Fontanelle Township, Washington County, Nebraska

Fontanelle Township and village of this county is the background for much pioneer history and personal experience had by men and women who must have possessed iron constitutions and hearts of steel, yet full of human kindness. In order to be correct the writer has consulted the relatives of old Indian Chief, Logan Fontenelle, and learned that the name was spelled Fontenelle, and not with an "a" Fontanelle, as so many Nebraska historians, even historical societies of the state, insist on spelling the name of the old honored chief for whom this township and village were named back in the '50s. Fontanelle Township is situated on the west side of Washington County, and is eight miles from north and south by five miles from east and west. It is bounded on the north by Sheridan Township, on the east by Grant and Lincoln townships, on the south by Arlington Township and a small portion by Dodge County. On its west it is bounded by Dodge County of which it was once a part.

The streams coursing through this township include Bell's Creek, Brown's Creek, and the Elkhorn River, with many smaller streams. This part of the county is one of Nature's real garden spots and man has made it one of beauty and intrinsic value by tilling its fertile soil, erecting its many handsome farm houses and constructing its scores and hundreds of wagon-bridges and culverts after modern specifications. To be a landowner in this township is to be known as an independent, contented and happy person who should be thankful that his lot was cast in such a goodly place.


In 1890 this township had a population of 803; in 1900 it was 759 and in 1910 it was only 766. The returns for the present (1920) enumeration have not as yet been made public by the department at Washington.

First Settlement

The account given of the first settlement of the Village of Fontanelle, in 1854, by the Quincy (III.) Colony, is in fact the history of the pioneer settlement in Fontanelle Township, as will be discovered by the following account of that event:

The colony organized at Quincy, Illinois, in 1854 was for the purpose of securing for its members, homes for themselves and their families in the then new Territory of Nebraska. The style of the company was "The Nebraska Colonization Company." In July that year. Rev. W. W. Keep, Jonathan Smith, J. W. Richardson, Jared Blanset, C. Bernard, William Flach and James A. Bell (the father of the John T. Bell who wrote the small, but reliable history of Washington County in 1876) came to Nebraska in order to "view the land," and locate the colony on behalf of the company. They crossed Iowa in wagons, as there was then not a foot of railway track west of the Mississippi River. They camped out on the way and in due time reached the small city of Omaha which had then just been platted by the Nebraska & Council Bluffs Ferry Company.

Historian Bell continues his narrative as follows: Passing beyond the bluffs of the Missouri and its tributaries, the Quincy pilgrims found a section of country which for agricultural and grazing purposes has no superior on this continent-or any other. Arriving in the vicinity of the Elkhorn, in their northwesterly course, they came to a stream of considerable size, over which it was necessary to throw a temporary bridge, in order to cross it. To do this someone had to "coon it" across the stream on a log, and this task was undertaken by James A. Bell. Before reaching the other shore, however, he heard something drop into the stream below, and was surprised to find that it was himself. He was at once fished out and spread on the grass to dry.

In consequence of this little episode the party immediately christened the stream "Bell Creek," the name it still bears. Crossing the creek the colonization party pursued their way to the banks of the Elkhorn, and were so pleased with the surrounding country that they decided to locate there, and the townsite of Fontanelle was laid out claims made by the party, etc., who then proceeded to the camp of the Omaha Indians, in honor of whose chief. Logan Fontanelle, the town was named, and held a grand pow-wow with the tribe for the purpose of securing its good will. They also paid Fontanelle the sum of $10 each, with the understanding that he was to protect their interests until members of the company could be sent out and establish their new town, and then return to Quincy.

I am unable to give the entire list of names belonging to this colony, as it was formed in Illinois, but it is certain that these were among the membership:

Jonathan Smith, president
Rev. W. W. Keep secretary
J. W. Richardson, treasurer
J. C. Bernard, treasurer
O. C. Bernard
H. Metz
John Evans
J. Armor
H. G. Mauzey
E. M. Davis
W. H. Davis
Jared Blansett
G. Williamson
J. McIntosh
Rufus Brown,
Root Bell
James A. Bell

In the fall of 1854, the company sent out Judge J. W. Richardson as their agent, to occupy the town site on behalf of the company. Judge Richardson was accompanied by his wife, later Mrs. William Kline. At Council Bluffs they were joined by Col. William Kline and Colonel Doyle, of South Carolina, who had been recently appointed marshal for the new territory. In December, Dr. M. H. Clark was elected councilman, and Colonel Doyle and Judge Richardson representatives to the Territorial Legislature, from Dodge County, in which Fontanelle was the only settlement.

Fontanelle Wanted the Territorial Capital

Judge Richardson was instructed by members of the colony to put forth every effort possible to insure the locating of the capital of Nebraska Territory at Fontanelle. But Omaha won the coveted prize. They did succeed, however, in getting a charter to establish a college for Fontanelle; and to be run under the auspices of the Baptist Church; also a town charter and a ferry charter, the latter in favor of Colonel Kline.

The County of Dodge was organized and the county seat was designated as Fontanelle. During the territorial session of that winter a bill was introduced chartering the Platte Valley & Pacific Railroad Company, and February 16, 1855, Doctor Clark, chairman of the committee on corporations, submitted his report, showing clearly the object of this railroad bill and during his speech remarked:

"In view of the wonderful changes that will result, your committee cannot believe the period -remote when this work will be accomplished, and with liberal encouragement to capital which your committee are disposed to grant, it is their belief that before Fifteen Years have transpired, the route to the Indies will be opened and the way across this continent will be the common highway of the world."

Fourteen years and three months from that day the golden spike which completed the world's highway was driven on the summit of the Rockies.

Pioneer Settlers

Prior to the autumn of 1856 the following had become settlers in Fontanelle, with those already mentioned:

Judge and Mrs. Richardson
John W. Pattison
Chris Leiser and family
Colonel Kline
Samuel Whittier and family.
Rev. J. M. Taggart and family
Miss Ellen Griffith
Willis Carr
Eli Harlow
Edward Carpenter
Isaac Underwood and family
Mrs. Denslow and family
B. L. Keyes and family
William M. Saint
John Beaty and family
John Evans and family
Rufus Brown and family
Henry Sprick
John K. Cramer and family
Christy Archilles and family
Morris Wogan and family
Arthur Bloomer John Bloomer
David Bloomer
Thomas Fitzsimmons and family
Sam Francis and family
William H. Johnson
Henry C. Lemon and family
George Hindley
Jared Blansett
William Flach and Family
Charles Osterman
J. M. Hancock and family
Jacob Canaga and family
John Ray and family
Deacon Searle and family
John and Silas Seeley
Pomeroy Searle
Sam Williams and family
Hiram Ladd and family
Sumner D. Prescott
William R. Hamilton and family
Henry Brinkman and family
William Hecker Sr.
Orlando and Pierce Himebaugh
William C. Hecker
Julius Brainard and family

Important Events

In 1856 a college building was erected by the Congregational people, to whom the Baptists had assigned their charter elsewhere named. A flourishing school was here kept alive a number of years, Professor Burt being the first instructor. This building was used for public meetings, lyceums, etc. Annual festivals were held and bounteous suppers were held in the college buildings about New Year's day, until the close of the Civil war, to which festivals the settlers for many miles around came regularly, bringing well-laden baskets and when the contents of these baskets were distributed over the tables the only reason they did not groan was because they were not of the groaning kind!

In the winter of 1858-59 Fontanelle became a part of Washington County, in consequence of reorganization of county lines.

The first school was taught by Miss Emily Strickland in 1856-57. The first stock of goods in the settlement was kept by William H. Davis in 1855, he also had the first hotel, a double log, called the Fontanelle House.

A town lot was offered by the company to the parents of the first child born on the plat and much rivalry ensued, for it is known that two children were born the same night, although Mattie, daughter of Samuel Francis, born October 2, 1855, was by a few hours the earlier.

Fontanelle of Today

After a wonderfully romantic and somewhat strange history, the once flourishing Village of Fontanelle has dwindled down to a few houses and the few inhabitants trade at a small store and get mail from the little country route. The most of the village platting is now doing good service as excellent farm land, yielding up its annual harvest.

The Passing of Chief Logan Fontenelle

No more appropriate farewell can be given to the reader of this chapter than to give what S. T. Bangs of Sarpy County said in his Centennial History of Sarpy County in 1876:

Logan Fontenelle was a half-breed, his father being French. He was educated in St. Louis; spoke English fluently and was at this time about thirty years of age, of medium height, swarthy complexion, black hair and dark piercing eyes. In the middle of the summer of 1855, a procession might have been seen wending its way toward the old home of Logan Fontenelle on the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River and above the stone quarries of Bellevue. It moved slowly along, led by Louis San-so-see, who was driving a team with a wagon in which was wrapped in blankets and buffalo robes all that was mortal of Logan Fontenelle, the chief of the Omahas. On either side was Indian chiefs and braves mounted on their ponies, with the squaws and relatives of the deceased showing their grief in mournful outcries. His remains were taken to the house he had left a short time before and now desolate and afflicted they related the incidents of his death. He had been killed by the Sioux on the Loup Fork thirteen days before, while on a hunt with the Omahas. Having left the main body with San-so-see in pursuit of game and while in a ravine that hid them from the sight of the Omahas, they came in contact with a band of Sioux on the warpath who attacked them. San-so-see escaped in some thick underbrush while Fontenelle stood his ground fighting desperately and killing three of his adversaries, when he fell pierced with fourteen arrows and the prized scalp-lock was taken by his enemies. The Omahas did not recover his body until the next day.

It was the wish of Colonel Sarpy to have him interred on the bluffs fronting the house in which he had lived and a coffin was made which proved to be too small without unfolding the blankets which had enveloped him, and as he had been dead so long this was a disagreeable task. After putting him in the coffin his wives who witnessed the scene uttered the most piteous cries, cutting their ankles until the blood ran in streams. An old Indian woman who looked like a witch of Endor, standing between the house and the grave, lifted her arms to heaven and shrieked her maledictions upon the head of his murderers. Colonel Sarpy, Stephen Decatur, Mrs. Sloan, an Otoe half-breed, and others, stood over his grave where his body was being lowered, and while Decatur was reading the impressive funeral service of the Episcopal Church, he was interrupted by Mrs. Sloan, who stood by his side, and in a loud tone told him that "a man of his character ought to be ashamed of himself to make a mockery of the Christian religion by reading the solemn services of the church." He proceeded, however, until the end. After the whites, headed by Colonel Sarpy, had paid their last respects, the Indians filed around the grave and made a few demonstrations of sorrow. The whites dispersed to their homes and the Indians to recite their own exploits and the daring of their dead chief, Fontenelle.

Another History of Fontanelle

A few years since, Mrs. Eda Mead, in "Nebraska Pioneers," wrote the interesting story of the rise and fall of the Village of Fontanelle, Nebraska. These facts, as she avers, are largely from her own observation and memory, she having been reared in the vicinity herself. It is believed that no better account of this defunct village can be given at this time than the one .she gives, and from which we take the liberty to quote freely, that the story may be preserved in the annals of the county:

When Nebraska was first organized as a territory, a party of people in Quincy, Illinois, conceived the idea of starting a city in the new territory and thus making their fortune. They accordingly sent out a party of men to select a site.

These men reached Omaha in 1854. There they met Logan Fontenelle, chief of the Omahas, who held the land along the Platte and Elkhorn rivers. He agreed to direct them to a place favorable for a town. Upon reaching the spot, where the present village is now situated, they were so pleased that they did not look further, but paid the chief $100 for the right to claim and locate twenty square miles of land. This consisted of land adjoining the Elkhorn River, then ascending a high bluff, a tableland ideal for the location of a town.

These men thought the Elkhorn navigable and that they could ship their goods from Quincy by the way of the Missouri River, Platte River and the Elkhorn.

Early in the spring of 1855 a number of the colonists, bringing their household goods, left Quincy on a small boat, the "Mary Cole," expecting to reach Fontanelle by the way of the Elkhorn; and then use the boat as a packet to points on the Platte and Elkhorn rivers.

But the boat struck a snag in the Missouri River and, with a part of the cargo, was lost. The colonists then took what was saved overland to Fontanelle.

By the first of May, 1855, there were sufficient colonists on the site to hold two claims. Then each of the fifty members drew by lot for the eighteen lots each were to hold. The first choice fell on W. H. Davis. He chose the land along the river, fully convinced of its superior situation as a steamboat landing. The colonists then built houses of cottonwood timber, and a store and a hotel were started. Thus the little town of about 200 inhabitants was started with great hopes of soon becoming a large city.

Land on the edge of the bluff had been set aside for a college building. This was called College view. Here a building was begun in 1856 and completed in 1859. This was the first advanced educational institution west of the Missouri River.

In 1865 the building was burned. Another building was immediately erected, but after a few years' struggle for patronage, they found it was doomed to die, so negotiated with the people of Crete, Nebraska, and the Congregational organizations (for it was built by the Congregationalists) in Nebraska. It therefore became the nucleus of what is now Doane College. The bell of the old church is still in use in the little village. The first religious services were held by the Congregationalists. The church was organized by Rev. Reuben Gaylord, who also organized the first Congregational Church in Omaha.

In Fontanelle the Congregationalists did not have a building but worshiped in the college. This church has long since ceased to exist, but strange as it may appear, after so many years, the last regular pastor was the same man. Rev. Reuben Gaylord, who organized the church.

There was a little band of Methodists, about fifteen in all, who formed the Fontanelle Mission. In 1857 an evangelist, Jerome Spillman, was sent to take charge of this little mission. He soon had a membership of about threescore people. A church was organized, a church and parsonage built. This prospered with the town, but as the town began to lose ground the church was doomed to die. The building stood vacant for a number of years but was finally moved to Arlington.

The settlers found the first winter of 1855-56 mild and agreeable. They thought this was a sample of the regular winter climate; so when the cold, blizzardy, deep snow winter of 1856-57 came, it found the majority illy prepared. Many were living in log cabins which had been built only for temporary use. The roofs were full of holes and just the dirt for floors. On awakening in the morning after the first blizzard, many found their homes drifted full of snow; even the beds were covered. The snow laid four or five feet on the level and the temperature was far below zero.

Most of the settlers lost their stock. Food was scarce, but wild game plentiful. Mr. Samuel Francis would take his horse and gun and hunt along the river. The settlers say he might have been seen many times that winter coming into the village with two deer tied to his horse's tail trailing in the snow. By this means, he saved many of the colonists from starvation.

Provisions were very high priced. Potatoes brought four or five dollars a bushel; bacon and pork could not be had at any price. One settler is said to have sold a small hog for $45; with this he bought eighty acres of land, which is today worth $300 per acre. A sack of flour then cost from $10 to $15.

At this time many who had come just for speculation left, thus only the home-builders or those who had spent their all and could not return remained.

Then came trouble with the Indians

In the year 1859 the Pawnees were not paid by the Government, for some reason. They became desperate and began stealing cattle from the settlers along the Elkhorn around Fontanelle. The settlers of Fontanelle formed a company known as the "Fontenelle Mounted Rangers," and together with a company sent out by Governor Blac^c from Omaha with one piece of light artillery, started after the Pawnees who were traveling west and north. They captured six persons and held them bound. While they were camped for rest, a squaw in some way gave a knife to one of the prisoners. He pretended to kill himself by cutting his breast and mouth so that he bled freely. He then dropped as if dead. Amidst the confusion the other five, whose ropes had been cut by this same squaw, supposedly, escaped.

As the settlers were breaking camp to still pursue the fleeing tribe, they wondered what to do with the dead Indian. Someone expressed doubt as to his being dead. Then one of the settlers raised his gun and said he would make sure. No sooner had the gun been aimed than the Indian jumped to his feet and said, "Whoof! Me no sick!" They then journeyed on to attack the main tribe. When near their camp the settlers formed a semicircle on a hill, with the artillery in the center.

As soon as the Indians saw the settlers they came riding as swiftly as possible to make an attack, but when within a short distance and before the leader of the settlers could call "Fire!" they retreated. They advanced and retreated this way three times. The settlers were at a loss to understand just what the Indians intended to do; but decided they did not know of the artillery until near enough to see it, then were afraid to make the attack, so tried to scare the settlers, but failing to do so, they finally advanced with a white rag tied to a stick.

The Indians agreed to be peaceable and stop their thieving if the settlers would pay for a pony accidentally killed, and give them medicine for the sick and wounded.

Some of the men who took part in this fight say that if the leader had ordered the settlers to fire on the first advance of the Indians every settler would have been killed. There were twice as many Indians in the first place and the settlers afterwards found that not more than one-third of their guns would work; and after they had fired once, while they were reloading, the Indians with their bows and arrows would have exterminated them. They consider that it was the one piece of light artillery that saved them, as the Indians were very much afraid of a cannon. Thus ended any serious Indian trouble, but the housewives had ever to be on the alert for many years.

Each spring either the Pawnees or Omahas passed through the village on their way to visit some other tribe, and then returned in the fall. Then through the winter stray bands would appear who had been hunting or fishing along the river.

As they were seen approaching everything that could be put under lock and key was made secure. The doors of the houses were also made secure. The Indians would wash and comb their hair at the water troughs, then gather everything about the yard that took their fancy. If by any chance they got into a house they would help themselves to eatables and if they could not find enough they would demand more.

They made a queer procession as they passed along the street. The bucks on the horses or ponies led the way, then would follow the pack ponies, with long poles fastened to each other's sides and trailing along behind loaded with the baggage came the squaws with their babies fastened to their backs, trudging along behind.

One of the early settlers tells of her first experience with the Indians. She had just come from the far east, and was all alone in the house, when the door opened and three Indians walked in, a buck and two squaws. They closed the door and placed their guns behind it, to show her that they would not harm her. Then they went to the stove and seated themselves, making signs to her that they wanted more fire. She made a very hot fire in the cook stove.

The old fellow examined the stove until he found the oven door; this he opened and took three frozen fish from under his blanket and placed them upon the grate. While the fish were cooking he made signs for something to eat. The lady said she had only bread and sorghum in the house. This she gave them, but the Indian was not satisfied: he made a fuss until she finally found that he wanted butter on his bread. She had to show him that sorghum was all she had. They then took up the fish and went out of doors by the side of the house to eat it. She said they must have eaten every bit of the fish except the bones in the head, all else was eaten up.

Among the first settlers who came in 1855 was a young German who was an orphan and had had a hard life in America up to this time. He took a claim and worked hard for a number of years. He then went back to Ouincy and persuaded a number of his countrymen to come out to this new place and take claims, he helping them out, but they were to pay him back as they could.

Years passed; they each and all prospered wonderfully well. The early settlers moved away one by one; as they left he would buy their homes. The houses were torn down or moved away; the trees and shrubs were uprooted, until now this one man, or his heirs, for he has gone to his reward, own almost all of the once prosperous little village, and vast fields of grain have taken the place of the homes and the streets. It is hard to stand in the streets of the little village which now has about 150 inhabitants and believe that at one time it was the county seat of Dodge County, and that it lacked but one single vote of becoming the capital of Nebraska. There are left only two or three of the original buildings. A short distance south of this village, on a high bluff overlooking the river valley, and covered with oaks and evergreens, these early pioneers started a city which has grown for many years, and which will continue to grow for years to come. In this "city of the dead" we find many people who did much for the little city which failed, but who have taken up their abode in this beautiful spot, there to remain until the end of time.

The story of Fontanelle has been gathered from my early recollections of the place and what I have learned through grandparents, parents and other relatives and friends.

My mother was raised in Fontanelle, coming there with her parents in 1856. She received her education in that first college. My father was the son of one of the first Congregational missionaries to be sent there. I received my first schooling in the little village school.

Dodge County | Nebraska AHGP

Source: History of Dodge and Washington Counties, Nebraska, Rev. William H. Buss and Thomas T. Osterman, Volume 1, The American Historical Society, Chicago, 1921.

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