Hamilton County History
Hamilton County, Nebraska has much to be proud of as we review the stories of those pioneers who, despite the odds, made for themselves a place to call home. Let us take a moment and think on the words of Joe Gunnarson, the first curator of our county’s history: “We are under lasting obligations to our pioneer men and women for the social, economic and agricultural development that we now enjoy…The more we learn of our early history the more we will appreciate our heritage for which we wish to pay our humble respect…”
Hamilton County’s boundaries were officially set and approved on February 16, 1867. The county received its name from the early American statesman, Alexander Hamilton. It was formally organized by proclamation of Governor David Butler on March 13, 1870.
However, prior to 1867, ranches existed on the Nebraska City/Fort Kearny Cut Off and the Ox Bow Trail. Daniel Millspaw (Millspaugh) established the first ranch in 1861 in Section 11 of Beaver Precinct for the purpose of providing services to those traveling by oxen, horses or covered wagon, as well as freighters transporting goods. Likewise, later in 1861, J. T. Briggs established a ranch (sometimes referred to as a fort) in Section 26 of Cedar Valley and South Platte Precincts along the Ox Bow Trail, which was first traveled by soldiers going to and from Fort Kearny. In 1863, Prairie Camp – located in Section 17 of Beaver Precinct – was set up as a relay station for the Overland Stage Line, and had as its landmark an unusually large elm tree, which grew on the banks of Beaver Creek.
The most famous ranch was the Deepwell Ranch located in Section 32, in Hamilton Precinct. In 1865, two confederate soldiers of the Civil War – John Harris and Alfred Blue – established the ranch, building a sod house and barn and a hand-dug well 65 feet deep. The barn was capable of holding 165 head of horses. These ranches would serve their purpose well until displaced by the railroad.
The first homestead in Hamilton County was granted in June 1866 for the purpose of agriculture to Jarvil and Nancy (Markham) Chaffee, who were accompanied on their journey by Mr. and Mrs. George Hicks. The Chaffees constructed a dug-out near the fork of the Blue River in Section 34 in Orville Precinct.
In January 1867, James Waddle, accompanied by his brother-in-law John Brown, set out to stake their claim in the Farmers Valley precinct at the behest of his wife Mary. The sister of Mary (Brown) Waddle, wife of James, had moved with her husband Davey Henderson to Nebraska and Mary desperately wanted to join them. James and John leased the Jack Stone Ranch in York, Nebraska as a home base during this time. Together they put in a crop with the help of John Harris, who had moved down from the Deepwell Ranch. Mr. Harris took out a homestead claim in 1867, located near present day Stockham. In less than a year he sold to John Laurie, as many wondered how a southern soldier could own a homestead.
Leaving John Harris in charge of the homestead, James Waddle went back to Wisconsin for the family. James and Mary Waddle – along with James and Anna Cameron, Robert Lamont, Josiah and Cordelia Westcott, Cyrus and Cinda Westcott, and Norris and Cornelia (Westcott) Bray – arrived in June of 1867. Robert Lamont took advantage of the time on the trail to court the Waddle’s daughter Mary. On November 27, 1867, Mary and Robert went to Daniel Millspaw, the Justice of the Peace, and exchanged vows. They, along with their families, were the next to make Hamilton County their home.
On May 2, 1870, in accordance with a proclamation signed by then Nebraska Governor Butler, eighteen citizens met at the home of John Harris for the purpose of organizing the county. The election results were as follows: J.D. Westcott, clerk; C.O. Westcott, treasurer; William D. Young, Norris Bray and Alexander Laurie, commissioners; George Dixon, sheriff; Robert Lamont, probate judge; John Harris, surveyor; John Laurie, Superintendent of public instruction; and James Rollo, coroner.
In 1870, Mr. Harris made his first survey, which was for the county seat located at Orville City in Section 22 of Orville Precinct and named for J. D. Westcott’s son, Orville. The first post office was located in the home of J. D. Westcott, the first postmaster in the county. The first school district was organized on September 27, 1870 in Farmers Valley Precinct with Miss Jennie Laurie employed as the first teacher. A county agricultural society was organized and the first Fair was held in Orville City in October 1872. Farmers Valley became the first official cemetery in the county on land donated by John Brown, with the first burial being that of Phillip Hunter, September 6, 1874. The first newspaper was published at Orville City by J. M. Sechler called The Hamiltonian, in the spring of 1873.
From: Hamilton County Celebrating 150 years! It Starts…
by Tina Larson, Executive Director of the Plainsman Museum 2017
The Three Courthouses of Hamilton County
The county seat location was hotly contested for a number of years. Initially assigned to Orville City in 1870, the courthouse was little more than a wood frame shed with a door and window. Yet, though the office was plain, Orville saw many of the county's "firsts" - first post office, first election, first Fourth of July celebration, first framed house, first school district, first church, first county fair, first newspaper, first burial in first cemetery. After a series of heated civic debates and votes, the county seat was at last moved to Aurora in 1877. A lovely, white two-story courthouse was built, and saw it's own share of "firsts" - first regular train service, first mail delivery, first telegraph service.