Brown County - Genealogy Trails




County History


All the northwestern portion of this state was at one time known as "unorganized territory" and was given the general name "Sioux County" though there were no county officers.


The only government it had was administered from the military posts. The Nebraska state government gradually took this over after 1867 when the territory was admitted to the union. As scattered settlements were made the "unorganized territory" was divided up and counties established. Large companies of settlers came to O'Neill in 1874-'75.  Holt county was organized in 1876, and for a few years the land which later became Brown county was attached to Holt for purposes of taxation.


Cattle ranches were the first settlements made in northwest Nebraska. To the west of Brown County several large outfits were found very early, previous to 1880: Boiling Springs ranch owned by Carpenter and Mprehead; the JP ranch on the Niobrara below Boiling Springs; the Newman ranch west of Boiling Springs; and the Hunter ranch due south of where Gordon is now located.


These ranchers were in continual war­fare with the Indians and many lonely graves are found in the hills along the Niobrara River where rest the remains of cowboys who were shot and scalped by Sioux.


The newcomers who followed the cattle men were mostly farmers with a few doctors, lawyers, preachers and merchants, all seeking the free land that could be obtained under the homestead law.


The head of a family or any citizen twenty-one years of age could obtain one hundred sixty acres of land by living on it for five years and making a few improvements (building a small home and plowing a few acres of prairie. There were also small fees to be paid amounting to about $18). There were two other methods of obtaining a quarter section of land; the timber claim law which required that ten acres must be set to living trees; and the pre-emption claim which required six months residence and the payment to the government of $1.25 per acre. Some ambitious homeseekers obtained land by all these methods.


These early settlers arrived in true pioneer style, some driving the entire distances from their former homes in covered wagons, with a few cattle and chickens and their household necessities ready to begin life on"the claim". Others came by rail to Oakdale or Neligh (and later to O'Neill or Long Pine), then took transportation from there with freighters or others who kept suitable outfits for such journeys.


The railroad reached Long Pine in 1881. It was then called the "Sioux City & Pacific.''   A good sized town soon sprung up and many newcomers built homes in the canyons of Pine and Willow creeks nearby.


In the spring of 1882, the rail road pushed westward. Two preliminary surveys were run, one north and one south of where it was finally built. A town site was surveyed about a mile north of the present site of Ainsworth, but abandoned when the line of road was changed. The station was named in honor of "Captain" J. E. Ainsworth of Missouri Valley, who was in charge of the construction. The first train arrived in Ainsworth June 11, 1882.


Later in the summer the road was completed across the present limits of the county and a station established on the homestead of John Berry. It is very probable that the name, Johnstown, was in his honor.


A postoifice had been established in 1881, two and one half miles north of Johnstown. It was called "Evergreen" and Harrison Johnson was post master.


New settlers came in great numbers in the spring and summer of 1882. A general feeling prevailed that the organization of a county should be attempted. To make the journey to O'Neill on county business was very inconvenient and expensive, and all filings had to be made at O'Neill or Valentine. As the population increased the need of county government was keenly felt.


In December, 1882, Frank Sellors and Merritt Griffiths circulated a petition asking that the coming legislature pass an act establishing a new county from unorganized territory lying west of Holt County. The boundaries as set forth in the petition included what is now the three counties, Browm, Rock and Keya Paha. It had been under the jurisdiction of Holt County for some years.


Two bills defining the boundaries of Brown County were introduced; one in the senate by Moses P. Kinkaid of the twelfth district; the other in the house by Frank North of the twenty-third district. The bills were practically the same and both were introduced on January 9, 1883.


Kinkaid's bill passed the senate on January 24th without a dissenting vote, but was lost in the house, that body having already passed North's bill on February 8. The senate passed this bill on February 14 and it was approved by Governor Dawes on the 19th.


From the fact that there were not less than five members of the legislature of '83 by the name of Brown, and that the petition mentioned no name, It was decided to call the new county "Brown." Loup and Cherry counties were organized the same year.


Ainsworth was named the temporary county seat. I have been told that when the news of this action reached Ainsworth, the rejoicing was strenuous and pronounced. These special officers met April 5th and took the oath of their respective offices.


In May the county was divided into three commissioner districts and the following precincts were organized and voting booths established in each:   Kirkwood



                                                                           Long Pine





                                                                          Keya Paha


J. L. Harriman was appointed superintendent of schools and the Western News, T. J. Smith, was made the official organ. A special election was called for July 19, when county officers as follows were elected:

Clerk—C. W. Stannard

Judge—S. G. Sparks

Treasurer—John Staley

Sheriff—John Sullivan

 Superintendent of Schools—W. G. Townsend

Coroner—Albert Palmer.

 Surveyor—R. Strait followed by Dennis Collins, then W. S. Collins

 Commissioners—First district, P. A. Morris

                            Second district, D. B. Short

                            Third district, D. D. Carpender


At this same election Ainsworth was made the permanent county seat.


John Sullivan having failed to qualify, Jasper Stanley was appointed sheriff.


John Sullivan and Ed. Cook were appointed stock brand inspectors.


On August 9th, the commissioners rented the east ten feet of Reed's hall for the use of the county officers for $10 per month, with the privilege of using the balance of the hall when necessary for a court room. This hall was the second story of the old Snell building, on the east side of Main street, which was destroyed by fire a few years ago.


1883, Mrs. N. J. Osborn gave to the county a small building to be used as a jail, which by installing steel cells and being remodeled met the needs of the county until 1889, when $1,000 was set aside to build a jail and sheriff's residence; $600 was added to this sum later for the completion of the building.


As early as October, 1883 residents of the eastern part of the county petitioned for an election to vote on county division, the new county to be called Elkhorn.


A year later, October 14, 1884, a petition was presented, signed by Ralph Lewis, John A. Plympton and 243 other voters asking that the question of detaching a portion of Brown County and erecting the same into a new county to be known as Keya Paha County, be submitted to a vote of the people at the next general election.


The new county was to include all that part of Brown lying north of the center of the channel of the Niobrara River, the petition was granted and at the general election on November 4, a majority of voters favored the division.


Twice in 1886 and again in 1887 petitions were before the commissioners asking that an election be called to vote on the question of making the eastern portion of Brown into a new County to be called Elkhorn.


On August 1,1888, a petition was presented, asking that the question of county division be submitted at the general election in Nov­ember. The new county was to be called Rock and the boundaries were defined as they now stand. The election was called and the majority of voters favored the division. Then began a long drawn out controversy between the two counties as to the division of the property held in common, such as safes, steel jail cells, lumber, coal, wood, county records, and even the grounds on which the court house stood.    


For two  years the  matter remained unsettled, and though the commissioners of the two counties held many joint sessions an agreement was not reached until 1890, and all points in dispute were settled except the right of Rock County to hold an interest in. the court house site. This matter was taken into district court and then carried to the supreme court with the result that Rock county won her contention.


The other vexed question was the permanent location of the county seat and the building of the court house. Ainsworth had been named as the temporary county seat, but before the division of the county into Rock and Brown Long Pine was much nearer the geographical center, east and west.


In January, 1884, Mrs. Osborn deeded to Brown County the block of ground where the court house now stands on the condition that it be used for a court house site. This gift materially strengthened Ainsworth's claim to become the permanent county seat. Meanwhile the commissioners had found Reed's hall ill adapted to use as a court house. In June 1884, the main hall of the Ainsworth opera house, later the Osborn hotel, was rented for $25 per month till Brown County should build a court house.


Plans and specifications for the building were prepared by W. D. Vanatta and Co., and the usual procedure of asking for bids was followed. The contract was let on October 3, 1887, to Wm. Whitticar, Frank Whitticar, W. D. Vanatta, J, B. Finney and Lew Williams.


 It was completed and formally accepted by the board of commissioners on November 22, 1888.


For a few years, during the 80's the tide if immigration flowed steadily until there was claim shanty on almost every quarter section of tillable land.


he years 1884 and 1885 were marked by an unusual rush of newcomers. A few cattle ranches had been opened in the sand hill sections, but at that time the grass was very sparse, and only in the valleys was the growth heavy enough for grazing. This was probably due to the frequent prairie fires which swept over them.


As they saw their new location they could note signs of progress on every hand. Building materials were very high but as settlers made final proof on their claims the log cabins, dugouts, soddies and small frame "shacks" that had done service for dwelling and school houses were replaced by well built structures of lumber. The general trend was toward a building that would endure.


But this progressive spirit was very suddenly checked when crops began to fail for lack of rains.


In 1890 many farmers failed to raise enough to feed their stock and family. The dry seasons continued and each year more families left the county. Farms were deserted, stock was sold at low prices, given away or turned out to die. Banks began to fail, which made times more strenuous for the county, the farmer and business man. Many firms were forced to close their doors.


By 1895 the population had dwindled to about one half of what it had been before the dry years.


Those who stayed in Brown County were well repaid in time for so doing. Gradually the rainfall increased and the labor of the farmer was rewarded by good crops.


A few of the former citizens returned to the homes they had left. Each year a few new settlers came, but not until after the turn of the century was there ever another rush of immigration.


The central and northern portions of the county were fairly well settled as here is our richest farming land. The sand hill regions, considered suitable only for grazing were largely government land with here and there an isolated ranch home.


In 1904 a new law was passed permitting a homestead of 640 acres to be acquired by five years residence thereon and placing improvements upon it to the value of $800. This was called the "Kinkaid law," honoring the congressman from this district who secured its enactment— Hon. Moses P. Kinkaid of O'Neill.


This law proved of great value to all of northwest Nebraska and its passage resulted in the settling of the Sand Hills in a very few years. Again new settlers, sometimes called "Kirikaiders," came into our county, and a most, prosperous period followed their coming.

The population was greatly increased, live stock, grain and other personal property was almost doubled in a very short time.

Small but prosperous cattle ranches with a few acres in grain and other produce soon covered the Sand Hills sections.

The dairy business sprung into prominence and has proved to be a source of great revenue for this county.

Thus did the Empire of Brown have its beginning and thus has its growth and development been brought about.


Days Of Yore Early History of Brown County, Nebraska  - 1937