Founding Frontier Omaha

This 1857 view is the earliest known photo of “Omaha City,” as it was then known. History Nebraska RG2341-3a

How do you start a new frontier town? Alfred Jones knew. In 1853 he staked out the first claims in a place soon to be known as Omaha City. In May 1896 he told his story to The Pioneer Record, published by the Nebraska Territorial Pioneer Association. 

Jones lived in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 1853. It turns out that the hardest part about staking claims in Nebraska was getting safely across the Missouri River and back. He recalled:

The laying out of a town on the western bank of the Missouri river was first suggested by myself to a ferryman named William D. Brown whom I assisted to run a ferry between what is now Omaha and Council Bluffs, Iowa. He took a claim on the east bank of the river and put on the stream a flat ferry boat to be propelled by oars. There was in the river a long island covered with a growth of willow and cottonwood trees which greatly obstructed his passage, consequently, he crossed but a few times. 

A company was then organized to run a steam ferry across the river and at my suggestion, included the laying out of a town on the west bank where Omaha now stands. The newly organized company crossed the river and walked around the proposed townsite. The location seemed a favorable one as they determined to lay out a town there, although no survey was at that time made. Not long after I made a claim, the first regularly defined boundaries in this part of the country if not in the territory. My claim included a portion of the proposed town claim which was the second regularly defined claim in this vicinity.

About the middle of November 1853, Thomas and William Allen with myself crossed the river in an old leaky scow; one of us rowed, another steered, while the third bailed the water out to keep the boat from sinking. With much difficulty, we finally made a landing on the western shore. We waded through the water and crawled over the fallen trees that filled the bottom between our landing place and the plateau where we camped . . . . 

In the morning we marked out our claims, then started for our boats. We found the river full of floating ice which made re-crossing the stream an exceedingly difficult and even dangerous task. But we had nothing to eat and must return or starve. After some consultation, we hauled our small craft opposite the head of the Island and struck out through the floating ice. We pulled our craft to the east side of the head of the island, and by hard work finally reached the Iowa side.”

Speculators and settlers began building the town itself the following summer.  

 

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