Hamilton Co. History

Hamilton County NEGenWeb Project

sketch of courthouse

Like branches on a tree,
we may grow in different directions,
yet our roots remain as one.
Each of our lives will always be
a special part of the other.
- author unknown -

(drawing from Aurora Chamber of Commerce)


"Centennial History of Hamilton County 1867-1967"

by Bertha G. Bremer

Anywhere from 100,000 to 1 million years ago, in the Pleistocene period of geology, the Platte Valley was cut through the plains of western America. The process of its excavation is becoming more and more clear as we study the underlying strata and similar processes in other parts of the world It is quite clear that the sand hill areas were formed by long prevailing winds from the deposits of sand washed down from the mountains by a great volume of water.

When wells are dug in Hamilton County or deep cuts driven in constructing highways, frequent evidence is found of long ago time, in buried logs, bones of animals unknown in this region during the historic age. When did man first discover Hamilton County? The answer is difficult. When the first white man under Coronado came to these plains in 1541, they found different bands of Indians living in villages across the buffalo plains from the Arkansas River to the Platte. At the time of Lewis and Clark, three bands of the Pawnee nation were living in the Loup and Platte. The other band, called the Republican Band, had its chief village on the Republican between Guide Rock and Red Cloud. This was the village visited by Lieutenant Pike in 1806 when he made them haul down the Spanish flag and run up the Stars and Stripes.. So the Spanish found the Pawnee in the Nebraska region over 400 years ago and the long legends and traditions of the Pawnee indicate they were here a long period before Coronado It is safe to assume it is more than a thousand years since the American and Pawnee first arrived in the beautiful region of the Platte Valley.

There is evidence of the discovery of Hamilton County by these wandering bands, dug all over the county. Near the turn of the century a cache of the most beautiful white flint arrowheads were found near the York-Hamilton County line, and are displayed in the Nebraska State Historical Museum in Lincoln. One of the reasons for believing the Spaniards crossed this county is the existence of the old Pawnee Trail. This trail was first put on the map by Lieutenant John C. Fremont in 1842. The trail starting from the foot of Grand Island, cross Hamilton, Clay, Nuckolls and Webster counties to the Republican River and beyond. September 23, 1847, Lieutenant D.P. Woodbury, with 70 armed cavalry from the Missouri volunteers left Fort Kearny at Table Creek to reach by most direct route, the Grand Island area on the Platte River. Lieutenant Woodbury on this trip, made the first map of the Hamilton County region. He crossed the corner of Hamilton County and struck the Platte not many miles from the present site of Phillips. A well-traveled freighting road was established from the Missouri River at Nebraska City westward to the new Fort Kearny. Heavy freighting business was done from 1852 to 1860. It was called the Ox-Bow Trail for it was in the line of a bow, because the road ran far north to reach the Platte River near Morse Bluffs and then south to Fort Kearny. This old trail traveled the entire north border of Hamilton County.

In the spring of 1861, business men of Nebraska City, then the largest town in Nebraska, resolved to find the shortest route, to find a short cut to Fort Kearny, avoiding the long Ox-Bow Trail to the north and back again. The exploring expedition took a nearly west course across the prairie to Fort Kearny and reported a fine, easy route could be secured. The new trail was selected by men on horseback riding ahead of the outfit of wagons, mules and men with breaking plows, all from Nebraska City. In this was a furrow was run across the prairie to a junction with the Oregon Trail eight miles east of Kearney. The new road saved forty miles, had a better grade, with plenty of water and wood available. It soon became the most popular route to the mountains and 75% of the traffic followed it by 1862. It was called the Nebraska City-Fort Kearny cut-off. This road through Hamilton County, followed the head waters of Beaver Creek to their source near the west line of Hamilton County, then over the gentle divide into the Platte River valley. Numerous ranches and stations sprang up along the trail, one of the most noted being the Deep Well Ranch, about seven and one-half miles west and some south of the present site of Aurora. Thousands of cattle, wagons, men, women and children passed over this trail between 1860 and 1870.

The homesteaders began to settle the county about 1866. Before that time the only settlers were ranchmen who came to make their living off the overland travelers. The establishment of the Fort Kearny cut-off in 1861, made an immediate prospect for hardy frontiersmen familiar with the overland travel, and knowing how to make a profit therefrom.


The first of these pioneer ranchmen was David Millspaw, who located on Beaver Creek in the summer of 1861. After conducting his ranch a number of years he moved to Beaver Crossing in 1869, and spent the remainder of his years there. It was said of David Millspaw, "He was a tall, slouching grey-haired figure with chin whiskers and an enormous cud of tobacco in one side of his face. He and Mrs. Millspaw had one child, Rosie. She married Jack McClellan or Jack Stone, as he was sometimes called. There was nothing in those days to prevent a man wearing different names in different communities according to his fancy."

In 1862, a second ranch was located in Hamilton County by John Harris and Alfred Blue. This was the famous Deep Well Ranch, one of the best known places in all the early annals of the county.

After the Union Pacific was completed across Nebraska in 1867, freighting on the Wagon Road fell off, but immigrant travel began. Bold-hearted settlers picked out the choicest land, as they thought, along the West Blue, Beaver Creek, and Lincoln Creek. By 1869-1870, the homesteaders movement to Hamilton County was in full force. From 1869-1874, there was never a time of day when a string of white-topped wagons coming from the east ceased. All day long and into the night they traveled. Some had little strings of livestock with them. These were homesteaders, many of them soldiers of the Civil War, moving west to find free homes on the beautiful rich prairie of York and Hamilton counties.


The boundaries of Hamilton County were defined by an act of the Twelfth Session of the Territorial Legislature, Section 2 to 31, as follows:

Sec.2: That the territory included within the following described limits, to-wit: Commencing at a point where the west line of Range Four, west of the Sixth Principal Meridian, crosses the Platte River, and running from thence up the channel of said river to the point where the west line of Range Eight west of the Sixth Principal Meridian crosses the said river, and running from thence due south, to the southwest corner of Township No. Nine, Range Eight, and running from thence due east, to the southeast corner of Township No. Nine, Range Five, and running from thence due north to the place of beginning, be and the same shall constitute the county of Hamilton.

An act of the Legislature approved February 24, 1873, provides that section lines of the county shall be public roads and highways.

Hamilton County by the act of the Legislature of 1871, formed a part of the Twelfth Senatorial and Thirteenth Representative Districts, each of which was entitled to one member. The Twelfth Senatorial District included the counties of Saline, Gage, Jefferson, Fillmore, Clay, York, Polk, Hamilton, Nuckolls, Webster, Adams, Kearney and Franklin together with all that portion of the state not included in any other Senatorial District, and which lies south of the Platte River, west of the counties named. The Thirteenth Representative District included the counties of York, Polk, Butler, Platte, Hamilton, Filmore, Clay and Adams. By the Constitution adopted in 1875, the county was apportioned representatives as follows:

"District (Senatorial) No. 22 shall consist of the counties of York and Hamilton, and be entitled to one Senator. Representative District No. 28 shall consist of the county of Hamilton, and be entitled to one Representative."

In the reapportionment of 1881 Hamilton and Hall Counties constituted the Twenty-Fifth Senatorial District, while Hamilton County formed the Thirty-third Representative District, and was entitled to two members, which continued until 1887, when Clay and Hamilton County constituted the Forty-First Representative District, entitled to two members which continued until January 1, 1937, when the Unicameral or One-House Legislature began to function. Since then there have been Senators elected from Senatorial Districts on a non-partisan ticket.

Hamilton County was organized at a general election held May 3, 1870, at the home of John Harris, called for that purpose by a proclamation of Governor David Butler, issued March 13, 1870, of which the following is a copy:

                  State of Nebraska
                  Executive Department
WHEREAS, a large number of the citizens of the unorganized county of Hamilton have united in a petition asking that an election be called for the purpose of choosing county officers, preliminary to the organization of said county:
THEREFORE, I, David Butler, Governor of Nebraska, by virtue of the authority vested in me, do hereby order that an election be held at the house of John Harris, said county, from 9 o'clock A.M. to 6 o'clock P.M. on Thursday, the Third day of May A.D., 1870, for the purpose of choosing three county commissioners, one county clerk , one county treasurer, one sheriff, one probate judge, one county surveyor, one superintendent of public schools, one coroner, three judges of, and two clerks of election.
AND, I have designate and appoint John Laurie, Norris M. Bray, and Jarvil Chaffee as judges, and Josias D. Westcott and William D. Young, clerks, to conduct said election in accordance with the act for the organization of counties, approved June 24, 1867, and the election laws of the State.
IN TESTIMONY WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused to be affixed the great seal of the State of Nebraska. Done at Lincoln, this thirteenth day of March, in the year of our Lord, one thousand eight hundred and seventy, of the independence of the United States, ninety-fourth , and of this state, and fourth.
          (SEAL) By the Governor, David Butler.
          Thomas P. Kennard, Secretary of State

In accordance with this proclamation eighteen citizens, the voting population, assembled at the house of John Harris, in what is now known as Farmers Valley Precinct, on the Blue River, May 2, 1870, and organized the county, electing the following, filed in the county clerk's office:
For county seat, south half of northeast quarter, and north half of southeast quarter, Section 922), Town (9) north, Range (60 west, had (18) votes, being the whole number cast at the first election held in Hamilton County.
The officers were Josias D. Westcott, county clerk; William D. Young, Norris M. Bray and Alexander Laurie, county commissioners; Clarence O. Westcott, treasurer; George F. Dickson, sheriff; Robert Lamont, probate judge; John E. Harris, surveyor; John Laurie, supt. of schools; James Rollo, coroner.

                  ATTEST: John Laurie
        Josias D. Westcott . . . . . . . . . . . . . Norris M Bray
        William D. Young . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Jarvil Chaffee
        Clerks of Election . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Judges of Election

The county seat, as located by the vote of the people, was named Orville City, and was surveyed by John Harris. A court house was built in May 1872, in which the records of the county were kept until their removal to Aurora, January 1, 1976, at which date Aurora was made the county seat after a long and bitter contest, during which five elections were held to decide the question of removal


The first settlement in the county for the purpose of agriculture was made in the month of June, 1866, by Jarvil Chaffee, on the Blue River, near the south line of the county, Section 34, Town 9, Range 6. His Homestead Certificate was signed by Ulysses S. Grant on May 1, 1872, after Mr. Chafee had proved up on his land.

Mr. and Mrs. Chaffee came from Wisconsin to Hamilton County by team and wagon, just a few months prior to the time Nebraska was admitted as a state, and three years before Hamilton County was organized. The construction of a dug-out 10X12 feet on their claim near the fork of the Blue River, soon after their arrival, gave the first evidence of habitation in Hamilton County. Buffalo, deer and elk were plentiful, and were often brought down on their homestead. Mr. Chaffee served with the Wisconsin Volunteers Infantry during the Civil War, taking part in numerous engagements. Soon after the wear, he was married to Miss Nancy Markham of Ohio. Her death occurred in 1871. Her only child, Jesse, was born December, 1869, and is conceded to have been the second white male child born in Hamilton County, where he spent his entire lifetime.

At the time of Mrs. Chaffee's death, the neighbors were able to procure some rough pine boards from which to make the casket. The women folk shuddered at the bleak cold pine wood, but where could they improve it? Showing the ingenuity of the pioneer, they gathered wild grapes which were ripe, crushed them and stained the pine with grape juice to give a rich color. In 1876, Mr. Chaffee was married to Miss Sarah Frazier, also from Ohio, who survived Mr. Chafee by several years, residing on the old home farm with her two sons, Edward and Roy, until her death.


Deepwell Ranch

Deepwell Ranch was established in 1865, near the Beaver Creek in section 32, Hamilton precinct, by John Harris and Alfred Blue. It became a famous stopping place for early freighters for the deep well never failed to supply good cold water for man or beast. It was on the Oregon Trail which continued west through Hall County to old Fort Kearny. Harris and Blue came from Georgia after the Civil War and established Deepwell Ranch, building a big sod house and barn, and dug a well 65 feet deep, from which the ranch received its name. The barn was half-dugout and half sod and was capable of holding 165 head of horses. The men who accompanied the wagons usually camped outside. Harris reported that they had 25 men inside the house at one time, and never were lonesome , as wagon trains passed constantly between Nebraska City and Denver. Mr. Harris reported that shortly before they left Deepwell Ranch that Brigham Young Jr., with a Mormon wagon train of 83, six-mule teams passed through enroute to Utah. Great herds of buffalo were common on the prairie in those days and in the fall of 1868, about 4,000 Winnebago and Pawnee Indians camped about a mile west of Deepwell. They were returning from the warpath and carried five Sioux scalps. They remained five days and nights celebrating a war dance for each scalp.

Millspaw Ranch

Millspaw Ranch also furnished respite for the weary wagon train travelers. It was established in 1861, by David Millspaw in Section 11, Beaver precinct, for the accommodation of freighters and others traveling by oxen or horses and covered wagons along the Old Oregon Trail. At the time Millspaw ranch was located at this point, all of Section 11 belonged to the government, which issued a patent to the U.P.R.R. company dated March 1, 1875. The railroad sold part of this section in 1884, part in 1885, and the balance in 1889.

Briggs Fort

Briggs Fort (Briggs Ranch) was established by J.T. Briggs on the north half of the southwest quarter of section 26, in the old Cedar Valley precinct, now South Platte precinct on October 5, 1871. Mr. Briggs owned this land until he sold to Charles Lock in February 24, 1883. This ranch was known in the early 70's as Briggs Ranch, and also as Briggs Fort, and was the only point in Hamilton County ever known or referred to as a fort. The "Old Fort Kearny", also referred to as the "Pike's Peak Trail", following the Platte bottom, passed by this ranch. This trail was first traveled for military purposes, and was subsequently used by the "Forty-Niners". This ranch, along with others flourished until the advent of the railroad.

Prairie Camp

Prairie Camp consisted of a sod stable which was a half dugout in the side of the creek, to accommodate 20 or 30 head of horses. A sod house was also located near the south bank of Beaver Creek, in the northeast corner of the southwest quarter of section 17, in Beaver precinct. It was used as a relay station for the Overland stage line in 1863, between Nebraska City and Fort Kearny. In early days it was also known as the "Dirty Shirt Camp." The Oregon Trail passed just a few yards south of the camp, and the water was supplied for men and horses from Beaver Creek. Those familiar with this camp also related that in the early days an unusually large elm tree grew near the camp on the creek bank. The north half of the southwest quarter of the section 17, on which Prairie Camp was located belonged to the government at the time the camp was located here. On March 26, 1875, the U.P.R.R. company received their patent from the government and on January 20, 1881, sold to Daniel Lemley, who in turn sold the land to H.L. and R.L. Hall on November 30, 1883.


The first frame house was erected by F.H. Clark in 1870, the lumber being hauled from Grand Island.

The first birth in the county took place at the Milllspaw Ranch, a daughter to John and Rosie McClellan and the granddaughter of Daniel Millspaw. This transpired in the fall of 1861, and the first death, that of this little child, occurred in the summer of 1862. She was buried on the prairie near the site of the old ranch. This story however, has been disputed by some sources which say this child, a son, was born in Maryville, Kansas, and died here in 1865--one of the earliest deaths in the area.

The first birth on record was a son to Mr. and Mrs. C.O. Westcott, whom they named Orville, and from whom the town of Orville received its name.

The first marriage was that of Phillip Hart to Elizabeth Ellen Verley, August 21, 1870, by Robert Lamont, Probate Judge.

The first election was held in the house of John Harris on the Blue, May 3, 1870.

The first case tried in the District Court was a divorce suit at a term of the court presided over by Hon. George B. Lake. E.W. Denio, and Mr. Darnell were the counsel retained and were the first lawyers to practice in the county.

The first Fourth of July Celebration was help in the year 1870, in a grove on the south side of the Blue, the property of J.D. Westcott. The address was delivered by B.D. Brown, the orator of the day, it being his first attempt, and also the first oration listened to in the county.

The first crime was of the highest type--a murder of a Mr. Johnson of Illinois, in August 1870. In company with Mr. F. Sawyer of Lincoln, he had been in the county looking over land, and it was supposed Sawyer murdered him for his money, as they were returning to Lincoln. Johnson's body was found several days later on the prairie and Sawyer was arrested on suspicion of murder and returned to Hamilton County. He was later discharged from custody in Lincoln on a writ of habeas corpus.

Farmers Valley was the first post office in Hamilton County and was first located in the home of J.D. Westcott, who was first postmaster in the county. Location section 24, Farmers Valley precinct. His house was built in 1867, from logs hewn by himself from trees grown on his place. This post office was moved to the home of L.M.Hopkins when Westcott was elected county clerk. Now the post office was in a dug-out until 1880, when moved back to Westcott's until moved to a store near Farmers Valley Mill. The store was operated by George Littlefield, an uncle of Marion Lititlefield who was killed in a battle with the Sioux Indians in Garfield County in January, 1874. When the store closed the post office was moved into the mill where it was called "Farmvale Post office." It continued until 1902 when rural delivery started.

The second post office was established in 1870, on the Blue, at the house of Robert Lamont, who was appointed postmaster. This post office in Orville Precinct was named Verona and continued under that name until its removal to Orville City. In the spring of 1871, another post office was established in Grand precinct at the house of S.W.Spafford, who served as its postmaster. A weekly mail route was established by L.W. Hastings, Contractor, from Seward to Grand Island, via York and Spaffords Grove.

The first Platte River bridge known as the Chapman Bridge, which connects Hamilton and Merrick counties was built in 1878. This bridge was one of the best across the Platte in its day. It was 2800 feet long and was built at a cost of $14,000.

The first School District was organized September 27, 1870. Joseph Stockham was elected director, and the census returned of the district recorded 39children of school age. The building was made of logs and each settler furnished a log, two bachelors bough the windows and two pine boards for a desk, the seats being made of split logs. Situated on section 34, Town 9, range 5.

Miss Jennie Laurie taught the first school here with 10 pup8ils, and was paid by subscription, the settlers contributing money or wheat, as best they could, in the winter of 1870-71. A fire nearly ended the educational program, for a fires was discovered one night after a social gathering. Spotted by Robert Waddle and John Harris, they dashed to the school and put out the fir, after considerable damage had been done. It was repaired and school resumed. Miss Laurie became Mrs A. M. Glover.


Reverend Mr. Colwell preached the first sermon the county at the house of James Waddle in the spring of 1869. His labors covered a period of about three years.

The first church organization was effected at the house of R.M.Hunt in Beaver precinct August 13, 1871, consisting of these members: R.M. Hunt, S.B.Yost, Steph Pollard, Alvira Jones, and F.AnnDoty. It was called the Aurora Baptist Church and later reorganized.

United Presbyterian church, Monroe precinct was organized by Reverend N. C. Robinson, Synodical Missionary, June 4, 1875, with a membership of 34.

Avon Presbyterian Church, Bluff precinct was formed by Reverend H.M. Giltner, August 11, 1876, who became its pastor and continued until 1877, when he was succeeded by Reverend J.H. Patterson. He remained until 1881.

The Methodist Church had organizations in several parts of the county as follows: Whittemore Class, Otis precinct, organized by Reverend C.L. Smith, attached to Stromsburg circuit. VanWormer Class, Orville precinct, organized in 1873, attached to Aurora circuit. Seward Class, organized June, 1873, attached to St. Joe circuit in Union precinct. Boag Class, Union precinct, organized February, 1875. W.K. Ream organized a class at Klumb schoolhouse in the winter of 1875-76and another at Fairview schoolhouse in the summer of 1881. Another that summer was at Cain school where Reverend Clement Aldridge organized the class. Reverend C.L.Smith organized a class at Hoffman schoolhouse, February 1876.


Farmers Valley Cemetery

The earliest settlers in Hamilton County located in the south part of the county, in the precinct to become Farmers Valley. Brave men and women withstood the rigors of a new land. Following Jarvil Chaffee, the first white settler, and one who received the first homestead grant, came the Scotch Colony -- the Waddles, Lauries, Hendersons, Camerons, and Lamonts, to form the nucleus of the first settlement. But with the first settlers came the first deaths, and the hallowed grounds of Farmers Valley Cemetery, the final resting place for these honored dead. Today this beautifully- located cemetery is preserved and stands in silent tribute to the pioneer. Here this generation and many generations to come, can visit this revered spot and glean and dream much of the historic past.

Farmers Valley Cemetery is not only the first cemetery in the county, but its most historic. On three sides of this burying ground winds the Blue River, along whose banks the first pioneers built their soddies and log houses. On the headstones mellowed by years of rain and sunshine, are found the names associated with the finest traditions of the first settlement. John Brown, who first settled in Farmers Valley in January, 1867, and built the first log house, gave four acres from his homestead for the cemetery. This is a strangely silent, shadowed place, intermittent with sunshine. A quiet holiness, a feeling almost of restfulness comes over one, while lines from the great Elegy steal into his heart. Magnificent cinnamon pines, veterans of the years, stand as sentinels, guarding the dead. While birch, maple and the evergreen, all of less years, shelter many an early grave, while the old yellow, moss-grown stone is hardly decipherable. There are men and women resting here in this old burying ground on the banks of the river, who made the first settlement in Hamilton County -- Farmers Valley on the "Blue", and it is fitting that they should be laid to rest beside the river. Phillips Hunt was the first person buried in Farmers Valley Cemetery. He died September 6, 1874

Perhaps no one cemetery in Nebraska has a more exciting and colorful roster, history-wise, than does Farmers Valley. The cemetery is maintained by some help from the county, and by the contributions made by relatives and friends of those buried here. Each Memorial Day since early days, services have been held at this cemetery to pay homage to the pioneer men and women who blazed the way to develop a new country and make it what it is today, and also to the loved ones who have passed on since.

Farmers Valley Mill

No history would be complete without the story of the origin of the Farmers Valley Mill built in 1880, which provided such a vital service to the new settlers in the area. This mill was built on the south bank of the Blue River, section 25, Farmers Valley precinct, by John and Asa Martin. The mill was equipped with four sets of stone burrs, operated by water power supplied from the Blue River, and owned and operated by the Martin brothers.

In 1882, the mill and 33 acres of land on which the mill dam and race were located, was traded to Jacob George, who then operated the mill until 1888, when he traded one-half interest and became sole owner.

While owner, Mr. Hagemeister adopted the label and trademark, "Nancy Hanks" for his wheat flour. The label consisted of a race horse hitched to a sulky, with a driver. At the time this name was adopted "Nancy Hanks" held the world's record as a race horse. This label was known far and wide by the pioneers in the trade territory of Farmers Valley Mill. In 1892, Mr. Hagemeister did some remodeling of the mill, replacing the stone burrs with rools and more modern equipment. Fred Jr. was in charge of the mill when Mr. Will Hagemeister was elected to the State Legislature in 1907.

In 1910, the mill was sold to Conrad Yost, who continued to own and operate this oldest commercial enterprise in Hamilton County for many years. However, during the years which followed his ownership, mills were being opened in the various towns, with much greater volume and Mr. Yost finally closed down the mill in about 1940. At this time he sold the mill and land to Harry Borcher, and moved from the county. The mill was never reopened.


The Hamilton County Fair is unique in the state in that it is the oldest county fair in continuous annual operation, having begun in 1872, and it provides a continuous link to the pioneer past. It has never failed to draw splendid exhhibits of livestock, produce, latest in equipment, educational and handwork, in addition to a variety of entertainment for young and old.

According to best information sources, first steps were taken toward the organization of a fair association in Hamilton County in the store of David Stone, in the brand new "town" of Aurora in the fall of 1871. The plan thus inaugurated was perfected at Orville City, then the county seat. Joseph F. Glover was elected president; James Rollo, a vice-president; George F. Dixon, secretary; E. J. Lewis, assistant secretary; and John Laurie, treasurer. Others active in the enterprise were C. O. Westcott, T. C. Klumb and Norris Bray.

The first fair was held in Aurora in 1873, with several years interval before the second one in Aurora, but they were being held in Orville, hence the continuous fair in the county.

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