Dowsing for Water

Locating a suitable well site was of paramount importance on the Nebraska frontier. Everett Dick noted in Conquering the Great American Desert, published in 1975 by the Nebraska State Historical Society, that a water witch was sometimes engaged to dowse for water and locate a well site. According to Dick, “The term ‘water witch’ is used indiscriminately for either male or female. Some believed in him, others did not; but he was used more or less in the state to locate a vein of water before making a well. Often the householder would indicate where he wished his well to be and ask the witch to determine whether water could be found at that point. If his divination indicated a vein at the desirable point, a well was dug; but if not, he tried other desirable sites along the roadway.

“The water witch was often a neighbor who divined for people in a given vicinity on a non-professional basis, although some witches made a business of it and charged a regular fee for their services. The equipment of the witch was a Y-shaped forked object. In areas where fruit trees grew, a peach or plum branch was used, but since these were not usually available, the water witch frequently used an Osage orange or a willow fork. In fact, it did not seem to make much difference of which material the fork was made. . . .

“The Lincoln Daily Call [February 7, 1890] published an account of the manner in which a water witch worked farther east, and we can assume that Nebraska water locators worked in the same manner. The witch took the two branches of the Y-shaped rod in his hands and held the longer end, or bottom of the Y, out in front of him horizontally as he walked slowly along. The observer said he seemed to lose himself as if he were lifted out of the common sphere into relation with something more than human. With his face set and with no apparent thought of his surroundings other than intently watching the fork, he walked back and forth as though he was letting the fork lead him instead of his propelling it. Eventually the free end of the fork dropped from the horizontal to a given point on the ground as though pulled down by some magnetic power. He then drove a stake and his work was done, unless he was among those who sought to tell how far it was to the water.” 

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