The Settlement of Pawnee City, Nebraska



From the Lincoln Journal Star, Sept, 2000

As the concept of organizing the vast area encompassed by the Louisiana Purchase into territories and states evolved, most of what became central Nebraska was populated by Pawnee Indians. The peaceful Pawnee, who numbered nearly 10,000, were principally farmers who inhabited villages and relied heavily on buffalo for their existence.

As the establishment of the Nebraska Territory developed in 1854, it became legal for settlers to move permanently into the area; Pawnee County, named for the original inhabitants, was among the earliest to be settled.

That spring, a group of four men settled at what they called Cincinnati; it was later named DuBois, but their records indicate they actually thought they were in Kansas. On July 20 James O’Loughlin, Charles McDonald and Arthur McDonald ventured further upriver discovering a Pawnee village not far from today’s city cemetery. Fearing the natives might be hostile, the three first retreated but later returned and established a trading post.

The boundaries of Pawnee County were first established in March 1855, but since the population was too small to provide a tax base, elections or even the necessary officials, the area was attached to Richardson County for administrative purposes.

Settlers arrived in goodly numbers almost immediately, and in August of 1856 an election was ordered, primarily to establish a county seat. As Table Rock was nearly at the county’s geographic center, the question, at least in the settlers’ minds, was pretty well settled. They had even decided the courthouse would be built just east of the mill "across the Nemaha River."

The only two real contenders for the prize were Table Rock and Pawnee City, with both drawing a similar number of votes but neither a sufficient majority. Because Table Rock’s election results were not certified, Pawnee City should have won by default but instead the court ordered a new election. Table Rock sat confidently but Pawnee City took advantage of the reprieve and worked hard on the new election, resulting in a 16-vote majority in its favor that November.

The still scant population did not react immediately, so an actual courthouse was not ordered until 1858. At that time a local builder was hired to construct a two-story frame building to cost no more than $1,600. Unfortunately the funds did not become available immediately and the contractor proved not up to the project, so the unfinished courthouse sat forlornly until 1860, when it unceremoniously blew over.

Not until 1869 was a second building planned. This time a substantial two-story building, 40-by-60 feet, was designed to be built of local limestone at a more realistic cost of $15,000. Though a long time in completion, the first real courthouse stood until replaced in 1911.

Having won the county seat election in 1857, the county commissioners ordered county surveyor Joseph Lebo to perfect a plat for the city at a cost of $212.70. The original plat map shows 64 blocks with the courthouse located in the northeast corner at Old Broadway and Main streets. Additions to the original plat show the fairgrounds northwest of the city, a cemetery at First and Spring streets and a seminary between Fourth and Fifth streets on Washington Street.

The first real signs of building a city began in 1857 as merchants showed their faith by opening stores. Two years later David Butler arrived on the scene, first as a farmer, then as a city merchant concurrently studying law. With his acceptance to the territorial bar in 1861, Butler also was elected to the lower house of the Legislature. In the following campaign Butler was elected to the territorial Senate and in 1867 defeated J. Sterling Morton to become Nebraska’s first state governor by just over 100 votes.

As Pawnee City progressed only the lack of rail connections slowed more aggressive growth. The Burlington finally arrived in 1881 through a branch known as the Wymore Division of the Republican Valley Railroad, and in 1886 the Rock Island Railroad also built through the area. With Pawnee City reporting Methodist, Presbyterian and Baptist churches, two newspapers, a mill, two banks, one 40-guest hotel, a cigar factory, many retail stores and a population of 1,500, 1881 represented the best of times.

Unfortunately it proved also the worst of times when, just after midnight on Aug. 9, a fire broke out in the drugstore. Three hours later, more than 25 businesses, amounting to about half of the business district, were destroyed, primarily, perhaps, because there was no fire department. Undaunted, the community responded immediately and within a week, it announced plans for 16 new masonry buildings and a year hence 28 fireproof structures had been completed.

Today the city of about 2,000 is famous for its courthouse and avenue of hundreds of flags that are unfurled for appropriate holidays. Visitors are also attracted to the county historical society’s museum and grounds, featuring 15 restored buildings including Governor Butler’s house and the 1887 Victorian Hempstead house at 14th and H streets, which is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write in care of the Lincoln Journal Star, or e-mail:

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