From Prairie to Civilization

Feature Story May 2006
From Prairie to Civilization
…Bob Williamson
   The history of the Pennsylvania Colony of Nebraska began in 1874 when the first family of German people came from the Blooming Grove area of Pennsylvania.  To put this in perspective with the history of Richardson County, Nebraska we relate the following from a book published in 1993 for the purpose of saving America’s Heritage entitled, “Nebraska Historic Buildings Survey Reconnaissance Survey Final Report.”  The book was prepared for the Nebraska State Historical Society Preservation Office by John Kay, principal investigator, Lonnie Dickson, survey assistant, Melissa Pollmann, survey assistant, and Robert Kay, photographer.  Dr. Kathleen Fimple compiled a historic overview.
   “The establishment of the Half-Breed Tract along the Missouri River by the Treaty of Prarie du Chien in 1830 was one of the first dealings outsiders had with the land that comprises present-day Richardson County.  Few people actually entered the county during this period because it was not officially open for settlement.  However, fur traders along the Missouri River, many of them French, did make contact in the 1840’s mainly dealing with the Native Americans in the area.

   When Nebraska was established as a territory and opened for settlement in 1854, Richardson County was one of the original counties defined by the legislature.  That county encompassed the present day boundaries plus all or part of Pawnee, Nemaha, Johnson, and Gage Counties.  The town of Archer located about three miles northeast of present-day Falls City was named the county seat.  Settlement was rapid in the remaining years of the decade, with a second town, Salem founded in 1855.  This was followed by the establishment of Rulo in 1856 within the boundaries of the Half-Breed Tract and Nemaha Falls shortly after.  Lanesville was established by James Lane as the last community on the Lane Trail, a travel way operated by free soilers through Iowa and Nebraska into Kansas. 

During mid-century many port towns sprang up along the along the Missouri River, including Arago, St. Stephens, and Yancton.  In 1857 Falls City was platted, and people began moving to the town from Archer, Nemaha Falls and Lanesville.

   During its first decade, Richardson county followed a typical pattern of governmental activity. In 1856 the first county elections were held.  Soon after, a special election was called in order to relocate the county seat.  The result was that Salem served in this capacity from 1857 to 1860.
   The next decade started with a new county seat located in Falls City.  Three years later the county’s first courthouse was erected. The period following was one emphasizing transportation.  While a rail line had been completed to St. Joseph, Missouri in 1859, allowing travelers closer access by land to the southeast portion of Nebraska, there was no reliable overland transportation within the county.  So for most of the decade the only business involving the movement of people and goods were the numerous river ferries that operated along the Missouri.  This changed in 1869 when the Burlington and Southwestern Railroad (later the Burlington) built through the county, connecting Falls City with the state capital in Lincoln.  It passed through the town of Humboldt, founded two years earlier, and contributed to the creation of a new community along its route: Dawson, founded in 1872.”

   So, when the Jacob G. Heim family came to Dawson in 1874, the country side was just a group of small towns with trails making their way over rolling hills of prairie grass and small streams. The Pennsylvania settlers learned to know the friendly Native Americans of the Pawnee and Sac and Fox tribes. They  established homesteads, broke out the sod for farming, and lived a hard and simply life by the sweat of their brow.  The Pennsylvania Colony of Nebraska Historical Society is preserving this heritage today.
   Compiled by Bob Williamson