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Nemaha County, Kansas was one of the original 33 counties created by the first territorial legislature in 1855.
The county took its name from the Nemaha River, which in the Indians’ language meant “no papoose” or “muddy water” indicating the malarious character of the climate at that time.
The early history of the county is rich in trail history. Many immigrants to Oregon passed thru the county in the 1840s and 1850s as they journeyed from St. Joseph, Missouri to connect with the Oregon Trail at Marysville, Kansas. The Fort Leavenworth-Fort Kearny Military Road took soldiers and supplies thru the county as they traveled to Fort Kearney, Nebraska. The Overland Stage Route of the 1850s became the Pony Express route in the 1860s. In eastern Nemaha County, Lane’s Trail brought northerners into Kansas from the east. A branch of the California Trail also passed through the area.
It is claimed by some historians that Nemaha County was visited by Francisco Vazquez de Coronado and that he reached its northern boundary in August 1851. However, this has not been verified.
The first important expedition known across the area was the second journey of John C. Fremont in 1842. He entered the county south of Sabetha, extending northwest to Baker’s Ford, turning south to near Seneca, and then northwest again and crossed the county line near the former village of Clear Creek. The path was difficult due to the expedition’s inability to cross streams, its objective of learning where the streams were. This road, with slight modifications, was afterward traveled by the Mormons in 1844, at the beginning of their exodus to Utah. In 1849, it was the trail of the California gold-seekers, and subsequently, the military road, along which passed many of the troops bound for the far west.
Nemaha County is bisected by its namesake, the Nemaha River which flows north into Nebraska. Formed by glacial deposits, the area is primarily composed of gently rolling hills. Besides the Nemaha River, these hills are the headwaters of the Delaware River on the east side of the county and the Vermillion River in the south of the county.
The first settlers of the county were primarily northerners from New York, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. A second “wave” of immigration brought families from Germany and Switzerland to help settle the county.
The earliest settlement was made in 1854, when W. W. Moore located near Baker’s Ford, nine miles north of where Seneca now stands. In the same year, Walter D. Beeles, Greenberry Key, Thomas, John C., and Jacob B. Newton settled in the same vicinity. John O’Laughlin took a claim on Turkey Creek and B. F. Hicks in Capioma Township. The settlers in 1855 were James McCallister, William Barnes, Samuel Magill, and Robert Rea, in Capioma Township; David Locknane, in Granada Township; James Thompson, John S. Doyle, Cyrus Dolman, Elias B. Newton, H. H. Lanham, and his wife, S. M. Lanham and Joseph Lanham, in Richmond township; William M. Berry and L. J. McGown, in Valley Township; Horace M. Newton, in Richmond Township; William Harris, on the creek that bears his name; Hiram Burger, George Frederick, and George Goppelt, on Turkey Creek. Along with these last-named, came an African American by the name of Moses Fatley, who took a claim which he sold the next year to Edward McCaffery for $200. He bought his own freedom, the freedom of his wife, his sister, and two of her children. C. Minger and his wife settled in Washington Township and Reuben Wolfley in Wetmore Township.
These early claims were taken without warrant, as there were no facilities for entry and no place at which payment could be made to the government. The earliest payments were made in 1857.
Upon the organization of Nemaha County, in 1855, the legislature established the county seat at Richmond. The official business center for several years took place in the combined store and hotel building of A. G. Woodward.
The first church was built by the Christian denomination in Granada Township in 1856. The first schools were built in Granada township in 1856 and in America City, Red Vermillion Township, in 1857. The first post offices were Central City, 1856; America City, 1858.
The county was officially organized on April 4, 1858, by W. W. Moore; Walter Beeles; Greenbury Key; Thomas, John and Jacob Newton; John O’Laughlin; and B. F. Hicks. The third county west of the Missouri River in the northern tier, it was one of the 19 counties to be organized in that year. It is bounded on the north by the State of Nebraska; on the east by Brown County; on the south by Jackson and Pottawatomie Counties, and on the west by Marshall County.
In June 1858, an election was held in which the people should choose a location for the permanent county seat. By this time Seneca had been established and won after three elections had been held on the question. The other contenders were Wheatland and Richmond. The county seat moved to Seneca following an 1858 election. Unfortunately, the first Seneca courthouse burned and the second one ultimately proved to be too small. The first election for county officers was held in 1859.
Very little of the violence which was occurring at that time in Kansas over the question of slavery occurred in Nemaha County, although there were both pro-slavery and Free State men who had settled here to help their side win. The only slaveholder in the county was L. R. Wheeler of Rock Creek Township, who held two slaves until 1859.
It is stated by some historians that John Brown spent his last night in Kansas at Albany. The underground railway came through the eastern part of the county and one of the stations was at Lexington, three miles south of the present town of Sabetha. In 1859 Brown, while escorting 14 former slaves to freedom over the famous “Lane Road,” was held up on Straight Creek in Jackson county for three days by those who hoped to obtain the rewards offered to him. He was relieved by Colonel John Ritchie of Topeka who escorted him to Albany, where he spent the night, proceeding to Nebraska the next day.
The year 1860 was a particularly hard one for the settlers. The county had grown from a population of 99 in 1855 to over 2,000 without experiencing any serious backsets. But the drought, storms, and other weather conditions caused this period to be referred to as “the famine of 1860.” The main articles of diet were corn bread and sorghum molasses, and the settlers who could even get enough of that were lucky. F. P. Baker of Centralia was on the territorial relief committee and remained at Atchison during the winter of 1860-61 attending to the office of the committee. Through him, many of the residents were relieved from suffering.
In 1860 Nemaha County’s population was 2,436.
Preemptions were made up to 1860 at the land office at Kickapoo, where entries were made for the district of which Nemaha County was a part. The settlement and development of the county had begun during the time when the pro-slavery element had the upper hand in Kansas, and most of the early towns failed after Kansas declared itself as a Free State. Among those that disappeared were Central City, which had the first post office in the county; Pacific City; Lincoln, Ash Point; Urbana, the first town in the county; Wheatland, and Richmond, which was the first county seat.
When the Civil war broke out A. W. Williams of Sabetha was commissioned as captain by the government and by August 1861, had succeeded in raising 150 men from Nemaha, Marshall, and Brown Counties. As the volunteers enlisted they went into temporary barracks at Sabetha, where they remained for a month at the expense of Williams. In September they proceeded to Leavenworth, where 100 of them were made members of Company D of the Eighth Kansas and 50 were mustered into other companies. Nemaha County contributed about one-third of these men. A little later George Graham, who was a member of the legislature from Nemaha County in 1859, enlisted a squad of 30 men who went to Leavenworth and connected themselves with various regiments. Altogether there were 218 Nemaha County men enlisted, which included every able-bodied man in the settlements, Sabetha having but one man left.
Previous to the state election of 1866 there were stirring times over black and women’s suffrage and some of the leaders in both causes held meetings in the county, notably Lucy Stone and her husband, Henry B. Blackwell, Reverend Olympia Brown, and Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The vote of the county on the black suffrage amendment was 251 for to 421 against it, and the women’s suffrage amendment was defeated by a vote of 427 to 227.
There was one lynching and the one legal execution in the county. The lynching took place at Baker’s Ford in 1865. The victim was Miles N. Carter, a horse thief, who shot and killed John H. Blevins. Carter was taken from the jail at Seneca at 11 o’clock at night by 20 men who overpowered the guard. The next morning his body was found hanging to a tree at Baker’s ford. The legal execution was held near the jail on September 18, 1868, Melvin Baughn being the victim. He had shot and killed Jesse S. Dennis in 1866 and had managed to escape punishment for two years though arrested several times.
In the meantime, the Atchison & Pike’s Peak Railroad, later called the Missouri Pacific, was the first railroad to enter the county in 1866. The stations along the route were Wetmore, Sother, Corning, and Centralia. The St. Joseph & Denver City Railroad came through the county in 1870, entering at Sabetha and passing near Onedia, Seneca, and Baileyville. Later that line became the St. Joseph & Grand Island. The Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific entered near the central part of the north line and extends across the northeast corner through Bern, Berwick, and Sabetha. A second line of the Missouri Pacific entered from the west, 11 miles south of the Nebraska line, and extended southeast through Baileyville, Seneca, Kelly, Goff, and Bancroft.
In 1871, a third courthouse was built on the site of the current courthouse, however, it burned down. A fourth courthouse was built on the same site in 1877.
On May 30, 1879, the “Irving, Kansas Tornado” passed through Nemaha County. This F4 tornado damaged path 800 yards wide and 100 miles long. Eighteen people were killed and sixty were injured.
In 1896, another tornado came through damaging several buildings including the courthouse. However, the building was repaired.
In 1900, Nemaha County’s population peaked at 20,376.
By 1910, the county boasted a population of 19,072. By that time, its economy was based on farming and the income is from products, which amounted to $5,307,178. The leading field crop was corn, with oats, Irish potatoes, and wheat following. The assessed value of all property in the county was $40,652,775.
In the following decades, Nemaha County continued to be a rich agricultural area. As the farms got bigger and the technology better, the county’s population declined.
In 1937, the beautiful courthouse that was built in 1877 just hadn’t held up and for the next 18 years, the county offices were located in various places around town.
A new modernist Nemaha County Courthouse was built in 1954–1955. It continues to serve the county today.
As of the 2020 census, the county population was 10,273.
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of Kansas, June 2022.
Blackmar, Frank W.; Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, Vol I; Standard Publishing Company, Chicago, IL 1912.
Cutler, William G; History of Kansas; A. T. Andreas, Chicago, IL, 1883.
Kansas State Historical Society
Nemaha County Gen Web
Nemaha County Historical Society
Society of Architectural Historians