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.

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