The Niobrara River begins in Wyoming, flows across the high plains and rugged county of Sioux County, through the sand hills, and finally cuts a canyon across Boyd County to join the Missouri River. It is fed by springs all along the way and its flow of water is steady, clear, and swift. This fast moving stream was called “Running Water” by the Sioux. Today, we know it as the “Niobrara River.”
The Niobrara River Valley is narrow and contains little farming land. At places the river flows between high banks on either side. During the exploration and settlement of this area of the northern plains, it was used as one of the westward routes of travel.
Congress, in 1866, approved the surveying of a wagon road from the mouth of the Niobrara River, in Nebraska Territory, to Virginia City, in Montana Territory. It also included a branch from Omaha which was to intersect the road at some point on the Niobrara River. Because of plans for the establishment of a railroad in northern Nebraska, no road was ever built.
During the 1870s and 1880s, the Niobrara River and the Sand Hills played an important role in the western cattle development. Cattlemen coming from Texas were the first to exploit the central Niobrara River area extensively. The range was not fenced, being free to many thousands of cattle which had been driven north.
Because of the lack of law enforcement in the region, ranchers were responsible for the protection of their livestock. They formed cattlemen’s associations to guard against rustlers and partly to police themselves. Some of the Nebraska Sand Hills counties were even formed by these ranchers for the purpose of law enforcement against thieves and outlaws. Whenever a thief was apprehended, these “vigilantes” often made a quick on-the-spot decision which often resulted in the use of either rope or lead.
This was especially done during the period of open range which began about 1860 in this area and reached a peak in 1885. Barb wire had been invented in 1875 and Congress on February 25, 1885 passed a law which prohibited the interference of homesteaders and settlers by the cattlemen. This prohibited the fencing of the public land. It was at this time that the homesteader began to control the public domain.
While cattle rustling was bothersome to the infant open-range cattle industry in the Niobrara valley, there were other factors which created problems for the cattle barons. In the 1880s, overstocking, unsound financing, and the blizzards in the winter of 1885 – 1886 wiped out many. Some counties started enforcing herd laws.
It is interesting that the Nebraska Stock Growers’ Association was not organized until 1895 at Alliance. The operations of thieves in their neighborhood had become so bold and open that something had to be done. Their constitution contained the following:
“The object of this Association is to advance the interests of the stock growers of Nebraska and adjoining states, and for the protection of the same against fraud and swindlers, and to prevent the stealing, taking and driving away of cattle, horses, mules and asses, from the rightful owner thereof, and to enforce the stock laws of Nebraska.”
From its earliest days, the Niobrara River Valley had the reputation of being an ideal haven for outlaws, rustlers, and thieves. The well-timbered valley and bluffs, along with the springs and clear running water made it an ideal place to hide stolen livestock as it was being moved out of the country.
The Niobrara River area was one of the last areas to be settled under the Homestead Act. Despite the efforts of explorers and ranchers, it was the homesteader which settled the Sand Hills and the Niobrara River Valley. One historian wrote: “It was the farmer who destroyed the frontier, and converted a territory into a state.”
In 1878, the presence of rustlers, thieves, outlaws, and just plain crooks was so prevalent in the Niobrara River Valley that the citizens asked for military protection on the river. A United States Grand Jury reported to Judge P. C. Shannon, Chief Justice for the Second Judicial District the following: “We, the members of the United States grand jury in and for the 2nd Judicial District, Dakota Territory, would respectfully represent that the following facts have been brought to our notice:
That various parties, chiefly white men of a low, degraded character, have for some time, stolen horses and ponies belonging to the Agency Indians, and running them into the neighboring states and territories have disposed of them.”
The Grand Jury also told the judge that: “In some cases the Indians have recovered their stock, but in the majority of cases it has never been found. This causes among the Indians a very bad feeling and they have retaliated upon the settlers living in their vicinity, who had nothing to do with the theft and who were good honest people. To such an extent has this thievery been carried on that in some sections, especially upon the Running Water, that the settlers have left their homesteads for fear of further retaliation and depredation by the Indians . . . We therefor deem it advisable that the attention of the military authorities be called to the necessity for military protection for the people of that particular locality.”
Military personnel were provided for protection and Fort Niobrara was established east of Valentine.
Today, Nebraska Highway #12 from west of South Sioux City to Valentine is promoted as “Nebraska’s Outlaw Trail Scenic Highway.”
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on March 8, 2023
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