The First Settlers in Lancaster County

The area of the Salt Valley, which would later become Lancaster County, was inhabited by four different Indian tribes prior to the organization of the Nebraska Territory in 1854. The salt basin, just northwest of future towns of Lancaster and Lincoln, was the separation point of these Indian tribes of southeast Nebraska. To the east were the Otoe and Missouri tribes. To the south were the Kansas and to the west were the Pawnee. These Indians were nomadic and far from war like. Between 1825 and 1854 all of the Indian lands in eastern Nebraska were ceded to the U.S. government.

With the organization of the Nebraska Territory and formation of Lancaster County the next year the area became open to settlement. The settlers would try to use the Preemption Act of 1841 to obtain their land. This act permitted squatters on government land to purchase up to 160 acres at a very low price prior to the land being offered for sale to the public. A survey of Lancaster County was begun in 1857, but the county was not officially organized until 1859.

The salt basin of the Salt Valley was always a very popular place for Indians and animals to visit. They all understood the need for salt in their diet. Still with the area being intersected by seven different creeks the Indians knew not to put down any permanent settlements here because of the great potential of flooding. With the beginning of the Oregon and Mormon Trails in the 1840’s thousands of pioneers traveled through Nebraska, not far north of the future county. Salt was a very valuable item to own. In addition to the body’s need for salt, it was used as seasoning and more importantly for preserving meat. Because of this many people going west would make a special trip down to the salt basin if they knew of its location.

By the early 1850’s salt speculators were visiting the salt basin to determine its business potential. The federal government finally surveyed the basin in 1856. That same year William Whitmore, Simon Thrapp, and James Cardwell from Plattsmouth staked claims there, but they had no intention of making a permanent settlement. Their claims are thought to be the earliest made in the future county of Lancaster. All three later came back to county to settle, but not by the salt basin.

The first permanent settlers in Lancaster County were John Prey and his family in that same year of 1856. Prey was a Scotsman from New York State. Prey and his many sons settled along the Salt Valley Creek near the border of Centerville and Saltillo Townships in what was then Clay County. They staked at least five claims. With the Preys was Zebediah Buffington who also filed a claim there, but soon abandoned it. The area west of the future village of Roca became known as Olathe. The settlement later added Jonathan Davidson from Connecticut, William Dunham from Ohio, James Etherton from Kentucky, Jeremiah Garrett from the West Indies, Solomon Kirk from Tennessee, I.C. Bristol, William Arnold, Ogden Clegg, the Bogus brother, Weeks, Palmer, and Haskins. Their settlement along the creek went south from the future town of Saltillo to the future Hickman. Within a couple more years John Cadman of Illinois and John Hilton settled north of the future Saltillo.

Arriving in 1856 or 1857 was an Irishman from Indiana named John Dee. Dee and his family settled north of the future town of Waverly on the lower Salt Creek. He was the first permanent settler in the original Lancaster County. In 1857 he was joined by Daniel Harrington from Ireland, Abraham Beals, and James Cardwell, the earlier salt speculator. To the northeast, at the mouth of Camp Creek, the Loder brothers from Ohio settled. The next spring of 1858 James Moran and Michael Shea from Ireland came to the area.

In the summer of 1857 Captain William Donovan and his family became the first permanent settlers near the present city of Lincoln. Donovan was from Pittsburg and had been a ferry boat captain on the Missouri River. He was a representative of the Crescent Salt Company of Plattsmouth and probably the first serious salt hunter. He built a cabin on the west bank of the Salt Creek, where the Oak Creek flowed into it. He was later joined by John Gregory, William Imlay, Milton Langdon, Darwin Peckham, and W.W. Cox. Later Lancaster County’s first post office was located there under the name, Gregory’s Basin. For a short time Alexander Robinson and William Norman settled near the salt basin.

Later in the fall of 1857 the Wallingford brothers of Ohio, A.J. and Richard, settled on the Salt Creek just south of the current city of Lincoln in the Yankee Hill Township. Just to their north were Jeremiah Showalter, Joe Mason, and Festus Reed who settled that same year.

About 1857 William Shirley of Ohio, Joseph Brown, and a Bottsford settled on the bank of Stevens Creek, south of the future town of Waverly. Later Charles Retzlaff from Prussia, John Lemke of Baden, Aaron Wood of Pennsylvania, and J.D. Main joined then in this area. In 1859 Robert Farmer of Vermont, Joseph Gilmore of Pennsylvania settled along Camp Creek, in the northeast corner of the county.

An early pioneer to the Nemaha Valley, near the future Bennet, was Dr. Stephen Mecham of Ohio in 1858. The county’s first church service was held in the summer of that year. The next year the first white child was born. Both events took place at the Donovan cabin near the salt basin. During the years from 1859 to 1862 there was little change in the population of Lancaster County. The many new settlers were always matched by others leaving.

Around 1860 John Cadman established a stage station near his home south of Lancaster. It was called Olathe, but soon changed to Saltillo. The Oregon Trail short-cut was called the Nebraska City/Fort Kearny Cut-Off. After an ill-fated attempt to run a steam wagon (tractor) along the trail it became known as the Steam Wagon Road. This section was the busiest section of the whole Oregon Trail. In 1865 as many as 4,000 men, 3,000 mules, and over 44,000,000 pounds of freight came over the trail. The next year the Union Pacific Railroad was laid just 35 miles from the northern border of Lancaster County. In the mid 1860's Cadman had a station located by his house near Saline City/Yankee Hill.

With the Homestead Act of 1862 many new settlers came to Lancaster County. On January 2nd, 1863 Capt. William Donavon became the first to homestead in the county. His new home was located farther south on the Salt Creek in northern Yankee Hill Township.

Even though the area southeast of the salt basin known as Lancaster was named the county seat in 1859, there were few people who actually settled there for any great length of time. There were around a dozen men working at the several salt manufacturers. In 1863 the Elder John Young of the Methodist Protestant Church along with Reverend J.M. McKesson, Luke Lavender, Jacob Dawson, Peter Schamp, and E.W. Warnes came looking for a site for a female seminary. They then formed the Lancaster Colony. The first district school was organized in 1864. The future city of Lincoln was then platted and had finally become an actual settlement.

With the coming of the railroads to Lincoln in the 1870’s most of the current towns in Lancaster County came into being. These earlier settlements would move and change their names because of these railroads.

In 1959 the City of Lincoln celebrated its centennial with a week long schedule of events. There were a couple of parades down "O" Street, the Jan Garber Orchestra at the new Pershing Auditorium, and the teen idol, Fabian, at the Coliseum.

John Belz