Compendium of History Reminiscence and Biography of Western Nebraska

New Expeditions to the New Territory of Louisiana

The district of Louisiana was changed to the territory of Louisiana by an act of congress passed March 3, 1805, which provided for a governor, secretary and two judges. It was detached from Indian Territory and erected into a separate territory, so that Nebraska became a part of the “Territory of Louisiana.” In 1808 the Missouri Fur Company was established, and an expedition under its auspices was sent out under command of Major A. Henry. He established trading posts on the upper Missouri beyond the Rocky Mountains.

In 1805 Manuel Lisa, a wealthy Spaniard, with a party in search of trading grounds, reached the lands north of the Platte. The beauty of the scene caused him to exclaim “Bellevue,” by which name the spot has since been designated. It is the present site of Bellevue, Sarpy County, Nebraska.

In 1810 the American Fur Company, a great trading monopoly under the control of John Jacob Astor, established a trading post at Bellevue. Francis de Roin was placed in charge of the business there, and a few years later was succeeded by Joseph Robiaux. In 1842 Colonel Peter A. Sarpy became agent at Bellevue, and for thirty years he was the leading spirit in that region. In 1841 the government transferred to Bellevue the government agency which had previously been located at Fort Calhoun, or Old Council Bluffs.

The settlement of Bellevue and the establishing of a trading post there by the American Fur Company in 1810 is claimed by many writers to have been the first settlement made by whites within the limits of what is now the state of Nebraska.

By an act of congress passed June 4, 1812, the “Territory of Louisiana” became the “Territory of Missouri,” within the bounds of which were the present area of Nebraska. It provided for territorial officers and a council and House of Representatives. The members of the house were to be elected by the people. On the 19th of January, 1816, the legislature passed a law making the common law of England the law of the territory.

In 1819 an exploring expedition was started from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to the Rocky Mountains under Major Stephen H. Long, the principal object of which was a topographical description of the country visited. They came up the Missouri river and reached the mouth of the Platte River on September 15, 1819. Two days later they reached the trading establishment of the Missouri Fur Company, called Port Lisa. This was five or six miles below Council Bluffs, on the west side of the river. It was occupied by Samuel Lisa, one of the most active persons engaged in the fur trade. The expedition went into quarters for the winter about a half mile above Port Lisa on the same side of the river.

In the meantime councils had been held with various Indian tribes which eventually resulted in treaties being agreed upon. A treaty between the Otoes and the United States was proclaimed December 26, 1817; one was ratified with the Iowas and one with the Mahas December 26, 1815, and one with the Pawnees as early as January 5, 1812. A treaty was also concluded with the Pawnees Grand and proclaimed January 7, 1819; one with the Noisy Pawnee tribe on the same day, and one with the Republican Pawnees January 17, 1819. The Yankton tribe of the Sioux treaty was proclaimed July 19, 1815; the Sioux of the River St. Peter’s and those of the Lakes were proclaimed on the same day. The treaties all provided that there should be perpetual peace between the Indians and Americans, and the tribes all acknowledged themselves to be under the protection of the United States.

It will, therefore, he seen that at the time of Major Long’s visit to Nebraska all the Indian nations of the Missouri river and its tributaries as far up as the homes of the Sioux and down to the region of the mouth of the Nemaha had been treated with by the agents of the general government. Major Long held various councils with the Indians. During the winter of 1819-20 it was decided to change the course of the expedition and explore the sources of the Platte River. The expedition left “Engineer Cantonment” June 6, 1820, and reached the Elkhorn, a considerable tributary of the Platte, the next day. Soon after crossing the Elkhorn the party entered the valley of the Platte. The march was up this valley, on the north side of the stream, until the Loup Pork was reached. In this way the expedition proceeded up the Platte valley, crossing the entire state of Nebraska, following the south fork to the Rocky Mountains, visiting en route a number of the Indian villages.

Major Long’s party was the first exploring expedition ever to ascend the Platte from its mouth to the confluence of the two forks, but others had descended the river previous to that date. In 1811 a part of the men engaged in Hunt’s expedition to the mouth of the Columbia River, on their return from the Pacific, fell upon the source of the north fork of the Platte, and descended thence to the Missouri. Also in June, 1812, Robert Stewart, one of the partners of the Pacific Fur Company, with several others, while coming from the Pacific, struck the headwaters of the Platte, spent the winter on it, and finally reached the Missouri.

It may now be said that the territory included within the present boundaries of Nebraska had been explored. The general features and the homes of its Indian tribes were pretty well known.

On the 2d of March, 1819, the congress of the United States created out of the Missouri territory the territory of Arkansas. On the 6th of March, 1820, an act was approved, authorizing the people of the Missouri territory to form a constitution and state government, and for the admission of the state into the union. This was assented to by the people in state convention on the 19th of July following. On the 2d of March, 1821, the state was admitted, with conditions, by a joint resolution of congress. These conditions were accepted, and Missouri became a state by proclamation August 10, 1821. As first established the state was bounded on the west by a meridian passing through the mouth of the Kansas River. An act was approved June 7, 1836, extending the boundary to the Missouri river north of its intersection with this line whenever the Indian title to this portion should be extinguished and the state express its assent to the change. The Indian title was extinguished by a treaty with the Iowas and Sacs and Poxes September 17, 1836. This addition was known as the “Platte Purchase,” and was sanctioned by the state December 16, 1836, and was declared perfected by a proclamation of the president March 28, 1837. This was bringing a state very close to portions of what are now included in Nebraska only across the Missouri to the present counties of Richardson, Nemaha and the southeast corner of Otoe.

After the admission of Missouri as a state into the union, for nearly thirty-three years the country now included within the boundaries of the state of Nebraska was practically without a government, but before the end of this time the country was attached to the United States judicial district of Missouri.

In the spring of 1822 William H. Ashley, the head of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company of St. Louis, equipped two boats to ascend the Missouri river to the mouth of the Yellowstone. This was a disastrous expedition, as during the first three months one-fourth of the men were lost by violent deaths, and a good deal of the property by accident, deceit and war with the savages.

In the meantime negotiations were being carried on with the Indians of the various tribes. The Missouri Fur Company, one of the strongest and most active engaged in the trade, had at its head Dr. Pilcher. Benjamin ‘Fallon was one of the principal partners, and was one of the most active in bringing about the treaties between the government and the various Indian tribes of Nebraska and adjacent country already referred to. By a treaty proclaimed December 30, 1825, the Kansas tribe ceded to the United States a large section of this country. On April 12, 1834, a treaty was proclaimed by which the four confederate bands of the Pawnees did likewise. The Pawnees as well as the surrounding tribes were greatly ravished by small pox in 1832. Soon after, the Pawnees by treaty agreed to confine themselves to the north side of the Platte, but in a short time the Sioux came down upon them with great slaughter. From this time their numbers rapidly decreased.

In 1834, by an act of congress, it was enacted that all that part of the United States west of the Mississippi and not within the states of Missouri and Louisiana or the territory of Arkansas should be considered Indian country for the purposes of the act, and certain regulations were prescribed for its government. This included the whole of the present state of Nebraska.

In 1835 another expedition under the direction of the general government traversed the Platte valley. Colonel Henry Dodge was in charge of this expedition, and followed the west bank of the Missouri to the mouth of the Platte, then traced the last mentioned stream to its source.

Colonel John C. Fremont’s exploring expedition came in 1842. They reached the Big Blue on June 20, 1842. Fremont reached the confluence of the north and south forks of the Platte River July 2d. Prom this point the party traveled up the south fork forty miles, where it was decided to divide the party, one to ascend the fork they were then on, the other to cross over to the north fork. With five men Fremont continued his journey up the south fork, reaching July 5 a point near the western boundary of what is now Keith County, Nebraska. The other party followed the north fork up to the American Fur Company’s fort, at the mouth of Laramie’s fork (Fort Laramie), where the two parties were reunited and went on west, returning later in the fall of the same year. The second Fremont expedition was undertaken in 1843.

During the decade following the time when the Fremont expedition traveled over Nebraska, various circumstances conspired to send thousands of white men into this region for a longer or shorter period. First in point of time and numbers were the Mormons. Their home in Nauvoo, Illinois, having been broken up, the greater part of the believers in that faith journeyed slowly across Iowa, and finally, with few exceptions, crossed the Missouri river during the years 1845 and 1846, locating about six miles north of Omaha, at what is now known as Florence, but which was then called “Winter Quarters” by the Mormons. Here about fifteen thousand people congregated. The Indians were hostile to them, complaining that they cut too much timber, and the complaints caused the exodus of the Mormons. Many of them found temporary shelter on the Iowa side of the river. Soon an expedition of eighty wagons was sent out in search of a permanent home for the Latter Day Saints, which resulted in the selection of the Salt Lake valley, then far beyond the reach of government law and civilization. The presence of these families had no decisive influence on the future of Nebraska.

In 1847 the Presbyterian board of missions confirmed the selection of Bellevue for the location of a mission school. This was an important step in the history of Nebraska. The mission school buildings were finished and formally opened in 1848.

In 1849 there set in that wonderfully migratory movement to California directly across what is now within the boundaries of the state. Bands of gold seekers crossed the Missouri at old Fort Kearney (now Nebraska City), at Plattsmouth, at Bellevue and at Council Bluffs. Another great stream flowed from the southeast, striking the Platte at (New) Fort Kearney, previously called Fort Childs, which had been established on the south side of the Platte, opposite Grand Island. Thus the fever of 1849 swept over all the land, and thousands found their way to the Pacific along the valley of the Platte. The moving host left here and there a permanent impress on the land. The knowledge of this fertile country spread, and later on many of these same “forty niners” sought its peaceful hills and plains wherein to erect homes for their declining years. Another effect of the emigration was the establishment of a ferry between what is now Omaha and Council Bluffs by Wm. D. Brown in 1851 or 1852. In 1853 he made claim to the site of Omaha. In 1850 a military road was established, leading from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Kearney on the Platte.

By this time the territory was being so thoroughly traveled over, that the broad and beautiful rolling prairies and there rich soil became well known, and it was clear now that it was only a question of time when emigration would cross the Missouri and in an irresistible wave spread itself widely over the fertile plains beyond. The general government, therefore, continued the negotiations for residue of the Indian lands, and as rapidly as possible concluded treaties to restrict the Indians to moderate metes and bounds.

Nebraska was the highway to the west, and a place should be given in this history to mention of the events and conditions which were largely instrumental in the original settlement of Nebraska. In remote times remote for the west the beginning of “The West” was at the Mississippi. Western Illinois and Wisconsin and Western Iowa were accessible by water by the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The region beyond was known only to the courageous few who had braved the perils of a wilderness inhabited by hostile tribes. But in 1850, when the fever for gold had spread throughout the east, the limits of civilization had extended so far that supplies of horses, mules, cattle, wagons, coffee, flour, bacon, sugar and the indispensables of a trip across the plains were obtainable at points on the Missouri river in the state of Missouri. Parties endeavored to reach that stream early in the spring that they might take advantage of the growth of vegetation as food for their teams. While some caravans followed the Arkansas, many more chose to come up the Missouri and travel thence westward along the rich valley of the Platte. Thus was first opened up to observant pioneers the beauties of this region. Hundreds of improvident but eager men set out so late in the season as to encounter the rigor of winter in the mountains, and many perished miserably from exposure and starvation. Others started early enough to safely pass the Rocky mountains only to meet their fate in the inhospitable fastness of the Sierra Nevadas, where snow frequently piles to the depths of thirty and forty feet in localities. Among the early trials were the dangers incident to crossing a country inhabited by fierce Indians. If the truth could be known, probably every mile from the Missouri to the Pacific would demand at least one headstone to mark a victim’s grave.

At the time referred to the whole region from the Missouri to the Pacific was vaguely known as “the plains,” though it embraced almost every variety of country. First the emigrant crossed the rich, rolling prairies of Nebraska. The soil grew thinner and thinner until it merged into dreary sand deserts. Upon these he found myriads of prairie dogs, sometimes living in towns twenty miles square; herds of graceful antelopes bounded over the hills, and huge, ungainly buffaloes, which numbered millions then, blackened parts of the landscape. A day’s journey was from ten to twenty miles. When the company halted for the night, they turned their animals to graze with such precautions as served to prevent their escape; lighted a fire on the prairie of buffalo chips, and supped on pork, hot bread or “flap jacks,” and washed the frugal repast down with the inevitable tin cup of coffee. Their trusty guns were kept within easy reach, and the whitened skull of a buffalo, perhaps killed by some emigrant long before in wanton sport, served as a seat. The wagons were covered with stout canvas, and afforded protection to the few women and children during the later years of the excitement. All became inured to the conditions of outdoor life. When large streams were reached, the heavy wagons were floated or hauled, and where it was convenient to do so, rude bridges were constructed over smaller streams. Every source of ingenuity was developed. If a wheel gave way and the mechanical productiveness of the party could not replace it, a cottonwood log with one end dragging on the ground was made to serve instead. If a pole broke, another was extemporized from the nearest timber. If an ox died, some luckless cow was yoked in his place. Sometimes one family or one party of half a dozen men journeyed alone, and sometimes there were a hundred or more wagons in a single “train,” with their white covers enveloped in an increasing cloud of dust. During the seasons when emigration was very heavy, caravans could from an eminence be seen stretching out for miles and miles, and at night every pleasant camping ground was a populous village. The journey was not without its enjoyments, though one’s philosophy was sorely tried at times. There were, often long delays for hunting lost cattle, waiting for swollen streams to subside, or in climbing the mountains. Storms and mishaps frequently taxed the patience of all, and sickness came to feeble frame and hardy men alike. The first of a long line of trains often climbed steep hills instead of going the longer and easier way through ravines, and the followers along the new roads were forced to desert the beaten tracks and risk untried courses or labor on in their wake. It was not in common to see from ten to the thirty yoke of cattle hitched to a single wagon, working slowly up the mountain. The summit reached at last, the wagon would be emptied, and with a huge log trailing behind as a brake, the teams would descend to repeat their experience in ascending with other loads. The wild, majestic scenery along the way may have been a partial compensation to some for the hardships they endured, but it is reasonable to believe that few would have refused to forego those delights if thereby they might have gained easier transit. The tragedies of those days were numerous. The very nature of the journey and the chances of sudden wealth combined with the freedom of the manner of living, gathered many a desperate character into the civil army. The baser passions were too often allowed full scope, and hence it must be recorded j that many a villain found his end at the hands of outraged companions. The travelers were a law unto themselves, and greed or lust were summarily avenged.

An early settler wrote the following vivid description of the appearance of Nebraska in 1856: In 1856 I first came to Nebraska, and the rolling prairies existing between the Big Sandy and Fort Kearney had been burnt off, so that as the caravan with which I was traveling passed along, a wide waste of desolation met the eye. The surface of the earth was black as charcoal, and here and there was .spotted with the bleached bones of buffalo, oxen and wolves. It seemed as though nothing could live in that forsaken looking country, and yet I thought then that where that black, charred surface was, there must have been long blades of brown and yellow grass before the fire swept them out of existence. And I thought, too, the grass must have been beautifully green in the spring and summer time, and I hoped to see the summer bloom for me again. When I approached the Platte valley from the hills which skirt it, my eyes were delighted with the sight that met my view. Nearby lay that beautiful country its land as level as a floor, the dense groves of trees stretching out as far as the eye could see. It was a gorgeous spectacle, and it seemed to me no valley on the earth could surpass it in agricultural possibilities. During the winter of 185657, I journeyed on to Fort Laramie. The point at which I struck the Platte must have been two hundred and fifty miles from its mouth. From there to Fort Laramie was about three hundred and seventy-five miles. I, therefore, traveled fully three hundred and seventy-five miles, so that my opportunity for judging of its extent and general features was of the best, although it was seen under most disparaging circumstances. That was a terrible winter. From October to May snow was on the ground. On the last day of November our party arrived at Ash Hollow, returning from Fort Laramie. The snow was a foot deep at the former place. That night another .storm came on and continued for several days and nights. When it was over we were snowbound. We remained there two weeks and then moved on to a village of Ogallala Sioux Indians, where we remained more than a month, and were kept from starving by the kindness of the Indians, who gave us all the buffalo meat we needed for our food. From this village to Fort Kearney we journeyed on the ice of the Platte River. On the land the snow lay two feet deep, while the valleys were filled full with drifting snow. For months there was nothing to be seen but the dazzling whiteness of the snow. We were sixteen days in going from Ash Hollow to Fort Kearney, a distance of one hundred and fifty miles, and necessarily encountered many hardships and privations on the way. A few days after our arrival at the fort another severe storm came on with strong winds. This lasted several days, and completely buried the one story houses of the fort in the drifts. Barracks, officers’ quarters, stables, all were covered, and trenches had to be dug around haystacks to prevent the cattle from walking on top of them. Cuttings were made from door to door of the houses to allow the inmates to go in and out. The season was terrible, but it was general throughout the northwest. It was an unfavorable time to form an opinion of the region, but I nevertheless resolved to make it my future home. I knew that the .snow would finally disappear, and so it did. In June the valley of the Platte was decked with living green, the trees were rich with foliage, and birds chirped forth their songs of joy.”


Compendium of History Reminiscence & Biography of Western Nebraska, Alden Publishing Company, Chicago, 1912.

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