Phelps County, Nebraska Genealogy


Grave of Young Pioneer Girl Found
in Phelps County, Nebraska

Holdrege Daily Citizen – August 9, 1963

An early-day grave was dug up by county officials yesterday afternoon, and the remains are to be reburied in the Plum Creek massacre site cemetery in the northern part of the county.

The body of an infant, less than one year old, was unearthed on the Herbert Johnson farm southwest of Loomis after it was partially washed out of a hillside. It was apparently the last of three such graves on the same spot, but the other two were believed to have been washed out.

Full details and pictures will appear in Monday’s Citizen. Involved in the project were John E. Dier, county attorney, Wilbur Gewecke, county sheriff, A.I. Rauch, game commissioner, who also has studied the history of the county and area, and Carl Sandstrom, Bertrand funeral director.

Holdrege Daily Citizen – August 12, 1963
By Lowell Johnson

The last grim remains of a pioneer tragedy were unearthed by a group of men on the Herbert Johnson farm about four miles southwest of Loomis Thursday afternoon.

Object of their digging was a small grave partially washed out of a clay hillside in a pasture on the farm. It was the burial place an infant, under one year of age, who was apparently buried with a brother or sister and mother. Although there doesn’t seem to be any records concerning the affair, recollections of residents are that a mother and two young children died while moving west in about 1885.

While cause of death in not certain, it was believed to have been diphtheria or small pox or typhoid from drinking contaminated water during their journey. Burial took place at the top of the hill overlooking a winding valley on what is now the Herbert Johnson farm, but which was the John Pierce homestead at the time.

A picket fence had been put up around the burial place, but had long since disappeared. As the coffin and rough box of this child’s grave was the only one dug up ‘Thursday, it was assumed the others had been washed out previously.

John Dier, Phelps county attorney, and Sheriff Wilbur Gewecke headed the party, which included A. I. Rauch, state game commission member from Holdrege, Carl Sandstrom of Sandstrom’s Funeral Home in Bertrand and representatives of news media. An outline of the rotting wood of the rough box could be seen before digging started, so care was taken in preserving as much of it as possible. Wood was put into a plastic bag, and was buried with bones of the child at the cemetery just south of the Platte River at the Plum Creek massacre site.

Burial in the dedicatory cemetery near the Platte River was done Saturday morning with John Dier, Wilbur Gewecke and A. I. Rauch constituting the burial party. The addition of the unknown child brings the total number of graves in the cemetery to 12. All the others except one were killed at one time by marauding Indians back in 1864. The other one was a woman, who was taken captive and later escaped, but died the following year, 1865.

A stone marking the little grave has been pledged by Palmer Brothers Granite of Holdrege, but the inscription will read “Unknown.” The Johnson brothers, Herbert, and whose farm the grave was found and his brother Glenn, thought the child’s name might be Shear or Shearer, but it is only what they heard when they were children. They moved on the farm in 1906 after their father traded for it in 1905.

It was at that time they heard about the graves on the place, and vaguely remembered seeing the picket fence which once marked the spot. Time and the elements, however, eventually erased all traces until just last week when the noted the outline of the old box. It was then that authorities were called, and disinterment proceedings began.

If the grave had not been moved, it would have been washed out like the others in a matter of months or next year. The new location in the cemetery will be permanent, as it has been made a historic site by the state, mainly through the efforts of A. I. Rauch. Markers have been erected drawing attention to the spot and signs explain some of the history.

Even though the 12th grave in the cemetery has no direct association with the others, it was believed the child was deserving of the honor as any other pioneer who lost his life settling the west.

Taken from a Bronze Plate in the Plum Creek Massacre Cemetery

“The only actual Burial within the cemetery plot, however is that of a small, unidentified child whose remains were discovered on a farm near Loomis, Nebraska. The reinterment took place in 1963.”

Taken from Monument in above cemetery:

"In memory of an unknown child who, from the information available, became seriously ill and died while traveling with a wagon train in 1885 or 1886. Was buried on the Rev. Pierce farm west of Holdrege. The grave was exposed by erosion in Aug. 1963 and was moved here."

NOTE: This stone was donated by Palmer Bros. Granite Company of Holdrege, Nebraska.


By Patti Simpson

On October 23, 2004 I sat down with former Phelps County Sheriff, Wilbur Gewecke to talk about the discovery of a grave he investigated back in 1963. Wilbur used old articles from the Holdrege Daily Citizen from 1963 to refresh his memory of this odd case. Above are copies of how the articles appeared in the local news.

According to Wilbur, the grave was that of a young girl. Make-shift graves along the westward wagon trails were not uncommon. However, this particular grave had an interesting feature not seen or heard of before. The young child’s coffin appeared to be hand-made – a common practice for a burial along the trail far from any community. However, the coffin had an unusual feature. It had a glass window over the child’s face. The framed window was about 8 to 10 inches square. Through the glass could be seen the child’s head, hair and clothing which appeared to be that of a young girl.

It is hoped that someone searching the internet will see these articles and recognize the information as one of their ancestors. Please email me at PSDesigns email link at the bottom of this page. A big THANK YOU to long time Phelps County resident Wilbur Gewecke for sharing his memories of this most unusual case.

November 12, 2005

The land where the grave was initially found is still in the Johnson family. Deb Johnson, grand-daughter of Herbert Johnson, was kind enough to show me, Patti Simpson, the former grave site. The site is located west and south of Loomis in Phelps County off the main road and cannot be seen without knowing where to drive. It is a pretty spot, next to a field road that turns north through a gate and drops to the left into a large open gully pasture. The grave spot was just on the north side of the fence line separating the field and the pasture. It is a small flat spot on the edge of the field that drops off sharply about 10 feet to the pasture road below. I thanked Deb for the directions and she gave me permission to bring Wilbur Gewecke back to the spot to use our divining rods to search for other graves.

On November 20, 2005, Wilbur Gewecke, his wife Marcia, and I, Patti Simpson, went back to the former grave spot. It was a warm day with little wind. Wilbur remembered the area at once and knew exactly where to look for more graves. We spent about 30-45 minutes divining the area. We found four additional graves lined up side by side. After some measuring, we believe there to be a man on the south side next to the fence. North of him is a woman then another man. On the extreme north - within 4 feet of the road, is a small female grave.

After researching this area, we proceeded to the current resting spot of the child's grave at Plub Creek Cemetery. We used our divining rods and confirmed that yes, the child was a female.

We may never know who the other people are buried on the Johnson farm. Were they original homesteaders? Or were they on a wagon train passing through? Did they all die at once from disease or an accident? Or was it a small family plot used when needed? We may never know, but now at least we know they are there.

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Last update 2008