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
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.
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.
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.
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.
the county was divided into three commissioner districts and the following
precincts were organized and voting booths established in each: Kirkwood
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
Superintendent of Schools—W. G. Townsend
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.
At this same election Ainsworth was made the permanent county
John Sullivan having failed to qualify, Jasper
Stanley was appointed sheriff.
John Sullivan and Ed. Cook were appointed stock brand inspectors.
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.
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
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.
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.
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,
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.
many farmers failed to raise enough to feed their stock and family. The dry seasons continued and each year more families
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
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
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
The population was greatly increased, live stock, grain and other
personal property was almost doubled in a very short time.
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