Dividing Holt County

 This map of Holt County is from a railway map of Nebraska issued by the State Board of Transportation in 1889. O’Neill is near the center of the county, with Atkinson to the northwest.


Holt County, with its 2,418 square miles of territory, is one of Nebraska’s largest counties. Its size caused many bitter fights over county division and the permanent location of the county seat. When the county was organized in 1876, the little village of Paddock, originally named Troy, on the Niobrara River was designated the county seat. Its location in the extreme northern part of the county prompted the removal of the county seat to the more centrally located town of O’Neill following an election on May 12, 1879. O’Neill subsequently faced a series of challenges from rival towns who proposed to divide the county in order to become county seats in the new counties formed. Attempts at county division were made in the 1880s and ‘90s and continued well past 1900. A petition signed by five hundred people asking for county division was circulated in 1883. The Omaha Bee on February 17, 1885, commented on Holt County division: “They took a vote on the question last fall and it was defeated by 300 votes, but those who favor division have not given it up. They propose to try again. Holt county is large enough to make four, and that is the proposition.”

 The Western Union Telegraph and Cable office in Atkinson, Nebraska. NSHS RG3841-1-2


Atkinson was O’Neill’s chief rival for the county seat and a leading backer of county division proposals. The Bee said on February 24, 1888: “Large and enthusiastic meetings are being held in all parts of Holt county for the purpose of making four counties at the next election. . . . The new counties are expected to be named Elkhorn, Union, Dustin and Holt.” Under this plan O’Neill would have remained the county seat of a reduced Holt County, with Atkinson the county seat of the new Union County. The proposal was defeated at the polls later that year.

 Postcard view of O’Neill. NSHS RG3441-5-5


In 1895 Richard H. Jenness, editor of the Atkinson Graphic, proposed to divide Holt county into four equal parts, to be called Adair, Fountain, Elkhorn and Holt, leaving O’Neill the county seat of Holt County and making Atkinson the county seat of Adair. Members of the Holt County Board countered Jenness’s proposal with one of their own, which would have divided the county into three parts, to be known as Holt, Elkhorn and Holcomb. Jenness, predictably, was angry because this plan would have left Atkinson in the same county as O’Neill, still a county seat, and “declares the action of the county board is rotten and alleges fraud of the worst sort.” The struggle over county division dragged on at the polls and through the courts until well past 1900. The question was still being agitated in 1904, when the Norfolk Weekly News-Journal noted on September 30 that petitions had recently been circulated in Holt County asking for its division into three parts. In 1908 the newspaper noted petitions there asking for the creation of two new counties, to be named Meadow and Jackson. None of the proposals ever resulted in the partitioning of Holt County or the removal of the county seat from O’Neill. More information on county division proposals in Cherry County in 1911 and in Sherman and Buffalo counties in 1913 is available on the NSHS website. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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