"History and Stories of Nebraska"
by Addison Erwin Sheldon

Produced by Connie Snyder

CHAPTER VI (cont.)


The Great Missouri Flood.-- The year 1881 was the year of the great high water in the Missouri River. An ice gorge formed at a bend in the river in Dixon County, damming the waters and making a great lake which drove hundreds of farmers from their homes and completely flooded the town of Niobrara. When the flood finally passed away, the people of Niobrara moved their town to a new site above high water, three miles from its old location. There it is to-day. This year is known along the Missouri River as the year of the "Great Flood."

The Omaha Strike and the State Militia.-- On February 27, 1882, several hundred laborers engaged in moving dirt at Omaha went on a strike. Riots followed and on March 12th, the Governor called out the state militia, which camped in Omaha several weeks. Their camp was called "Camp Dump." In a scuffle between the soldiers and strikers one striker was killed. An extra session of the legislature was called to vote money for paying the soldiers.

Gov. James W. Dawes.
(From Clements collection.)

Governor James W. Dawes.-- In 1882 James W. Dawes, Republican, of Crete, was elected governor and re-elected in 1884. His term was marked by the final struggle between homesteaders and cattlemen in western Nebraska. How to handle the state school lands became a prominent question during this period and continued to be for a number of years.

The Free Land Period.-- The great movement of settlers west was helped by the changes in the land laws. A settler in Nebraska in 1854 could take 160 acres and after living on it six months, buy it from the United States for $1.25 an acre. This was called a pre-emption. In 1863, the homestead law went into effect. Under this a settler could take 160 acres and have it free by living upon it five years. In 1873 the timber claim act was passed. Under it one could get 160 acres by planting 10 acres of it to trees and taking care of them for eight years. All three of these laws were in force from 1873 to 1891, and under them a settler could in a few years get 480 acres of land.

A Western Cattle Range.
(From S. D. Butcher collection.)

The Struggle between the Grangers and the Cattlemen.-- There were conflicts between the cattlemen, whose great herds fed on free pasture, and the grangers, as the settlers were called, who came to farm. Cattlemen began to go into western Nebraska between 1865 and 1875. Their ranches were located where there was the best grass and plenty of water. These ranches were many miles apart. All the cattle were turned loose summer and winter and allowed to find feed and water where it best suited them. The cattle of different ranches ran together on the ranges. Each ranchman knew his own cattle because they were marked with his brand. Once a year, all the cattlemen in a district drove the cattle together and branded each calf with the brand of the cow which it followed. This was called the roundup. The grass on the plains died on its roots in the late summer of each year so that the frost did not kill it. Thus the country in the fall and winter was one great free haystack and a very cheap and easy place to raise cattle.

A Frontier Nebraska Granger.
(From S. D. Butcher collection.)

When the grangers first began to settle on the cattle ranges of western Nebraska, the cattlemen told them that it was too dry there to farm, that they had been there for years and that the country dried up every summer and was fit only for cattle-ranges. The grangers did not believe them. They saw the beautiful, smooth prairie free for homesteads to all who would take them and they kept on coming in. Two things combined to help the homesteaders in their struggle for western Nebraska during the period between 1880 and 1890. First the hard winters of 1880-81 and 1883-84. Deep snow fell on the cattle-ranges; prolonged cold weather followed. Thousands of cattle died and many cattlemen were ruined. Then came several years of abundant summer rainfall. The grangers grew splendid crops of all kinds on the high plains where the cattlemen told them no rain ever fell after the 4th of July. So the whole of western Nebraska was quickly settled with farmers.

Gov. John M. Thayer.
(From Clements collection.)

Governor John M. Thayer.-- In 1886 General John M. Thayer, Republican, of Grand Island, was chosen governor and again in 1888. During his term the settlement of neglected parts of the state, especially the sandhill region, went rapidly forward. The present state capitol was completed during his term.

The Great " Q " Strike.-- The year 1888 is noted for the great Burlington strike. At a given signal on February 27th, practically all the engineers and firemen on that railroad left their engines, demanding an increase of pay. This strike lasted throughout the summer, causing great loss to the railroad, to the workmen and to the people of the state. The railroad company brought in new men from the East to take the places of the strikers and finally won. This strike, which extended over all the lines of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad, is known as the "Great Q Strike."

Nebraska State Capitol in 1889.
(From photograph by U. G. Cornell.)

Horse Stealing and Vigilance Committees.-- In every period of Nebraska's history, there has been some stealing of horses and cattle along the frontier, and the settlers there have organized to protect their stock and punish the thieves. Hanging was the usual punishment for stealing stock in border settlements. "Vigilance committees" was the name usually given to the settlers' clubs for their own protection. The members of such committees solemnly promised to help each other and to punish thieves. Cattle and horses were stolen on a large scale after 1880 when settlements pushed into the far Northwest. The deep canyons and the sand hills made convenient places for hiding stock, until it could be run out of the country. Vigilance committees were organized by the settlers throughout this frontier region. There were numerous fights between the settlers and the thieves. "Kid Wade," a leader of the horse thieves, was hung to a telegraph pole at Bassett in 1884, and "Doc Middleton," another, was shot and afterwards sent to the penitentiary. This war between the "rustlers," as the stock thieves were called, and the settlers lasted nearly twenty years, and ended only when the building of railroads, telegraph and telephone lines drove the rustlers out of the state.

The Great Drought.-- Then came the year of the great drought, 1890. No rain fell for weeks. Not only in western Nebraska, but over the whole state and other western states, this was true. Nearly all the crops were failures. In the older parts of Nebraska there were hard times, but the people had something saved from former years and managed to get along. In western Nebraska many of the people had spent all they had in getting settled on their farms. There was great suffering all over the West. When the legislature met in 1891, it appropriated $200,000 with which to buy food and seed for the settlers. On July 26, 1894, a hot wind from the southwest again ruined the corn crop and injured other crops. The legislature of 1895 appropriated $250,000 more to aid the settlers in the western part of the state. In spite of this, thousands were discouraged and left their homes to find work elsewhere.

The Panic of 1893 -- Hard Times Again.-- A great panic came in 1893 while western Nebraska was being settled, just as the panic of 1873 came when eastern Nebraska was being settled. Banks broke, factories shut down, merchants failed all over the country. Prices of farmers' produce again fell to the lowest point and, although food was so cheap, working men in the cities could scarcely buy enough to keep from starving, because they had no work. Thousands of men out of employment gathered in armies and marched across the country to Washington to demand that Congress should give them work. In Nebraska whole townships in the western part were deserted so that one could ride all day finding nothing but empty houses and fields growing up to weeds. These hard times lasted from 1890 until about 1900.

A Farmers' Alliance Convention.
(From S. D. Butcher collection.)

The Farmers' Alliance.-- During the years 1880 to 1890, a society called the Farmers' Alliance had spread over Nebraska and other western and southern states. Its objects as stated were to better the condition of farmers, to help them to buy and sell on better terms, to conduct evening schools for the instruction of members in the science of exchange and government and to furnish means of social entertainment. The chief complaint of the Farmers Alliance was that those who handled what the farmer had to sell took the larger part of what he produced for themselves and that those who made and sold what the farmer had to buy, charged him an exorbitant price. The farmers also claimed that there was a combine of the moneyed interests, including the great banks, the railroads, the manufacturers, and merchants, to rob the rest of the people of what they produced. It was also claimed that these large interests conspired to control both of the great political parties and through them to elect men to office who were in favor of the capitalists.

Congressman O. M. Kem of Custer County at Home.
(First Congressman in United States Elected from a Sod House.)
(From S. D. Butcher collection.)

The Political Revolution of 1890.-- In the year 1890 the dissatisfaction of the farmers of the West and South took form in a great political movement which was hastened by the work of education and organization of the Farmers' Alliance and by the very general debt and distress of the farmers. In a single campaign the united farmers broke away from both of the old parties and over a large part of the West and the South, defeated their candidates for office, electing men of the new movement. In Nebraska, the campaign of 1890 will long be remembered. As there were no crops to harvest, the farmers gathered by thousands in great open air meetings to talk over their grievances and to plan how to remove them. Orators of the common people addressed these meetings, talking to acres of eager faces amid great enthusiasm. Many new speakers, both men and women, first found their powers in the excitement of this time. There were processions of wagons many miles long, filled with sunburned men, women and children with home-made banners and mottoes expressing their feelings. There were songs with home made words and music such as "Goodby Old Party, Goodby," sung with great energy and greeted with enthusiastic applause.

Governor James E. Boyd.
(From Clements collection.)

The Contest. Governor James E. Boyd.-- When the votes were counted after the November, 1890, election, it was found that the farmers' movement had elected a majority of both houses of the legislature in Nebraska, and the election of governor was so close that a contest resulted. When the legislature met in Lincoln in January, 1891, excitement ran high. After a struggle of some days, the Democratic candidate, Jas. E. Boyd, of Omaha, was seated. A bill passed both houses reducing railroad rates in Nebraska. It was vetoed by Governor Boyd. A bill was passed, adopting the Australian secret ballot by means of which a man might vote his convictions without the knowledge of any other person.

The Pine Ridge Indian War.-- The last Indian troubles on the Nebraska border came during the dry decade of hard times. The Sioux Indians, who once roamed over all western Nebraska as their hunting ground, had given up that country to the whites and were settled in South Dakota along the northern border of Nebraska. The buffalo and nearly all of the other game had been killed. The old-time Indians had nothing to do. The young men grew up in idleness. The United States tried to teach them farming and stock-raising, but only a very few were willing to be taught. The dry season of 1890 burned up the little patches of corn and garden which the Indians planted. They gathered in the shade along the little streams and listened to the old people's stories of the time when the Sioux lived a free, open life, hunting buffalo and fighting their enemies, and the white men were far away. An Indian came from the Rocky Mountains telling the Sioux that the Great Spirit had heard their troubles, that the white men were about to be driven back, and the buffalo, deer and antelope would return and cover the plains.

The Ghost Dance.-- The Indians began to dance the ghost dance, going without food for two or three days, then steaming themselves in little huts by pouring water upon hot stones, then coming out to dance in great companies. As they danced, they saw visions of wonderful good things coming to them. These ghost dances were kept up by the Sioux during the summer and fall of 1890.

Battle of Wounded Knee.-- On December 28, 1890, a party of about 400 Sioux under Chief Big Foot were halted on their march to Pine Ridge by the 7th cavalry. The next morning Colonel Forsyth started to take away their guns when some one fired a shot and in a moment the battle was on. Thirty-two soldiers and one hundred and fifty-six Indians were killed, many of the latter being women and children. This is called the battle of Wounded Knee and took place a short distance from the Nebraska line in South Dakota. The United States hurried several thousand soldiers to the scene and the Nebraska militia was called out to guard our northern border. After several other skirmishes during the winter, the Indians came in and surrendered and thus ended what is probably the last Indian war in the history of the United States.

Gov. Lorenzo Crounse.
(From Clements collection.)

Governor Lorenzo Crounse.-- Lorenzo Crounse, Republican, of Ft. Calhoun, was elected governor in 1892, and declined to be a candidate for re-election. During his term, many banks failed and some of the state money was lost in them. There was an impeachment trial of three state officers for mis-use of state money. Over a million dollars of public money from the sale of school lands was supposed to be in the state treasury and Governor Crounse made efforts to have it invested where it would bring interest for support of the schools of the state.

Gov. Silas A. Holcomb.
(From Clements collection.)

Governor Silas A. Holcomb. State School Money Stolen.-- In 1894, Silas A. Holcomb, Populist, of Broken Bow, was elected governor and re-elected in 1896. Populist or People's Independent was the name given to the party which grew out of the farmers' movement. During his term the struggle over the use of the school money of the state went on. In the end it was found that over half a million dollars of the school money had been lost or stolen, some of it in broken banks, and some by state officers. J. S. Bartley, state treasurer, was tried, convicted and sentenced to the penitentiary for twenty years for his part in this loss. Mr. Bartley always asserted that the money was lost or stolen by others.

The State School Lands.--When Nebraska became a state, the United States gave to it, for public schools, the sections of land in every township numbered 16 and 36, in all about 3,000,000 acres. The state of Nebraska pledged the United States that it would never lose any of this land or the price of it when sold. The rent from the land and the interest from the money received for it was to be paid every year to the districts for the support of public schools. A little over 1,000,000 acres of this land has been sold. Part of the money has been lost or stolen and never replaced. In 1897, an act of the legislature forbade further sale of this land. The state has now about 1,800,000 acres of school land which cannot be sold and which is rising in value every year. The rental from this land and the interest on the $8,000,000, which remains of the money the state has received from the land sold, goes every year to pay the teachers in Nebraska schools. No other state in the Union has larger prospects for the future support of its schools than has Nebraska.

Changes in the Political Parties. Free Silver.-- In these years there were many changes in politics. A part of the Democratic party tended to unite with the new People s Independent party, or Populists, while another part of the Democrats was inclined to aid the Republican party in order to prevent the triumph of the new movement. In both the Republican and Democratic parties there was a division at this time. The immediate cause of the division was the question whether or not the free coinage of silver dollars at the ratio of sixteen grains of silver to one of gold should be carried on by the United States mint. There were a number of other questions involved in the struggle, but free silver, as it was called, became the war cry in a nation-wide contest. In this conflict Nebraska was suddenly called to play the leading part.

William Jennings Bryan in 1896.
(Coutesy of U. G. Cornell.)

William J. Bryan of Nebraska Named for President.-- In June, 1896, the Democratic national convention at Chicago declared for free silver and named William J. Bryan of Nebraska as its candidate for president. The Populist national convention at St. Louis in July also nominated Mr. Bryan. The Republican national convention declared against free silver and nominated William McKinley of Ohio for president. Free silver Republicans left their party and also nominated Mr. Bryan. Gold standard Democrats bolted and opposed Mr. Bryan. The campaign of 1896 which followed was the most exciting in the United States for many years. It was the first time a candidate for president had ever been named by one of the great parties from a state west of the Mississippi river. In Nebraska, the contest was fierce and close. Never before were so many political meetings held here and never before were so many of the greatest political speakers of the country heard in this state. At the election in November, Nebraska gave a majority of about 13,000 for Mr. Bryan for president, and elected the entire Populist-Democrat state ticket including a majority of both houses of the legislature. Since this memorable campaign, Nebraska has had a large place and leadership in national politics.

Gov. William A. Poynter.
(From Clements collection.)

Governor William A. Poynter.-- In 1898 William A. Poynter, Populist, of Boone County, was elected governor. The Trans-Mississippi exposition was held at Omaha during his term. It was the first great exposition held in this region and it brought to Nebraska exhibits and visitors from all parts of the world.

Nebraska in the Spanish War.-- In 1898 the United States went to war with Spain, in order to make Cuba free. Nebraska sent three regiments to this war. The First Nebraska sailed to the Philippine Islands and was gone more than a year. Colonel Stotsenberg, its commander, was killed in battle. Many Nebraskans remained in the Philippines or have since gone there to help maintain our flag in those islands. The Second Nebraska regiment under Col. C. J. Bills, was sent to the great camp at Chattanooga, Tennessee, and became part of the army in reserve until the war ended. The Third Nebraska regiment under Colonel William J. Bryan, was sent to Florida and afterward crossed to Havana.

Gov. Chas. H. Dietrich.
(From Clements collection.)

The Republican Party Returns to Power. Governor Chas. H. Dietrich.-- From 1896 until 1900, the Nebraska state elections were carried each year by a fusion of Populists, Democrats and silver Republicans. Disputes arose among these parties and the Republicans, making a great effort in the campaign of 1900, carried the state by a small majority, electing Chas. H. Dietrich of Hastings, as governor. Governor Dietrich remained in that office only about four months. When the legislature, which was elected with him, met in January, 1901, there followed a fierce and bitter struggle over the election of two United States senators. The Republicans had a majority in the legislature but could not agree. After an all winter's fight all the candidates withdrew and Governor Dietrich with J. H. Millard, of Omaha, were chosen senators.