Decatur is situated in the northeast part of the county, on the Missouri River, between Elm and Wood Creeks. The mouth of the latter is on the forty-second parallel of north latitude, the former boundary line between Burt County and the Omaha Reservation.
The first claim located near Decatur was by a Mr. Rose, in 1855, and the second by T. J. Hinman, in August 1855, who built his house of the first lumber shipped across the Missouri at this point. The town was located in the fall of the same year, by the Decatur Town and Ferry Company, this company being composed of Peter A. Sarpy, Stephen Decatur, B. R. Folsom, T. J. Hinman and others.
Col. Sarpy had an Indian trading post here in 1855, and under him Stephen Decatur and Conrad Engleman were clerks. In 1856, John Chase opened the first store. The first blacksmith was George Irwin, in the same year. The first physician to locate here was Dr. Thomas H. Whitacre, who surveyed and platted the town site. Dr. McDougall came next, but did not remain. Most of the trading done in Decatur at this time was with C. F. Porter, who was then keeping the principal store. Robert Percival was the first Postmaster, in 1857. In this year, property took a sudden rise, and acquired a speculative value considerable above its real value, owing to the fond anticipation, entertained by the people, that the Iowa Central Air-Line, now the Chicago & North-Western, would cross the Missouri at that point. Capt. S. T. Leaming, who was engineer in charge of the party surveying the line of the road, at this time purchased of Mr. Rose his claim of 320 acres, paying him there for $20 per acre in gold This transaction gave a great impetus to the sale of lots and lands in and around Decatur. Numerous town shares were valued at $1,000 each, and one share was sold for $1,100. Each share was composed of forty lots, each lot being forty-eight feet front by 145 feet deep. The railroad was, however, finally deflected, and made to cross the river at Omaha, and lands fell to their normal value.
A railroad bridge could easily and cheaply be built across the Missouri at this point, as the river is narrow, there is no soft bottomland on either side, and the solid rock is only twenty-two feet below the river bed, at the corner of the Omaha Reservation.
The Town and Ferry Company was chartered in 1856. Letters patent of the United States, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, were granted to the town of Decatur on May 1, 1862. Decatur was made a city of the second class in the fall of 1869, and reduced to a village in the spring of 1880.
The first Mayor was Capt. Silas T. Leaming, in 1858. As a village, it is now governed by a board of five Trustees.
Hon. Frank Welch was one of the early settlers, locating here in 1857. He was afterward elected to Congress from Nebraska, and died in 1878. T. J. Laughlin came here in 1858.
The first birth in Decatur was that of a daughter to O. F. Wilson, who with a Mr. Williams, kept the first hotel. The first death was that of John Gardner. A Mr. Paul, who had made a settlement just below Decatur, with the view of starting a rival town, to be called St. Paul, accidentally shot and killed himself in 1859.
To the Congregationalists belongs the credit of having organized the first religious society here, but to the Episcopalians that of having built the first church edifice. At the present time, there are four churches-one Episcopal, one Methodist, one Presbyterian and one Catholic. There are also now at Decatur the following business establishments: Six general stores, one hardware store, two blacksmith shops, two drug stores, two saw-mills and one flouring-mill, two agricultural implement depots, one bank, two law firms, two physicians and one graded school. The school building is a substantial two-story brick, with a large foursquare tower, all-resting on a foundation of concrete and costing $5,800.
There are now published in Decatur a monthly magazine entitled the Round Table, and a weekly newspaper called the Decatur Herald, both established there in the fall of 1881.
In the spring of this year, a company, composed of A. B. Fuller, W. E. Drury, George E. Atwater and some others, engaged Col. G. F. Straight to test the existence of coal in paying quantity in the strata beneath Decatur. A workable vein of good coal being found there would greatly enhance the business and prospects of the town. Boring was commenced on April 1, 1881, and on October 13, a depth of 480 feet had been reached. At a depth of seventy feet, a thin vein of lignite coal was found; and at a depth of 230 feet, a vein of good bituminous coal, four feet thick, was found, according to Col. Straight, analysis showing nearly 42 (41.85) per cent of fixed carbon.
At from 450 to 470 feet, there was encountered a sort of fine-grained water rock, that would furnish an artesian well with a pressure sufficient to throw a stream twenty feet high. And at a depth of 470 feet was found a layer of the same brown sandstone, which, at Ponca, in Dixon County, at a depth of 570 feet, was found to lie immediately on a vein of coal four and a half feet thick. It is therefore inferred that there is a stratum of good coal here immediately beneath the point of the drill.
Decatur is now the home of the Rev. William Hamilton, who, since the fall of 1837, has labored as a missionary among the Indians. With him it has been a labor of love. Some fifteen years ago, he translated into the Iowa language the Gospel of St. Matthew, with some other portions of the New Testament, and some portions of the Old Testament, which he now engaged in copying into the Omaha.
Henry Fontenelle, a brother of Logan Fontenelle, the last great Omaha chief, lives on his farm just out of Decatur, on the southeast corner of the reservation. He has considerable influence with the Omaha, and they are greatly indebted to him for the progress in agriculture they are now making.
The Decatur Herald---This paper was established December 21, 1881. It almost immediately acquired an acknowledged position and influence in the county, and rapidly increased in circulation. It is an excellent local paper, and, in politics, is emphatically Republican. It is published by Price & Neville.