Pioneer Lawyers

A common misconception about the early Plains is that the region was virtually without law. According to this belief, citizens took the law into their own hands in the absence of law and order, enforcing the popular will with rope and lead. Such an idea, however, fails to consider that Nebraska was really never without law, according to Mark R. Ellis’s “Hanging Out the Shingle: Nineteenth-century Lawyers in Nebraska’s Platte Valley,” published in the Spring 2004 issue of Nebraska History.

If anything, Great Plains towns had too many lawyers. Both Kearney and North Platte, for example, had resident lawyers before a physical town existed. These lawyers brought with them knowledge of the law and its institutions that allowed the legal system to operate and the law to function in newly settled regions of the Plains.

The killing of Charles Colleton in Lincoln County provides an example of how new communities handled criminal matters and how pioneer lawyers helped administer justice. On November 7, 1868, John Burley shot and killed Colleton while robbing him near Fort McPherson. Authorities quickly captured Burley and returned him to North Platte. Most believed Burley was responsible for the killing and at least a few people talked openly of lynching him. Lincoln County had no jail or courthouse, and the nearest district judge sat several hundred miles away in Fremont. Yet the people of North Platte did not hang John Burley. Instead, they put together a criminal justice system, called on the district court judge, and tried him for murder. Lawyer Beach Hinman skillfully represented Burley, securing a change of venue and appealing Burley’s case to the state supreme court when he was convicted. He eventually convinced the jury to convict on manslaughter rather than murder during a second trial.

The presence of lawyers such as Hinman enabled the criminal justice system to function as soon as communities emerged, and the early lawyers provided competent and efficient legal representation. Although the western attorneys were generally younger than those of eastern states and had significantly less legal experience when they migrated to the Platte valley, they arrived well trained and ready to practice law.

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