THE PLATTE VALLEY, FORT KEARNEY, ETC.
Platte is a wonderful river. For several hundred miles
before it empties into the Missouri it is a very shallow
stream, and in many places it has the appearance of being a
very sluggish stream. It has a sandy bottom, and the channel
frequently shifts from one locality to another. Within sight
of Fort Kearney, where the stream ran through the military
reservation, there were scores of islands in the early
'60's. Some called that vicinity "The Thousand Islands." In
some places the stream is from one to two miles wide, and
one can easily wade it except when it is on its annual
FORT KEARNEY, NEBRASKA, 1864. Looking west.
The establishment of Fort Kearney, or Fort Child, was the first settlement by civilized man in central or western Nebraska; this being under the direct supervision of the war department of the United States.
"An act of Congress was passed, and approved May 19, 1846, giving to the war department the necessary authority and means to survey or make observations from the Missouri river to the Rocky Mountains; to ascertain certain facts and define and locate a military road to facilitate communication with our western territories--Utah, Oregon, California, etc.
"To this end an expedition was fitted out, and placed under the command of Col. Stephen Watts Kearny, who marched through the Indian country and procured all the desired information for the war department, and, on his recommendation, a site for a fort was selected for a military post to defend the fast-increasing overland travel to the rich lands and gold deposits of the Pacific slope and mountain regions of the great West.
"To carry out the recommendations of Colonel Kearny, a requisition was made on the governor of Missouri for a battalion of five companies of mounted volunteers for garrison duty, etc. This battalion rendezvoused at Fort Leavenworth during the summer of 1847, and on the 5th of September took up their line of march to the designated site of the post on the Platte river, the first military station en route to Oregon. The battalion was under the command of Colonel Powell, and consisted of 454 men. The command halted at Table creek, about the 15th of September, near the place where Nebraska City now stands, for the troops to winter. On April 24, 1848, the command broke camp and proceeded to their objective point on the Platte river valley, where they established the military post designed, named Fort Child, in honor of Brigadier General Child, U. S. A., whose gallant conduct at the battle of Cerro Gordo, Mexico, brought him into distinction. This Missouri battalion remained at the new post until October, 1848, when their term of service expired and they were relieved by companies G and I of the Mounted Rifles, under the command of Captain Ruff.
"In December, 1848, by order of the war department, the name of Kearney being given, in honor of Stephen Watts Kearny, colonel of United States dragoons, for distinguished service in the Mexican war. Through the name being misspelled by some one at the war department, or the post-office department, giving the name of the post-office the original name of 'Kearney,' it has been spelled that way from the time I first took charge of the Fort Kearney post-office, in 1856.
"The fort was originally designed and built for about four companies of soldiers--two of infantry and two of cavalry--something less than 200 men; besides the soldiers there were usually a large number of civilians, who were employed by the quartermaster as teamsters, mechanics, clerks, etc.
"The post-office at Fort Kearney was established in the later '40's or early '50's, and kept going a long time without a regularly commissioned postmaster. The department finally said they couldn't stand it any longer, and that a postmaster must qualify properly or the office would be taken away. So Col. Charles A. May, in command at the fort, and all the officers, joined in recommending me, and I was appointed and commissioned in 1858, by Hon. Joseph Holt, Postmaster-general under James Buchanan.
"I first took charge of the office
under J. Heth, who was postmaster, but who had never
qualified. All together, I held the office at Fort Kearney
and vicinity for about fifteen years. With the exception of
a little more than a year in 1863-'64, while absent on my
ranch at Hopeville (near Seventeen-mile Point, west of the
fort), I held the office at Fort Kearney until the
abandonment of the post, in 1871, after which I was made
postmaster at Kearney City, two miles west of the fort, and
the name of which I had changed to Centoria, and was its
postmaster until 1878.
nowned Indian fighter of pioneer days. But this is not so, as has been shown by Mr. Sydenham. In the period of overland freighting and early staging on the Platte, the post was spoken of by many of the old- timers on the plains as "New Fort Kearney."
The first officer in command at Fort Kearney, on the Platte, planted shade-trees, and did much other work to help beautify the grounds and give the premises a cheerful appearance. In January, 1863, when I first saw the post, the trees had been set out for ten years or more, making the place look really inviting. The attractiveness of the locality was much enhanced by the fact that we came to it by a stake ride of about 250 miles, much of the way over rolling and treeless prairies. Most of the original buildings were of sod or adobe, but these were subsequently replaced with handsome frame and hewn-log structures.
The military reservation comprised a tract ten miles square. Originally the land belonged to the Pawnee Indians. The reservation extended eight miles east of the military post and two miles west of it. The north border was across the Platte a short distance. It was a very handsome tract, a portion of it slightly elevated above the surrounding country, so that from almost any place near the fort the eye could take in a large scope of country east, south, and west. Timber skirting the banks of the Platte cut off a view of the country to the north. Concerning one of the pioneers of the Platte valley Mr. Sydenham writes as follows:
"When I first came to Fort Kearney, in the winter of 1856-'57, John Heth was the post sutler and a member of the firm of Heth, Dyer & Co., the trading company who owned the store at the fort, When I was on my return to Fort Leavenworth from Fort Laramie, after staying bewintered at the Ogalalla Sioux camp for seven weeks, and traveling 160 miles on the ice of the Platte river for sixteen days, on the 9th day of February, 1857, our party of thirteen men--on Government service--came off the river onto the land at Fort Kearney. That night another severe blizzard came up and blew the lodge over that I was sleeping in, and I lay buried under the snow all that night and most all the next day. The terrific storm lasted over two days and nights, and buried under all the one-story buildings and haystacks. In that storm Mr. Heth's clerk was going from the mess house to another house close by, before dark, but he missed his way in the fine snow that flow around everywhere, and wandered off into the hills and perished. The Pawnees found his remains some miles from the fort three months afterwards. Mr. Heth came to our party to get a man to take the place of the young man who perished. I quit the Government contractor's service to stay at the fort in the place of the young man--at about one-third less wages, too.
M. H. Sydenham's store at Hopeville, Neb. (near Seventeen-mile Point), west of Fort Kearney, 1864.
M. H. Sydenham's residence at Hopeville, Neb., 1864.
"Mr. John Heth was post sutler, and usually did what he could to entertain the officers and help make time pass pleasantly with them at that frontier post. I generally did most of the trading and what else there was to do about the store. Mr. Heth was a brother of Capt. Harry Heth, of the Sixth United States Infantry, through whose influence Mr. John Heth got his sutlership. Capt. Harry Heth was afterwards a major-general in the confederate army during the civil war; Mr. John Heth was relieved of his sutlership early in the war because of his Southern political opinions, he being a Virginian. He never left Nebraska, however, and was afterwards in the hardware business in Nebraska City, and afterwards a commercial agent for an Omaha business house. He died some years ago at Omaha, leaving a wife and two sons and a daughter, who, I believe, are still in Nebraska. Mr. Heth was of a social disposition and was very well liked by the military officers at the fort."
No place on the eastern division of the overland route was more full of interesting history than Fort Kearney. When riding on the stage--it mattered not whether going east or west--was always glad when the old coach had approached near enough to the fort so that I could get a sight of the flag floating above the garrison. On reaching the place going west, I knew that a little more than one-third of the distance from the Missouri river to the mountains had been covered; and, when going east, I was aware that nearly two-thirds of the way had been gone over between Denver and my eastern destination. In going out from Atchison, when the Platte valley was reached, we were fairly out upon the plains, most of the old military road for 250 miles southeast of Fort Kearney having been laid out, regardless of section lines, over the rolling prairies of northern Kansas and southern Nebraska.
The fort was built on the old Oregon route. Including the barracks, a dozen or more buildings made up the Government quarters at the old military post in 1863. A few of the buildings were of sod or adobe, but the houses occupied by the officers were substantial and quite cozy frame structures, being neatly painted, and had a pleasing appearance, built so far out on the frontier.
Among the attractions surrounding the military headquarters in the early '60's were rows of cottonwood shade-trees, the saplings which developed into them having been planted to help beautify the lonely spot in the later '40's. They had grown to be nice trees in the early '60's, when I first saw them. In two and one-fourth years afterwards--April, 1865--they had made considerable additional growth; and now, after more than a third
of a century has gone by since I last saw them, it is said that the trees have become young giants, one of them measuring ten feet or more in circumference.
Less than forty rods distant to the west from the fort were the buildings owned by Ben. Holladay, the stage man, which were used for an office, eating station, storehouse, barn, stable, et., The stage company's buildings were very plainly constructed--more useful than ornamental. The most of them were built of cedar logs, hauled by team more than 100 miles, and well answered the purposes for which they were used.
In the rushing days of overland freighting and staging it always appeared to be a lively spot around Fort Kearney. All the vast traffic of the plains by the Platte Valley route went across the military reservation and within a short distance of the old Government post. Hundreds of white-covered "prairie' schooners" were daily seen on the great highway. Long trains, heavily loaded with every description of freight, and hauled by oxen, mules, and horses, could be seen going west or east at almost any hour of the day. Concord stages, carrying passengers and the great overland mail rolled in daily from Atchison, Omaha, Nebraska City, and California, and usually there was a busy throng composed of the army of stage men, passengers, freighters, drivers, soldiers, and a promiscuous crowd generally.
In the early days of Fort Kearney there was considerable timber growing on the islands adjacent, the most of which was afterwards cut down and converted into lumber and used in the buildings which in the later '50's replaced the early structures made of sod and adobe. Hook's station, afterwards vulgarly called "Dogtown," was located a little east of the military reservation, near the south bank of the Platte, something over eight miles from the fort. The Pawnee Indians claimed the land on which the fort was built, and Colonel May, in command of the post in 1859, ten years after it was built, arranged the preliminaries, and soon the Government was in possession of the "ten-miles-square" tract, the Indians in the meantime securing quite a large body of land near by, embracing their old and favorite home, adjacent to their hunting-grounds. It is alleged that, in making the treaty with the Indians, assurances were also given them that Government would establish and maintain schools for the education of their children, in which they should like-
Post-office and post buildings at Fort Kearney, 1864.
Sod building at Centoria, adjoining west line of Fort Kearney Military Reservation, 1864.
wise be instructed in the ordinary branches of agriculture. "Uncle Sam," however, forgot to make good those promises:
The traffic on the plains over the old military highway had grown to be immense long before the country through which it passed was settled, except in a few localities. As many as 500 heavily loaded wagons a day have often been counted as they passed the fort, many of them with supplies for Forts Laramie and Bridger, besides great numbers destined for merchants in the Mormon capital. In six weeks during the spring of 1865 a count was, kept, showing that no less than 6000 wagons, each loaded with from one to four tons of freight, had passed the Government post, bound west. Nine hundred of them passed in the last three days of the count.
Except for the travel that passed Fort Kearney in early days, it was at times very lonesome for the officers quartered there. A monthly stage route from the Missouri river via Forts Laramie and Bridger furnished them their mail, but afterwards this was increased to semi-monthly, and later to once a week. Soon came the pony express, which was shortly followed by the telegraph from Omaha, and, not long thereafter, the great stage line from St. Joseph and Atchison, carrying the first daily United States mail overland to the Pacific shore.
At the outbreak of the civil war the feeling at Fort Kearney was about equally divided. The Confederacy had many earnest sympathizers at the old post, and at times the discussions became heated, but nothing serious occurred. While the war was raging at the front, a number of officers stationed at Fort Kearney whose sympathies were with the South left, and joined the army in the land of their birth.
There was a good deal of Indian fighting in Nebraska in the '60's, and nearly all operations by the military were conducted from Fort Kearney, the main base of supplies west of Omaha and Fort Leavenworth, on the old trail which followed the Platte. The First Regiment of Nebraska Volunteers was ordered to Fort Kearney in 1862. In 1864 the Seventh Iowa Volunteer Cavalry was ordered to the frontier, and did excellent service protecting the overland stage line. Squads under command of a sergeant, being stationed at intervals of a few miles along the Platte between Fort Kearney and west of old Julesburg, would escort the mail stages from station to station.
It was a serious mistake that there were not more troops stationed on the Platte and Little Blue rivers, for they would doubtless have prevented the horrible murder of scores of innocent men, women and children and saved from destruction millions of dollars of valuable private property, not less than a half million being lost by Ben. Holladay alone through the treacherous savages.
Dobytown, located two miles west of Fort Kearney, is spoken of by M. B. Davis in an article published December, 1899, in the Omaha Bee, as follows:
"Just west of the reservation sprang up a collection of huts and hovels known as 'Adobe Town,' sometimes shortened to 'Dobytown,' and also called Kearney City. It is related that the place at one time had fourteen saloons, though there were only six families there. These saloons were, of course, sustained by the custom of travelers. A detailed history of Dobytown would have a weird sort of interest, no doubt, if all facts could be brought to light. A little further west and near the river is a close thicket of cottonwoods, enclosing the spot where once stood a house. The place was on the old stage road, and was called 'Dirty Woman's Ranch,' with a due regard to the fitness of things. Travelers were often lodged here over night, and if those trees could speak they could tell some wild, weird tales.
"After the close of the war, in 1866, General Pope, commander-in-chief, visited Fort Kearney. He was much pleased with the location, and under his orders great improvements were made. A steam sawmill was set up, logs were brought from inland, and numerous buildings were erected. The next year General Sherman succeeded General Pope, and he made a tour of inspection of the Platte valley. While at the fort General Sherman rode out with Colonel Carrington, the post commander, together with officers and ladies of the fort, to view the country. As they rode through Dobytown some one from within one of the squalid little houses hissed the party. Very soon after the general avenged the insult by ordering the abandonment of the post. An urgent protest from settlers who feared to be left without protection resulted in one company of troops being left at the fort, and from that time it remained a one-company post until it was permanently abandoned, in 1871."
Ne-bras-ka was the original name of the river, given it by the Otoe Indians, who lived near where it empties into the Missouri.
Ever since the first French trappers came into the valley it has been known simply as the Platte. The two names, however, are synonymous.*
*Mrs. E. G Platt, of Oberlin, Ohio, was long with the Pawnees, as teacher in the missionary schools. She wrote me, August 22, 1899:
"I lived with the Pawnees when the territory (Nebraska) was named and spoke their language, so am free to say Nebraska is not a Pawnee word; but a gentleman who had lived some years among the Otoes and spoke their language fluently informed me it is an Otoe word, which literally translated is weeping water, the stream upon which lies the town of Weeping Water being (by the Otoes) named 'Nebrathka' because of the sad tones of its waters as they rushed over their rocky bed." WM. E. C.
Mardos Memorial Library