Washington County, Nebraska History

As the changes of less than three score years are contemplated, one can scarcely realize or comprehend that the wonderful results of Time's marvel-working hand are the achievements of a period so brief as to be within the memory-almost of the present generation.

Let us turn back, as it were, the leaves of Time's great book to but sixty years ago and the stranger would have gazed upon a landscape of rare beauty; selected by the Omaha, the Sioux and the Pawnee Indian tribes as their camping and hunting grounds, with that singular appreciation of the beautiful which Nature made an instinct in the savage.

These vast and rolling prairies were as green then as now; the prairie flowers bloomed thickly and diffused their fragrance as bountifully. We are in the haunt of the redmen, with scarcely a trace of civilization. But what a contrast! Then all was as nature had formed it, with its variegated hues of vegetation; in winter a dreary snow-mantled desert, in summer a perfect paradise of flowers. Now all traces of the primitive are obliterated; in place of the tall prairie grass and tangled underbrush, one beholds the rich waving fields of golden grain and an almost endless sea of ripening corn. In place of the dusky warrior's rude cabins are the substantial and frequently elegant dwellings of the thrifty farmers, and the "iron horse," swifter than the nimble deer, treads the pathway so recently the trail of the red man. Then the sickle of fire annually cut away the wild herbage and drove to its death the stag, now it is the home of the cereals and nourishes on its broad bosom thousands of tons of the staple products of the great commonwealth of Nebraska. Then the storm drove the wolf to its hiding place; now the blast drives the herd of the husbandman to a warm and comfortable quarter. Indeed, the transformation is complete.

In place of an occasional steamboat stopping on the western shore of the Missouri to "wood-up," now one sees dozens of freight and passenger trains heavily laden with valuable freight and wide-awake passengers going and coming hither and von. What was sixty years ago styled in the common school geographies as "The Great American Desert," including, Nebraska, is now known as the Central Garden Spot of the West.

Ten years before the Civil war Washington County was a howling wilderness, no settlers to speak of; no churches or schools; no towns and cities; no railroads, all was yet one green, glad solitude. How the transformation has been wrought, the various steps by which the wilderness has been changed into habitations for civilized men, is the plain duty of the local historian to show in the following pages, with the hope that his efforts will be duly appreciated, and that the facts contained therein may be of interest, and the lessons of the past may be instructive to each and every reader.

An Abstract of Nebraska and Washington County

The present State of Nebraska and Washington County have been carved from territory located, bounded and possessed by countries as follows: Pioneer W. H. Woods, of Fort Calhoun, and correspondent of the State Historical Society, in a paper published in 1915, is our authority for the subjoined abstract of this county and state.

Louisiana Purchase, 1803.
Louisiana Territory, 1805.
Territory of Missouri, 1812.
Indian Territory, 1834.
Nebraska Territory, 1852.
Separated from Kansas, 1854.
Nebraska State, 1867.
Washington County, 1854.
Reorganized Washington County, 1860. Cavillier History:
Fur trading post, 1802.
Lewis & Clark two camps; and one council with the Indians-"Council Point" and "Pumice Stone Camp," 1804.
General Atkinson and the farthest military post in the United States "Camp Missouri," "Camp Hook".
Fort Atkinson, Fort Calhoun, 1819-27.
Major Long's engineers' cantonment and outfitting station, 1819-20.

The oldest known cavalier in Nebraska, Captain Contal, who was brought by his parents to old Fort Atkinson, died in Blair, 1903. And old Rockport, in this county, claims Madame Lesa, 1819, the first white woman to settle on Nebraska soil. Fort Calhoun, Washington County, claims the first apple orchard in the state, the first county courthouse and the first church parsonage in Nebraska. Fontanelle the first seminary in the state, and Cuming City the first $20,000 college incorporation in the state. Blair holds a chip over her shoulder over her pioneer Jacob Goll who came to Washington County in 1847 and settled on his claim in 1849 and was buried in Blair in 1906. In 1854 the Fontanelle colony purchased twenty miles square from the Indians for $100 dollars in gold (some aver the amount was a $10 gold coin). The Lewis & Clark monument was erected at Fort Calhoun in the school campus with military ceremonies August 3, 1904. The old fort was established here by General Atkinson in 1819, 780 miles from St. Louis and 580 miles from a post office and abandoned in 1827. In 1822 they farmed 556 acres of land; had a grist and sawmill, library and school. In 1823 the troops raised and gathered 8,839 bushels of corn. Antone Barada, the strongest man ever known on the Missouri River, was born near the mouth of Fish Creek in 1807. Fort Calhoun with its beautiful park, history and scenery is the finest place in the state for the gatherings of the pioneers and old settlers.

Fort Calhoun is one of the chief corner-stones in the history of the West, between St. Louis and the British possessions. Beside Lewis and Clark and old Fort Atkinson here at the fort is recorded the story of the first New Year celebration in what is now nine states, in 1821, and here too, the first white child born in that region in 1824. Here, soon after the great chief, Logan Fontenelle, and Mary La Fleshe, the wife of his successor, and here too is buried the first white girl that made her home in the present City of Omaha, and the very first mail route north of Kansas was established by act of Congress in 1854 to run from Table Creek and end at Fort Calhoun.

Ten miles southwest of Fort Calhoun was the winter quarters of the Mormons on their way to Salt Lake, who raised 300 soldiers for the Mexican war, probably in 1846 and probably one or two years after the famous Mormon Prophets Brigham Young and Oscar Pratt spent one winter in log cabins four miles northwest of Fort Calhoun. Brigham Young's cabin still remained in 1871. Previous to 1860 the north line of Washington County lay one mile north of Fort Calhoun and the south line two miles south of Florence. Florence or "Winter Quarters" was the county seat. Fontanelle was then the county seat of Dodge County.

Fort Calhoun was sixty years old in March. 1915, and celebrated her second pioneer centennial for Fort Atkinson September 19, 1919, to follow her Lewis and Clark centennial celebrated in 1904. Thus Washington County from 1804 to 1860 contained more real pioneer history than all the rest of Nebraska.

Nebraska Territory in 1852 contained all the lands belonging to the United States for 800 miles west of the State of Missouri and north to British Columbia, now seven states and territories, and in that entire region there were 300 white men, each holding a license from the government at Washington, and the soldiers were ordered to see that no more white men be permitted to make homes in this territory now peopled by millions.

County Seat of Washington County

The following is a concise description of locating the various county seats of Washington County, the same is by the pen of Frank McNeely and may therefore be relied upon as correct:

"In 1855 an act was passed by the Territorial Legislature reorganizing Washington County and designating Fort Calhoun, as the county seat. "De Soto, a small village five miles north of Fort Calhoun, wished the county seat to be moved there. In the winter of 1858 a crowd of De Soto citizens organized and with arms went to Fort Calhoun to take the county seat by force. Fort Calhoun citizens barricaded themselves in the log courthouse and held off the De Soto band until the afternoon of the second day when by compromise the county seat was turned over to De Soto. One man was killed in this contest in which I was a participant. "The county seat remained in De Soto until an election in the fall of 1866, when the vote of the people re-located it at Fort Calhoun where it remained until 1869. An election in the latter year made Blair the county seat.

"A courthouse was built in Blair, the present county seat of Washington County, in 1889 at a cost of $50,000.

"In the early days every new town (and they were all new) was ambitious to become the county seat and many of them hoped to have the honor of becoming the capital of the territory. Washington County had its full share of aspiring towns and most of them got beyond the paper stage. There were De Soto, Fort Calhoun, Rockport, Cuming City and last but not least-Fontanelle then in Washington County, now a deserted village in Dodge County. Of these only Fort Calhoun remains more than a memory. De Soto was founded by Potter C. Sullivan and others in 1854 and in 1857 had about five hundred population. It began to go down in 1859 and when the city of Blair was started its decline was rapid. Rockport, which was in the vicinity of the fur trading establishments of early days, was a steamboat landing of some importance and had at one time a population of half a hundred or more. Now only the beautiful landscape remains. Cuming City like De Soto, received its death blow when Blair was founded and now the town site is given over to agricultural purposes.

First White Settlement

The first white settlement to be effected within what is now known as Washington County was that made about old Fort Atkinson, later called Fort Calhoun, hard by the west bank of the Missouri River in the southeastern part of the present limits of the county, in about 1819, when Fort Atkinson was constructed by the United States Government, and which event was made the subject of a well-attended centennial celebration at Fort Calhoun in 1919. Sometime after Lewis and Clark made their report on this section of the country, and prior to 1818, the first white men commenced to invade this territory as traders and explorers. The reader is referred to further articles on the settlement as shown in the various township and village histories of this work, wherein names and dates are entered into more in detail than is necessary in this connection.

The Second Settlement

After the settlement by army families and traders at Fort Calhoun vicinity, came the Fontenelle settlement in the western portion of the county, by the Quincy Colony, who settled under the auspices of the "Nebraska Colonization Company," in 1854. The account of this noted settlement is found in this work in the township history section. (See Fontanelle Township.)

The De Soto Settlement

The settlement made at and in the vicinity of De Soto, was made in 1854-55, and within a few months more than thirty log cabins were erected and soon occupied by newcomers. Just below that point the fleeing Mormon band (Latter Day Saints) in their flight from Nauvoo, Illinois, had stopped about 1846 and remained several years before going on to the Promised Land, Utah. Near De Soto lived their illustrious leader, Brigham Young and Orson Pratt, on land where later the De Soto flouring mill was built. The early gentiles found many brickbats left from the brick kilns burned by the Mormon settlers. (See De Soto history.)

Other Settlements

An account of other settlements in this county will be found in the several township and village histories in this volume.  

Nebraska AHGP

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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