and later statehood?
Lands in the West were administered as territories. In 1854, Nebraska Territory stretched from Rulo to Glacier National Park. Yes, the territorial capitol was in Omaha.

Not very. Nebraska Territory and Kansas Territory were created in 1854 with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. That act overturned the provisions of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 the first of two “Missouri Compromise” acts, the second in 1850. The issues in those pieces of legislation were not so much organizing new territories as it was slavery. And it wasn’t the question of whether or not there would be slavery in the United States. Few were advocating abolition at this point. The question in those acts was where slavery would exist.

There were 22 states in 1818, 11 were free states and 11 were slave states. The senate was balanced in that regard. But the north was more heavily populated so the House of Representatives “leaned free” and when discussion began about admitting Missouri as a state a New York representative proposed banning slavery in that new state.

There were about 2,000 slaves in the territory that would become Missouri and southern states were opposed to any such ban. Henry Clay of Kentucky and our county’s namesake came up with his Missouri Compromise of 1820 to admit Missouri as a slave state and to spin off a big piece of Massachusetts as the free state of Maine. Another provision divided the remaining territory of the west in Louisiana Territory as free north of 36 degrees and 30 minutes of latitude and permitting slavery to the south.

Historians agree that Clay’s 1820 compromise defused the slavery issue and postponed the civil war for 30 years.

Alvin Saunders (1817-1899) was the 10th Governor of the Territory of Nebraska serving from May 15, 1861 until statehood on March 1, 1967. He served as a U.S. Senator from Nebraska from 1877 to 1883. Yes, the namesake for Saunders Avenue.
Fast-forward to 1848 when the U.S. acquired lands in the southwest after the Mexican War. California was applying for statehood and slavery was still the question. Henry Clay again proposed a compromise along with Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois.

This Missouri Compromise of 1850 admitted California as a free state and authorized Utah and New Mexico territories to determine their own slave status. There were several other provisions but they would unravel in short order.

Then Stephen Douglas was the architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 which created the territories with those names. The immediate purposes of the act were to open up the plains for farming (that worked out well) and to create order and stability to build a transcontinental railroad.

Railroad planners debated a northern and a southern route and the consequences of that decision were huge. As congress discussed railroad merits of the routes, the issue of slavery in the new territories again crept into those discussions and then dominated.

The Nebraska rail route was popular but much of its support came from southerners who were adamant about slavery. Missouri Senator David Atkinson famously said that “…he would rather see Nebraska ‘sink in hell’ before he would allow it to be overrun by free soilers.”

Nebraska Territory was large. It looks familiar down here in its southeast corner but the territory extended essentially from the Missouri River to the Continental Divide and north to the Canadian border. Much of the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana and some of Colorado would be later carved out of it.

Omaha was the Nebraska Territorial capitol. Two building served as capitols. (Personal note) The stones blocks from this building were used (so we were told) to build a large house (legitimately called a mansion) at 3530 “J” Street in Lincoln. Four of us Sutton college boys of the 1960’s were among eight who rented the second floor of the house from a Lincoln cop, later Chief of Police.

The first Nebraska Bill authorizing the territory was complicated as Douglas continued to walk the line between the sides of the slave issue. We could go on for many pages. The terms of the Compromise of 1920 prohibiting slavery north of the demarcation line were repealed. Residents of the territories would determine their own slave status. “Anti-Nebraska” public rallies sprung up across the northeast as opposition to the act grew.

The debate in Congress was bitter. There were filibusters and threats of violence by elected officials and all manner of shenanigans. Eventually the bill squeaked by.

The impact was disastrous on so many levels. Pro-slavery settlers poured into Kansas from Missouri to tilt local elections. Abolitionist settlers called “Jayhawkers” (did you see that coming?) came from the East and open warfare broke out leading to the name “Bleeding Kansas.” Eventually the free soilers won the population race to make Kansas a free territory.

Nebraska and Kansas Territories replaced much of the Indian Territory and quickly the Kickapoo, Delaware, Omaha, Shawnee, Otoe, Missouri, Miami, Kaskaskia and Peoria tribes were displaced.

The Democratic and Whig parties were split along geographic lines by disputes that led to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and were soon ineffective as political parties, the Whigs disappearing entirely. Stephen Douglas and former Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln conducted seven joint speaking appearances in October of 1854 discussing their differences with the act and slavery in general. That series of speeches was the precursor to Lincoln-Douglas debates when Lincoln ran for Douglas’ senate seat four years later.

The pressing need to connect the two coasts of the mid-19th Century United States was a driving force behind organizing the prairies and creating Nebraska Territory.
Kansas was admitted as a state in January, 1861, pretty much the last straw. Confederate artillery fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina on April 12th and the Civil War was on tearing the country up from 1861 until April, 1865.

Then two years after the Civil War decided the slavery issue, Nebraska was admitted as the 37th state in the Union on March 1, 1867.

It was routine congressional act.

We’ve digressed from our usual custom of talking about Sutton and Clay County history this month. We hope this article reminds you of things barely heard in school or introduces you to another important story in our past.

So during the next year up to the 150th anniversary of Nebraska statehood, be reminded that the expansion of the United States into our part of the country was a complicated and messy process with repercussions that literally tore the nation apart.

Nebraska was big part of the national conversation even before there was Cornhusker football.

Nebraska became the 37th state in the union after a tortuous period of legal, political, cultural and social turmoil culminating in the Civil War. Nebraska had a painful birth.

This article first appeared in the February, 2016 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. Contact Jarod Griess at for more information about the publication.

Along the County Line - A Local History

A recent visitor to the Sutton Museum, or two, were surprised to learn that there existed a book about Sutton history, other than the Jim Griess book about the Germans from Russia. We interpreted that to be an indication of a market for an article about “Along the County Line.”

"Along the County Line" contains hours of enjoyable reading about the early days of Sutton and surrounding Clay and Fillmore County.
There are several sources to draw on to understand the story of Sutton, Nebraska and the surrounding community.

The Clay County News has a basement newspaper morgue where copies of several county newspapers dating back to before 1900 are stacked, and sorted, sort of, and available. Those are the source for our retrospective column, “Clay County in the Rear View Mirror.”

Most county towns, Sutton excepted, published books about the town on the occasion of the centennial of the founding, settlement or other agreeable date. Ad-hoc committees did some good work to collect information and photos for Edgar, Ong, Fairfield, Harvard, Deweese, Eldorado and Spring Ranche. The Sutton Museum does not have a Clay Center book (was there one?).

The residents of Sutton, the first county town to reach 100 years of age had that date slip by without being recognized by a specific volume. Don Russell was publisher of the Clay County News when the 125th anniversary came up and he published a fine pictorial about Sutton. The title of Harvard’s book tells their story: “Harvard - 100 + 2 Years.” They almost had their centennial slip by too.

“Along the County Line” is a 200 page, large format (11 1/4” X 8 1/2”) book, published in 1968 and long out of print. It is described as the Pioneer Story of John and Ellen Sheridan in Fillmore and Clay Counties, Nebraska. Material was compiled by sisters Anne and Nellie Sheridan, daughters of the Sheridan pioneers. Two other sisters, Rita Joyce Haviland and Jeanette Joyce Motichka, nieces of the Sheridan sisters wrote the book.

Clay County Newspaperman H. C. (Howard) King published the book and in his preface when writing about Anne and Nellie said, “Their dream was for an active historical society for the Sutton area and a greater preservation of its historical lore.” The Sutton Historical Society, the Sutton Museum, our weekly newspaper column and articles in this magazine are all inspired by their dream and by other like-minded Suttonites.

“Along the County Line” is a five-part book, each part introduced by one of the nearly 50 poems in the book many from the pen of Anne Sheridan. The book broadly follows the story of the Sheridan family, broadly enough to include a wide swath of history and the early story of those along the Fillmore-Clay county line.

The story begins with John Sheridan’s birth in the town of Castlepollard in the land-locked county of
John Sheridan (1850-1936) drawn
by his daughter Anne.
Westmeath near the middle of Ireland. Oddly, Google Earth seems to offer only a low-resolution view of the area around Castlepollard but Street View operates normally enabling the virtual drive around town spotting inviting pubs, and other sights.

John was 21 years old in 1871 when local politics favored self-rule championed by the Fenian movement. Sheridan family lore has it that John was the youngest member of a local Fenian group when he was stopped and questioned by British authorities. His Fenian friends may have been worried John would be watched and suggested he go to London to work for a time.

Crewmen on the ship to England told John about prospects in American. He used his funds for passage and arrived in New York on May 15, 1871.

He worked in Troy, New York, accepted an invitation from relatives in Decatur, Illinois (met a young girl) then other relatives told him about Nebraska. John checked out Nebraska, returned to Illinois for Ellen Sheehy and soon Mr. and Mrs. John Sheridan were farming near Exeter. And the stage was set.

One paragraph tells of the furnishings of the new household:

“In this first home there was not much furniture, two beds, one a trundle that could be rolled under the larger bed during the day, a cradle for rocking the baby, and a fine walnut wardrobe cabinet made from trees grown on the John Sheehy farm in Illinois. Ellen’s father had given it to her as a wedding gift. He had cut the trees, hauled them to the sawmill to be sawed into boards, then he built the cabinet, using no nails, just had hewed wooden pegs. It was a treasured piece of furniture that went with the young couple into each of their homes. Today it is a priceless heirloom.”

About a year ago, a Sheridan relative living in Oregon brought that walnut wardrobe cabinet back home to Sutton donating it to the Sutton Museum. Today it is a priceless heirloom on display for all to see and enjoy.

The first part of the book is called “Smoke Trails” and is introduced by an Anne poem in memory of her father – seems he smoked a pipe.

Ellen (Sheehy) Sheridan (1858-1923)
on the occasion of her 18th birthday.
The balance of Part 1 describes the deep background of our area and what the Sheridan’s found when they arrived. The trails, Oregon, Chisholm, cattle trails, etc. get a mention. The way stations of early Clay County and the history of the Indian War of 1864 covers the kidnappings we’re familiar with.

It is in Part 1 where we’re introduced to the first newspaper quote appearing in the book – a Sutton Times item from 1874 describing the death of Marion J. Littlefield at the hands of a band of about 50 Sioux.

Part 2 is called “Bless This Nebraska Land” and begins with Anne Sheridan’s poem about her mother, Ellen Sheehy Sheridan. It revisits the earliest part of the Sheridan story, this time from the viewpoint of the Sheehy family then moves west for early Clay and Fillmore County history.

Much of the material about our early history has appeared in multiple publications. This part includes “First Happenings” sections for both counties. The Andreas history of Nebraska in 1882 captured much of the details of the early days and we have the Hamilton and Clay County History by George Burr and O. O. Buck in 1921 were details were repeated and either supplemented or updated. This book draws on and re-organizes much of that material adding stories from interviews and other sources.

The James Blaine account of the Indian Wars appeared in early newspapers and is included here. Fillmore County’s comparable account is by its first judge, Judge Wm. H. Blain.

“A Sod Home in the West” is the theme for Part 3. A series of photos of dugouts, soddies and town scenes illustrate this section. The book is a treasure of old photos, some you may have seen in our column and earlier articles.

The Sheridan’s began farming near Exeter before buying their farm near Sutton. We get a flavor of the early life in both towns. Four Sheridan children, William, Mary, John and Ellen (Nellie) were born on the farm near Exeter. Anne and Edna were born after a move to the Grafton-Sutton neighborhood.

Anne and Nellie Sheridan were joined by younger sister Edna as school teachers in Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming. The stories of country schools are generously covered in multiple places in the book. Clay County District #13 was their growing-up school and a teaching assignment. District #55 near Fairfield was the country school of one branch of the family. That school building is now part of the Sutton Museum.

A section in this part addresses the religion of the Indians and tells about several early churches in this area.

Part 4, called “Memories” is all about the plight of early farmer in Clay and Fillmore Counties. It is first, the story of the John Sheridan family coming to Nebraska, establishing a farm and raising six kids. But that story is only the centerline of the road lined with stories, quotes and photos of others in that situation.

John Sheridan began to buy the homestead of Aden Sherwood in Section 30 of Bennett Township in 1891. Family lore details the struggle to first clear a loan against the farm then find financing to buy the farm with its small two-room house about 5 miles southeast of Sutton.

This section traces the lives of the six children. William became a prominent Sutton businessman – implements and Fords. Mary homesteaded near Pine Bluffs, Wyoming with her husband Timothy Joyce. Two of Mary’s daughters used the compilations of their aunts to write “Along the County Line.”

John Sheridan Sr. with his Percheron horse “Renford.”
“Percheron” is French for “really big,” maybe.
John became the family farmer expanding his holdings in rural Sutton.

Ellen (Nellie), Anne and Edna were the younger half of the family. Edna married a Wyoming fellow, Charles Lacy and after living in both states, returned to Sutton. Nellie and Anne wrote a fascinating story in their lives, besides researching our book here. Nellie joined a contingent of relatives and friends who headed to Wyoming when homestead land opened up. Nellie had her own homestead with teaching as her day job eventually “proving up” her claim. Anne was short of the minimum homesteader’s age but joined her sister teaching in the Cowboy State.

The balance of Part 4 illustrates the balance of the book’s thrust of using the Sheridan family story to illustrate the broader experiences of early day Nebraskans. There is an overview of farmers’ organizations, economic conditions and accounts from several settlers.

The fifth and final part of the book has been the most useful part for us trying to tell Sutton’s story. The title is “Unrecorded History’ and included many of Sutton’s stories that may well have remained unrecorded but for this book.

Cedar Hill farm in 1899. Mary, John and William standing in back. Edna, Ellen (mother), Anne, John Sheridan (father) and Nellie in front. Anne’s kitten was not identified.
Anne and Nellie recorded stories about Luther French, the Brown family, John Maltby, the Germans from Russia and other early Sutton settlers.

Uriah Oblinger’s letters to his wife in Indiana written as he started his homestead near, but before the Sheridan arrival would have been hard to find if not included here. Several other area stories came to light in these pages.

We recommend “Along the County Line” to anyone with an interest in Sutton history. The Sutton library has two copies. There is a copy at the museum where people have been known to spend a few minutes checking out specific topics. (The museum has a second copy, but that one typically is within arm’s reach of your author, often consulted.)

It may not be clear what the objective Anne and Nellie and their two nieces had in publishing “Along the County Line.” Best guess: they were writing the story of the extended Sheridan family. What happened, either intentionally or because the story naturally expanded, is that they produced an excellent account of the story of settlement and development of Sutton and the rural area to the southeast.

The title of the book best fits the second suggestion above. If I could ask one question of the authors it would be, “Could it be that the title was selected only after the work was done?”

Nellie reading a letter, at the mailbox. The U.S. Postal Service was the only contact with distant relatives and friends pre-phone, pre-email, pre-text. Rural families watched for the mailman and an important letter could not wait for the walk to the house.

 This article first appeared in the January, 2016 issue of Sutton Life Magazine.


Sutton Centennial Sketch

The committee named in this sketch wrote a history of Clay County which was delivered by Dr. Martin Clark at the Centennial celebration in the Sutton Park on July 4, 1876.

This history of the county was written just six years after Luther French homesteaded the 80 acres that became the north part of Sutton and just five years after the first stream of settlers and townspeople arrived starting in the spring of 1871.

1916 Sutton Humor

This bit of newspaper filler appeared in The Sutton Register on February 17, 1916. Any comments?

Early Sutton Humor

Bill Dickson - Jay Leno writer from Saronville

The February 28, 1991 issue of The Clay County News carried this story of a local part-time writer for Jay Leno...

Sutton Commercial Club started in 1906

The Sutton News carried this story on March 30, 1906 indicating that the Sutton Commercial Club was organizied at that time.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Clay County, Nebraska - The Early Years, The Very Early Years

Clay County was named for Henry Clay, a Kentucky politician.
This portrait of a young Clay is a surprise - most of his portraits
were of an old fellow.

One of the first civilizing forces on the frontier was the arrival of government to bring order from chaos. The state’s assignment of counties marched west with the first settlers. The arrival of that first government held a promise of a future for those settlers.

The formation of Clay County and the settlement of this 576 square miles both had sputtering starts. The first appearance of a Clay County in Nebraska was as part of Pierce County in 1855, then territory south of Weeping Water stretching from the Missouri River and to the west for 100 miles. The specific portion that was called Clay County was between Lancaster and Gage counties on the eastern edge of the grid of square counties that reaches out here to Adams and Webster.

Someone pushed through the idea to dissolve that Clay County and attach the north twelve square miles to the south end of Lancaster County and put the south half into Gage County. That action was formalized on February 15, 1864 by territorial legislation. Three years later in 1867 the current Clay County was established where we now live.

Officials were persistent in seeing that Henry Clay was recognized by some county in the state. Henry Clay (1777-1852) was a Kentucky politician known as one of the great orators of the senate. He was a member of the Democratic-Republican party running for that party’s nomination for president in 1824. He founded the Whig party and ran again for president. Abraham Lincoln was the leader of the Whig party in Illinois and a great admirer of Clay.

Clay was associated with the West as he sought to diffuse the conflict concerning the admission of slave and free states in the west. He worked out the Compromise of 1850 and was credited with postponing the Civil War for ten years. Many believed that had there been someone like Clay around in 1860 there may not have been a Civil War at all, maybe.

Ole Buck and George Buck edited a 1921 History
of Hamilton and Clay Counties.

We have several sources for information about early Clay County. George Burr and O. O. Buck published a two-volume History of Hamilton and Clay Counties in 1921 with detailed information which has been recycled in later accounts since. County Agent George Woosley compiled “The Story of Clay County” in 1969. And there are additional sources that mainly cover specific topics.

The settlement of Clay County was as rocky as the story of the legal designation of the county, really, more so.

The first people in Clay County were Indians – mainly Pawnee, some Sioux and others from surrounding areas. Spanish explorers came near, French trappers visited the Missouri River and likely the Platte and could have wandered off that track. Lewis and Clark passed by on the Missouri River heading north in 1804 and back again two years later. Mountain men headed through the plains to find beaver and other pelts during the first half of the 1800’s.

The Mormon migration began in 1847 leading a steady stream of followers along the north side of the Platte for the next few years. Gold was discovered in California in 1848 and by the next year, the “Forty-Niners” came through in a bit of a hurry, generally on the south side of the Platte. But Nebraska was just a long path for those folks.

Editor S. A. Fischer of The Sutton News printed a three-part article called “Early Days in Nebraska” in August, 1915 issues of his paper. He referenced an earlier article in the Fairfield Auxiliary which identified the Salt Lake Express as the first mail service through this area in 1858. That company established stations every fifty miles and passed through the southwest corner of the county on the “St. Joe Trail.” The Express used a stage called a “mud wagon” with six mules, a driver and a “whip-up” – a fellow who rode a horse along-side to push the mules’ pace.

The Salt Lake Express was in operation as the Pikes Peak Gold Rush hit its peak but it proved too slow for mail and passenger demands and was replaced by the Ben Halliday Overland Stage Line. This line was a bigger deal with a sound infrastructure and lots more capital. The line had stagecoaches, horses, drivers, many more stations with station keepers and a supply chain for food for men and livestock. Again, passing through southwest Clay County.

We need to interrupt this survey of freight and passenger services for the iconic enterprise of the time, the Pony Express. Officially called the Leavenworth and Pike’s Peak Express Company in 1859 it became the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company in 1860. The system operated for just 19 months, from April 1860 to October 1861. You can remember the date knowing that news of Abraham Lincoln’s election reached California via the Pony Express.
The overland express companies and the pony express followed the route of the St. Joe Trail, later called the Oregon Trail.
Liberty Farm Station was in Southwest Clay County. The Fairfield station on this map was far west of the town of Fairfield.

The Overland Stage Line and the Pony Express used the same route passing near Deweese and Spring Ranch. Stations were twenty-five miles apart including Liberty Farms just west of Deweese, Kiowa Ranch to the east in Thayer County and 32 Mile Creek station about five miles southwest of Hastings.

The time to get a message from the Atlantic to the Pacific dropped to 10 days during this period. Almost 35,000 letters were sent from St. Joe to Sacramento. Postage was five dollars for a half ounce letter dropping to a buck at the end. (Onion-skin paper was an answer to that weight/cost problem.) Very few artifacts remain from the Pony Express including only 250 examples of mail.

Two main factors account for the close of the pony express: the beginning of the Civil War and the telegraph.

All these names run together as the founders of the Pony Express, Wm. Russell, Alexander Majors and William Waddell had their own freight line and in 1866 bought out Ben Halliday’s (or Holladay) company forming a company called Wells Fargo which later did some banking. Yes, Deweese, Spring Ranch and Clay County connected with that story.

The route we’re are talking about here was referred to in that 1915 Sutton newspaper as the St. Joe Trail though it acknowledges that when it came time to erect monuments, the name “Oregon Trail” became common.

So by the early 1860’s there were settlements in the southwest corner of Clay County supporting transcontinental traffic.

A few of the several books that relate the story of the early
days of Clay County.
A valuable source of Clay County’s next chapter is in the account of James Bainter that appeared in The Fairfield News in 1889.

James Bainter acquired his ranch in January, 1864 from the Roper brothers whose uncle had built it in 1860 near Liberty Farm along the St. Joe Trail. He brought his family and settled in. This was after the close of the pony express but still a time of heavy traffic; Bainter claimed there was an average of 300 teams passing through each day. That’s what he said – 300 teams a day.

James Bainter wrote that during the spring of 1864 larger numbers of the Sioux hunting parties visited trading their pelts for goods and also paying cash for supplies. About the first of August he noticed the Sioux were becoming “sulky and ill-natured.” He sent word up and down the trail about his concerns, and fears.

On August 7th the Plains Indians began the only widespread, multi-tribe coordinated attack on white settlements that happened in the history of the west. Mainly Sioux and Northern Cheyenne but also involving Cheyenne and Arapaho bands attacked from Julesburg, Colorado to the Big Sandy here in Clay and Nuckolls counties and further east down the Little Blue River. It was a two hundred and fifty mile long battlefront, a significant military operation for anyone’s army.

Sometimes called the Cheyenne War of 1864 – a big part of the Indians’ last stand against white settlements – there were five major incidents which warranted names: The Little Blue River Raid, Eubank Homestead, Plum Creek Massacre, Little Blue/Oak Grove Station and the Kiowa Ranch Station. These all occurred between August 7 and the 10th.
Laura Roper (age 16) and three young children were turned over to the army by Indians at a council near the Smoky Hill River. Miss Roper and Belle Eubanks on the right had been captured at the Little Blue River near Oak.

About 100 were killed including settlers, those on wagon trains, station operators, etc. All communications through the Republican and Blue River valleys was cut. The Colorado Territorial Legislature authorized a militia of 700 men on a 100-day enlistment to track down the attackers resulting in the Sand Creek Massacre in late November when a village of friendly Cheyenne and Arapahos was nearly wiped out with about 170 deaths (you’ll find estimates to 400) about two-thirds women and children.

The details of the Cheyenne War are left for another time. The town of Oak holds an afternoon of re-enactments every few years of events at four sites in that neighborhood.

James Bainter and his family survived the attacks in a story worthy of twice the text in this article. The Bainters and other Clay County settlers abandoned the enterprise returning back east and Clay County was again unsettled. The wagon train period had waned, the army was busy finishing off the Confederacy and rational behavior dictated other plans.

By 1870 things had calmed down. The war was over, the army could concentrate on security of the west, soldiers had returned home to find farm land taken and the plains settlement project resumed.

James Bainter returned to Spring Ranch and found his claim jumped by Tom Smith of Marysville, Kansas. He regained the claim shortly. Other settlers had moved in and more followed.

Meanwhile in the northeast corner of the county Luther French and five Swedes had staked out their homesteads that same year in territory where the towns of Sutton and Saronville would soon develop.

Clay County had been formally established in 1867 and now Acting Governor William Hartford James ordered that settlers organize themselves. (James was in office following the impeachment of the state’s first governor David Butler, but that too is another story.)

Clay County citizens met October 14, 1871 at the home of Alexander Campbell northwest of Harvard. A full complement of county officers was elected and Sutton chosen as the county seat.

The first county commissioners were A. K. Marsh, P. O. Norman and A. A. Corey. Marsh was elected chairman of the board at their first meeting on November 4th. The fellows organized three precincts for the county. School Creek was the east half of the county, Harvard was the northwest quarter and the southwest quarter became Little Blue Precinct.
The Oak Town Book told the story of the
part of the Indian War of 1864 that happened
near the town.

So after a bumpy start to organize our county in this location and to populate the territory, Clay County was off and running.

There are options when recounting history and certainly so in Clay County’s history. We have multiple accounts to draw on – that’s good. The multiple accounts don’t always agree on what happened – that’s not so good.

We’ve been judicious in avoiding many of the contested details, sticking to the general story and including details that seem to be agreed on. Every time someone tells a story like this, as we’ve done here, there’s a danger that untruths that have slipped in will soon be retold as an authoritative account. So if you’ve heard a version which varies from this one, okay. It’s another opportunity for some clever and ambitious person to locate primary sources that may be more likely to be factual. Have at it. Let us know what you find. Maybe we’ll meet someday in the library or the court house or in somebody’s attic treasure.