A Plainsman Tells His Story

by Francis Withee


Extracted from: History of Richardson County Nebraska

by Lewis C. Edwards

Published 1917 - B. F. Bowen & Company, Inc. Indianapolis, Indiana

 Book was written in the Fall of 1917

This page added 10-13-06

Francis Withee, a plainsman, tells the following story:

I crossed the Missouri river and landed at Brownsville the afternoon of June 27th, 1858. I was fourteen years old the following November and was born in the state of Ohio. I accompanied my father, stepmother, her mother and my brother, George, six years my senior. We had been living in Iowa, and were fourteen days on the way, stopping two days with friends in Wayne county. The trip was made with five yoke of oxen, and seven head of loose cattle, which were driven by myself.

My father had been reading from time to time in the New York Tribune of the proceedings in Congress at Washington, about the Kansas-Nebraska bill, which became a law in 1854. The passage of this bill occupied much space in the paper at that time; the land coming in for entry and pre-emption and treaties with the Indians were discussed fully, and this led my father to come to this state to cast his lot. But after paying the ferryman at Brownville he had left only one dollar and seventy-five cents in money. The ferry fee at that time was one dollar for the wagon and team, and ten cents a head for the loose cattle, which meant those driven and not hitched to the wagon.

My stepmother had a sister living near Brownville, and to her home we went and stayed one month. Then a little log cabin was rented for four dollars per month, and most of the rent paid by team work for the owner. The log cabin was sixteen by eighteen feet, and this seemed to have been the prevailing size in those days.

I helped break prairie for ten breaking seasons after I arrived, and in one season I broke until late in the fall. I worked only in the breaking season, and in the ten years helped to break, or broke alone, altogether one thousand acres. I made my home with my father for twelve years after coming to Nebraska. We began breaking prairie the first fall we came here. An eighteen-inch Tiskiliwa rod plow was used, and instead of “trucks” we used a “gauge wheel” requiring two persons to operate, one to drive the five yoke of oxen and the other to hold the plow, and I took my turn doing both. Many people used different kinds of trucks, which were to hold the plow steady. The truck was fastened to the beam in front, and when used, one man could manage both the plow and oxen. Plenty of breaking plows of various makes were for sale at Brownville. They were worth from one dollar to one dollar and twenty-five cents an inch; consequently, an eighteen-inch plow was worth eighteen dollars.

The price for breaking prairie fluctuated with different seasons, from two dollars and a half to three dollars. It was customary often to break twenty-five acres of prairie in exchange for a good yoke of oxen, valued at seventy-five dollars. It often took much longer for us to get our pay than it did to do the work, as the times were hard. Saying that money was scarce, would be putting it mildly.

In the fall of 1858 my father bargained with C. F. L. Holms to break one hundred and twenty acres of prairie for sixty acres of land near Nemaha City, on the Missouri river. Myself and father broke ninety-five acres, gave Holmes a yoke of oxen and both parties called the deal square. My father traded two yoke of oxen and a wagon for eighteen acres north of the sixty acres already acquired; then he traded the house on this tract for a yoke of oxen.

Later, he traded two yoke of oxen and a wagon for seventy-seven acres of land, southwest of Nemaha City and about five miles north of the present village of Stella. This seventy-seven acres is a farm that sold two or three years ago for one hundred and two and one-half dollars per acre. My father traded after a while this seventy-seven acres for the balance of the fractional section where was located his land near Nemaha City, there being about one hundred and sixty acres in the fractional section. To make this trade even, my father gave two yoke of oxen and broke ten acres of land.

Crossing the Plains - I made three trips across the plains with freighting outfits, October 1, 1862, in company with my brother, George, Artemus Armstrong, and Joe and Jim Coker. I went from Nemaha to Nebraska City to “whack bulls” to Denver. We remained at Nebraska City for ten or twelve days, waiting for freight to arrive on a steamboat. Thomas Fitzwater, from southwest of Brownville, near Bracken, was the “Wagon Boss”.

The wages for the men were twenty dollars per month for the round trip, or thirty-five dollars per month if discharged at Denver. Myself and brother and three of our friends took the thirty-five dollars per month proposition. We paid eight dollars each to ride in the return wagons from Denver to Nebraska City, clubbing together and boarding ourselves; slept at ranches, occasionally in a stable, and a few times were out on the prairie at night.

At that time beyond Kearney all prairie was called “sand hills”. On this trip the train consisted of thirteen wagons, with six yoke of oxen to each wagon. The freight carried was powder, fuse, flour, whiskey, drugs, quartz, mill repairs and cast-iron plows. Forty-seven days were required to make the trip from Nebraska City to Denver and sixteen days for the return. The freight wagons were ponderous, weighing two thousand one hundred pounds, and were on the “wide track”. They were four inches wider than the ordinary farm wagons of today and were longer at the top than at the bottom by two feet. The bottom length was twelve feet.

On this first trip two bosses killed a buffalo at fifty-mile post, a name which indicated this point was that distance from Kearney. This was near Mallaley’s ranch, a place known to all freighters. We took with us as much of the buffalo meat as we could pack on a mule, perhaps two hind quarters.

At another time on this trip Fitzwater, the wagon boss, traded a side of bacon for a buffalo ham. The younger generation sometimes believes the freighter feasted on all kinds of fresh meat and wild game as they crossed the plains, but this is erroneous. Cured meat was carried with the other provisions of the freighters and the two incidents cited above are the only times I recall of having fresh meat when freighting.

The ranch business in those days usually was a place that dealt a good deal in the supply of hay and whisky. Some kept clothing, canned goods and other supplies. The ranchers got hold of cattle with lame feet from the freighters, and when the animals had recuperated they did a “swapping” business with these cattle. Our train ranched cattle that were disabled, taking a receipt from the rancher, who either later had to turn the cattle over to the owner or make good to hint their losses.

Paid in Gold Dust - On my first freighting trip I was paid in gold dust at Denver, at sixteen dollars per ounce. I disposed of the dust in Denver to speculator Jews at a value of fifteen dollars in greenbacks for an ounce of gold dust.

I remember that on one of the trips a man bought some meat and had ten cents due him. The ten cents was paid him in gold dust of that value, actual weight of it being made. Later, the man traded the gold dust for a pipe valued at twentyfive cents. Again the gold dust was weighed, and the weight this time made it have a value of fifty cents, different scales at the different times being used.

I freighted to Julesburg, Colorado; in the fall of 1864. T. S. Sloan, of Nebraska City, was the wagon boss, and there were thirty-four wagons. The start was made with eleven five-yoke teams and twenty-three six-yoke teams, which means there were three hundred and sixty-six head of cattle to transport this train. This was a hard trip. Snow fell for twenty-four hours on October 23 and 24, when the train was just east of Wahoo creek, in Saunders county, on the old government trail. Returning in December, myself and fellow freighters were caught in a blizzard between Salt creek and Stevens creek, near where is now the Nebraska State penitentiary, on the “Steam Wagon Road”.

Wages were better than on the first trip, two dollars per day or sixty dollars a month, for the round trip; or one hundred and ten dollars a month with discharge at Julesburg. One dollar in gold at that time was worth two dollars and a half in greenbacks.

The last freighting trip I made was in the year 1866, when I went to Denver with Overton Brothers, of Nebraska City. Twenty-one six-yoke teams were in this train. The wagons were loaded with sugar, canned goods, cased liquors, candles and nails. The candles were made in St. Louis. The nails and heavy stuff were placed in the bottom of the wagons, and the candles and other light stuff placed on top. The teams left Nebraska City on September 14th and arrived there on the return trip on Thanksgiving Day. The wages on this trip were one dollar per day or forty-five dollars per month with discharge in Denver.

In my trips across the plains we left the cattle in winter quarters on the range. We came back with mules to haul our “grub” and blankets. We had to walk most of the way. On the Julesburg trip we left our wagons there and five of the boys took the cattle farther up the river to Moore’s ranch. After they got the cattle to the ranch, Watts, the boss herder; Elias Bills, of Wayne County, Iowa; John Coen, of Springfield, Illinois, and John R. Martin, bushwhacker, of Missouri, were killed in an Indian fight, and the cattle scattered. Alex Street, of Nebraska City, was the owner of the cattle, about three hundred and seventy-five head, and it cost him ten dollars to get them rounded up. All were found but seventeen head. Although the Indians caused all this bloodshed and trouble, they didn’t want the cattle, but it may be they killed one or two.

By the spring of 1863, my father by actual survey, had only fifty-five acres left of his one hundred and sixty-acre farm, the rest having been swallowed up by the Missouri river. The part that was left between Nemaha City and Brownville was traded for two hundred acres located two and one-half miles northwest of Stella, and to get a full half section, one hundred and twenty acres were broken for the necessary one hundred and twenty acres, and we came to this land to live, thus I have a continuous residence of nearly half a century on the same farm.

The house built by my father in 1864, was taken down in the fall of 1907, to be replaced by a new house, in which was used some of the lumber from the old house. When I first came to my new home the nearest neighbors were three miles and a half distant.

I was a member of the school board in my district for forty-five years.



 Early Transportation in Richardson County                Read About the Severe Winters of 1855 & 1856   



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