There is general agreement among historians that the geography of a region profoundly influences its history. Holt County is no exception to this rule. It lies near the northern edge of Nebraska with only the narrow county of Boyd separating it from South Dakota. It is a few miles east of the 100th meridian, the north and south line which passes through the center of Nebraska.
It is nearly square with an average north-south length of 49.9 miles, and east-west width of about 48 miles, and an area of 2,404 squire miles. The irregular northern boundary is formed by the Niobrara river.
It is one of the six largest counties in the state in area, and the nineteenth in population, not excluding Douglas and Lancaster.
The county includes four well-defined divisions as to soil and surface: (1) Beginning at the north the Niobrara river brakes, south of the river, steep-sloping, and gullied by streams and canyons; (2) the Holt table between the southern edge of the high terraces in the Niobrara valley and the Elkhorn, the portion most adapted to general farming and containing most of the inhabitants; (3) the prairie plains or the "hay flats," south of the Elkhorn river; and (4) the sandhills in the south-west part of the county, thinly settled and devoted to ranches.
The outstanding feature of the soils is their sandy texture. With the exception of a few small areas, the soils are either sandy loams or sands. They are adapted to livestock raising, rather than to cash-grain farming. The greater part of the land is suited for hay, pasture, and forage crops.
Lying between the 98th and the 100th meridian, Holt County is in the zone of 20 to 22 inches average annual rainfall. Since three-fourths of this precipitation falls during the principal part of the growing season, between April 1 and Oct. 1, it is sufficient for general agriculture if the average rainfall comes. The region can be reasonably sure of at least 22.16 inches of rainfall only 50 percent of the time.
Since Holt County is in the north central part of the Great Plains region, it has a high average wind velocity and is subject to sudden changes of temperature. it is in the path of the hot summer winds from the southwest. On the other hand, old settlers like W. D. Matthews tell of the blizzards and hard winter of 1881. The attention of the whole country was fixed upon Holt County and the fate of the school teacher, Etta Shattuck, in the great blizzard of 1888. Loss of life and stock has occurred in such storms on several other occasions.
The size of Holt County has given it prestige and influence in the state and it has served as a training ground for state and national leaders. It is sufficient to mention only a few: M. F. "Mike" Harrington, one of the ablest lawyers and political leaders in the middle west; Congressman Moses P. Kinkaid, sponsor of the Kinkaid homestead law; Arthur Mullen, for many years the Democratic political "boss" of Nebraska; James Hanley, for some time federal radio commissioner; Ham Kautzman, the vigorous editor; James A. Donahue, federal district judge at omaha; Hugh Boyle, attorney and orator; District Judge R. R. Dickson, and Frank J. Brady of Atkinson, chairman of the appropriations committee in the first two unicameral legislatures. Local writers claim "Big Bill" Thompson, ex-mayor of Chicago, as a one-time rancher of Holt County, where he acquired the title of "Cowboy Bill." Thousands of radio listeners are acquainted with Donna Dae of Atkinson.
Size has also caused many bitter fights over county division or over the permanent location of the county seat. O'Neill, in the precinct originally named "Center," has always been able to play off one outlying rival against another, retain the county seat and prevent county division. The fact that Holt is one of the twenty-seven counties in Nebraska having the township form of county organization is, no doubt, due partly to its size.
The Elkhorn river flows in a southeasterly direction, dividing the county into two almost equal parts. It has furnished a natural highway to the Black Hills and a roadbed for the Chicago & Northwestern railway, even as did the Platte valley for the Oregon and California Trails and the Union Pacific.
The different major areas of the county have helped to determine the occupations, interests, the economic status, and to some extent the political views of their inhabitants. It is probably no accident that Holt County was a stronghold of Populism in the 1890's. It belonged to that zone of the state where farmers had ventured too far with the eastern type of farming in a series of good years, only to be caught in a period of unprecedented drouths.
The first record of a white man's having explored the sandhill region of Nebraska is shown in a map published in Paris in 1802. A Scotchman, James Mackey (Fr. Jacques M. Machey) reached the region of the North Loup in 1795-96. Then continued westward to the great sandhill lakes of Cherry County, then northward to Niobrara river, which he followed down to where it joins the Missouri. Thus he traced the northern boundary of Holt County.
On Jan 13, 1860 a county called "West" was marked out by the legislature. This comprised the northeast portion ow what is now Holt County and extended only as far west as the mouth of the Keyapaha river, and as far south (40 miles) as an east-west line half way between Inman and Ewing. This was merely a county on paper and never reached the stage of organization.
Holt County, with essentially its present boundaries, was blocked out of unorganized territory by an act of the legislature, approved Jan. 9, 1862. It was not yet an "organized" county, however, but it was attached, "for all judicial, revenue, and election purposes, to the county of L'Eau qui Court (Knox) next east of said Holt County."
It is safe to say there were few white inhabitants in Holt County in 1862. There is a tradition that several years before there were any permanent settlers, there was an attempt at settlement at the mouth of Redbird creek by some discharged federal soldiers. There were a few tappers and nomadic settlers in the northeast and northern part of the county and the McEvony settlement of few miles east of the present city of O'Neill.
A Mr. Ford came in 1870 and lived alone a mile and a half northeast of Ewing. He died in 1871. The first post office in the county was established at Ford, Jan 22, 1874.
"The first settler in the county of whom there is any record, was William H. Inman, who erected a house on the banks of the Elkhorn, in 1872. During the following year, Dr. Wentworth, James Ewing, Tom Kelly and William Dougald located claims in the county. On June 13, 1873, Henry H. McEvony, Eli H. Thompson, Frank Bitney, John T. Prouty, Eli Sanford and John Sanford, from Sauk County, Wisconsin, located claims in range eleven West, near the Elkhorn.
"James McFarling, Conrad Mitchell, David Weisgarber, Samuel Wolf, John Develin, Mr. Hoxie and sons, Joe Kreiser, Mr. Gunther and the Palmer brothers, located here during the summer and fall of 1873.
"The above named persons, together with their families, included about the entire population of the county until the spring of 1874, at which time Gen. John O'Neill arrived from the east with an Irish colony and established the now flourishing town of O'Neill. The members composing this colony were: Patrick S. Hughes, Michael McGrath, Neil S. Brennan, Thomas N. J. Hynes, Thomas Connolly, Timothy O'Connor, Patrick Murray, Thomas Cain, Pat Brennan, and Thomas Kelly." (Johnson's History of Nebraska, p. 390.)
Wolfe's Gazeteer of 1879 says: "Most of the early settlers are Omaha men who are opening up ranches in Knox and Holt and beyond...Some of the owners of herds are John A. and James Creighton, 2600 cattle; Herman Kountze, 3200; Sharp, 4000; Carrier, Stebbins and others, 800; Dr. Tower, 1200; Barnard 600; Paxton, 1,700; Coffman, 500; poor & Co., 4800; McManus, 1200; Fred Drexel, 300; Morehead, 1000; Newman, 1500; army contractors, 2500 to 3000--total 25,000.
Notwithstanding the assertion that O'Neill, county seat of Holt County, was named for the Irish warrior Hugh O'Neill, it is generally conceded that the town of O'Neill is named for Gen. John O'Neill, who brought four different groups of Irish emigrants to the O'Neill colony--the first, May 12, 1874; the second in 1875; in 1876 a large group of 102 men, women and children came; and in 1877 the fourth organized group, numbering 70 came. At this time the nearest land office was at Dakota City.
Much of the information about the founding of O'Neill is taken from General O'Neill's notes and letters as collected and compiled by Judge J. J. McCafferty and printed in "The Frontier," June 26 to Aug 28, 1924, at the time of the semi-centennial celebration, and from several letters of Gen. John O'Neill, W. H. Inman and others in the governor's vault at the state capitol in Lincoln.
When General O'Neill conceived the colonizing plan in 1872, he traveled through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri and Nebraska seeking a site and decided upon Holt County, where there was plenty of water in streams and springs, good land for grazing and cultivation, timber for burning and building. All this was practically free to them from the generous hand of the government which was opening up the country ot the Civil War soldiers for settlement. O'Neill was an ex-lieutenant of the United States army, also an ex-general of the Fenian invasion of Canada. And now his dream wa to bring his countrymen out of the crowded conditions of the city, with all its attendant evils and the struggle for a bare existence, into the land of "Room Enough."
O'Neill says of his project, "I have not taken hold of this business for a day, a week, a month or a year, but believe it to be the next best thing to fighting for Ireland. I shall continue at it despite every obstacle until called upon for sterner work." In his letters and pamphlets of instructions to prospective immigrants, he stresses the nearness of his land to the Black Hills and says: "It is my intention to establish a string of towns about twenty miles apart from O'Neill to the Black Hills," and his best advice to those in search of gold was given in these words: "More gold can be realized by raising
produce to sell to miners than by digging for it. I have no hesitation in advising persons to join the colony, get 160 or 320 acres of land for nothing, and after putting in crop, go to Black Hills if they wish, since he can be absent six months."
And the village of O'Neill, the last settlement on the shortest and best route to the black Hills, did furnish equipment and food supplies to the prospectors and to the mining camps. Mrs. Annie D. Tallent, the first white woman in the Black Hills, tells of her group which started out from Sioux City, Iowa, in October 1874 and stopped for a day and night at O'Neill.
When O'Neill was questioned as to who employed him to do this colonization work, he said: "I am not in the pay or employ of the United States government, the state of Nebraska, or a railroad company...As to the motives which actuate me in devoting my attention to this business, I will say that they are precisely the same as those by which I was actuated nearly ten years ago when called upon to risk my life in trying to do something for the cause of my native land...There was certainly no money in it, at least for me, for I went into the movement a wealthy man, and left it without a dollar to pay for a breakfast or a night's lodging."...
O'Neill's hope for bettering the conditions of his fellow countrymen was not fully realized during his lifetime. In the midst of his work, this man of fighting faith died in St. Joseph's Hospital, Omaha, Jan. 8, 1878. He was buried in the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Omaha.
The process of "organizing" or setting up an actual county government in the area previously designated by the legislature as Holt County was attended by considerable confusion.
In a letter to Governor Garber dated Feb. 17, 1876, General O'Neill speaks of a fraudulent organization of the county and election of officers "about three years ago and before there were a dozen families in the county." His assertion had received attention in Governor Furnas' message to the legislature in 1875.
The law of 1873 relative to the organization of counties, required first of all 200 inhabitants, then a petition to the governor signed by ten taxpayers, asking for the appointment by the governor of three temporary commissioners and a clerk, and the designation of a temporary county seat.
"But," says O'Neill in his letter, "nearly eighteen months after, when I first visited the county, I could find no officers, nor could I find any man who knew anything about the election said to have taken place, or of the petition which was gotten up. One of the evil effects of this fraudulent tansaction is, that there are now bonds on the county and on the county seat, of Holt County on sale in the eastern market, which has injured the county very much." Actual organization of the county took place in 1876 over the opposition of O'Neill and his followers.
On June 29, 1876, Governor Garber issued a proclamation or executive order granting a petition that Elijah Thompson, J. B. Berry, and James Ewing, be named as temporary commissioners and William Inman as temporary clerk, and that the temporary county seat be fixed at Twin Lakes, at the house of H. W. Haynes, on the N W. 1/4 Sec 12, Twp. 28 N., Range 11 West. Attached to the petition was a considerable list of settlers names and residences, and the number of children in each family.
The need for schools was one of the main arguments of the petitioners, while the arguments of the opponents centered about the inability of the few settlers to finance a county government and the desire of speculators to exploit the new county.
The main function of the temporary commissioners and clerk was to provide for the regular and permanent organization of the county. They ordered an election held on Dec. 27, 1876 at which the first regular county seat fixed at a village formerly called Troy, but in 1875 renamed Paddock, after Senator A. S. Paddock.
Paddock was at the extreme northern edge of the county, on the south bank of the Niobrara. There was so much dissatisfaction with this remote position, that a special election was held on May 12, 1879, for relocating the county seat in a more central place. O'Neill was chosen by a vote of 279 out of a total of 391.
The county clerk moved the county records to O'Neill on Aug. 1, 1879 and said in his memorandum to the county board; "I found no building or room provided to deposit said records." Rented private or makeshift buildings served as a courthouse until 1885. Jail accommodations were hired at West Point on some occasions.
According to the United States census the great period of immigration into Holt County was from 1880 to 1890. On the basis of population in 1880, the gain in the next ten years was 400 percent. On the basis of the population of 1879, the gain in the eleven years up to 1890 was more than 700 percent.
No doubt one cause of this remarkable immigration was the prospect of a great railway being built up the Elkhorn valley and on to the Black Hills. This railroad, the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley, now the Northwestern, printed its first O'Neill time-table in the O'Neill Frontier of Aug. 25, 1881.
This railroad unlike other great railroads had received no land grant. In the interest of self perpetuation, it was forced to develop the region. "'FREE HOMES FOR THE MILLIONS'! That was my slogan, or rallying phrase," says John Ross Buchannan, general passenger agent from 1881 to
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