The first explorers of Madison County of whom we have any account, were two Germans from Jefferson County, Wisconsin, who left their homes September 1, 1865, to look for new homes in Nebraska. They came here by way of St. Joseph, Missouri, Omaha, Elkhorn City, Fontanelle and West Point. Here they hired a team to take them to the North Fork of the Elkhorn. Eight miles above West Point, the most advanced settler was found. Passing on, they reached their destination September 15. These two pioneers were Herman Braasch and Frederick Wagner.
After selecting a location for a colony with which they were satisfied, they returned to Wisconsin to spend the winter in preparations for removal in the spring. On the 14th of May, 1866, twenty-four families, consisting in the aggregate of about one hundred and twenty-five persons, started for Madison County, Nebraska, from their former homes in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, under the leadership of Herman Braasch. On the 4th of July, they reached West Point, Cuming County, and on the 17th of July, 1866, having built numerous bridges across streams they could not ford, they arrived at the present site of Norfolk, on the North Fork of the Elkhorn, four miles above its confluence with the main stream. The names of some of these men who came out with Mr. Braasch, were Martin Braasch, Gottlieb Rorke, Charles Ninow, William Ruhlow and William Winter. Upon arriving at their destination, they found a small party of young men from Illinois, already settled on the ground; these young men had reached there in May preceding. Their names were William A. Barnes, L. D. Barnes, William H. Bradshaw, D. L. Allen and Matthias Kerr. These young men being Americans, did not desire to live with the Germans, so prepared to seek a more congenial settlement. Matthias Kerr, holding a claim along the North Fork, containing 160 acres, in the form of a rectangle four times as long as wide, sold his right to Herman Braasch for $200. The colonists then arranged themselves on either side of the creek, on quarter-sections of the same shape as Kerr‘s, but endwise to the creek, so that a compact settlement might be formed, that each man’s stock might have easy access to water, and that it might be easy for the whole colony to collect on either side of the stream, in case of an attack upon them by the Indians.
The first rude survey of these lands was made by William Sharpe, using a pocket compass and a pair of harness lines. After the laying-out of the claims, the selection was made by lot, each settler taking as his, the 160 acres corresponding in number to the number on a slip of paper drawn by him, blindfolded, out of a hat. Thus did this colony of honest Germans recognize the equality of each with the others in his rights, and thus were many possible future bickering, quarrels and envying prevented.
While these preliminaries were being arranged, the families lived in their wagons, as they continued to do, while log houses were built. This was not so arduous a task as in some localities, for there was plenty of cottonwood timber on the Elkhorn about a mile to the south. All had neat comfortable log houses ready for occupancy before the approach of winter, which proved to be very severe.
In 1867, Samuel H. and A J. Thatch settled on the Elkhorn, south of Norfolk.
In the year 1867, Frederick Wagner returned to Madison County, accompanied by Frederic Lukas, Ferdinand Pasawalk and others. The settlement continued to grow and prosper. Herman Braasch, in the spring of 1877, sowed fourteen acres of wheat on land that Matthias Kerr had broken the previous year, from which he reaped 185 bushels, selling it for $1.50 per bushel.
In December, 1866, Henry M. Barnes, Frank W. Barnes and William J. Barnes made a selection of a place to locate, on Union Creek, where Madison now stands, and, May 3, 1867, made their settlement. They were followed by P. J. Barnes, Henry Hill, Horace Severance, William Bickley, Thomas R. Bickley, Henry Platts, Charles Huylar and others in 1867; and, in 1868, by Peter H. H. Fedderman, William Ellis, B. C. Hicks, Henry Maurer, Sr., John Maurer and Henry Maurer, Jr., Philip Schwartze, Henry C. Brown and others, all of whom settled on or near Union Creek.
On Shell Creek, in the southwestern part of the county, Capt. O. O Austin was a squatter sovereign, built a log house on a piece of land and remained about a year, being thus the first settler in the county who may be looked upon as in any degree permanent; though John Bloomfield, who came in 1868, was the first bona fide settler on this creek. William Meneice also came in 1868, and, in 1870, Niels Nelson, Anders Larsen, Newman and Lewis Warren, the latter of whom settled on Capt. Austin’s deserted land.
In 1867, a settlement was made on Battle Creek, nearly five miles above where the town of Battle Creek now stands. The first settler here was George St. Clair, or, as he was otherwise called, “Ponca George,” who came here on the 10th of January, 1867. Patrick Scully followed on the 1st of March, 1867; Benjamin Speelman, January 10, 1868; and in 1869, quite a number settled on or near the creek, most or all of them being attracted by the exceptionally fine timber growing there. This timber consisted of burr oak, red and white elm, hackberry and ash.
The settlers of 1869, came mostly from Missouri. Some of their names are the following: John and Henry Tiedgen, August Eyl and three sons, Theodore, Henry and Fritz, Heinrich Tomhagan and Henry Woste. These parties reached Battle Creek in April. Later in the same year, L. D. Barnes, Patrick O’Neill and John Ahrens settled in the vicinity.
In 1870, Bennett and Henry Stolle, W. A Barnes and others came here; and, in 1871, F. J., D. A, J. D. and J. T. Hale came to this county from Virginia, and settled between Emerick and Fairview, as also T. C. Osborn and C. H. Reeves.
In the Battle Creek School District, Miss Sarah Crooks taught the first school in the summer of 1871, a schoolhouse having been built the winter previous.
In May, 1872, the first sermon was preached in the schoolhouse by Rev. Jacob Dellinger, a Baptist clergyman.
The first birth in the settlement was that of a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Tiedgen, in the year 1870.
The first marriage was that of Heinrich Tomhagan to Miss Lena Gunkel, October 15, 1870; and the first death that of Mr. Seckel, also in 1870.
During the summer of 1871, a settler named Sidney Fuller was murdered in a field near Shell Creek. Two cattle dealers were arrested and tried, but sufficient evidence could not be found to implicate them. The mystery connected with the murder has not been solved; no subsequent attempt has been made to discover the murderer.
Source: Andreas, A. T. History of the State of Nebraska, p. 1102-1103. Chicago: The Western Historical Company. 1882.