the history nebraska blog

Tales from Frontier Courtrooms



Before the grand brick or stone edifices, wood-framed courthouses were a big step forward from pioneer-era accommodations. Shown here is the first Saunders County Courthouse, built in 1870 in Ashland. NSHS RG1121-1-28




Years before Nebraska counties built their grand courthouses, courts met wherever they could, and a frontier informality prevailed.



Eleazer Wakeley, a young Wisconsin lawyer appointed the judge of Nebraska Territory’s Third Judicial District in 1857, discovered that “the [legal] environments were not always propitious” in the new, sparsely settled area. In a reminiscence published by the Nebraska State Historical Society in 1894 Wakeley recalled:




Court houses were improvised from halls, school houses, store rooms, or abandoned buildings. In the newer counties, it happened to me to hold the first terms ever appointed. The inhabitants were not familiar with the usages, and punctilios of courts… One jury came in, after a two days’ trial of a criminal case, full and elaborate instructions from the court, and several hours deliberation, to inquire whether the prisoner ‘had plead guilty.’ Set right on this important point, they presently returned a verdict of acquittal.



On another occasion a jury was out when a recess was taken, at the close of the day. The sheriff was directed to notify the judge when the jury should agree. In the evening, there was a resounding tramp on the stairs, and in the hall way of the hotel leading to the judge’s room. The sheriff, at the head of the procession, opened the door, handed the judge a paper with a pleased air, and announced, ‘Your Honor, the jury has agreed. Here is the verdict.’ A counter march was ordered; and the verdict taken at the court house with due solemnity.



Even in the older county of Washington, there was once a rather unique reception of a verdict. In January, 1861, near the close of my term, Chief Justice Augustus Hall, successor of Judge [Fenner] Ferguson, held court at DeSoto for two or three days. The jury was out, in a strongly contested criminal case, and, at reasonable bedtime, had not agreed. The Chief Justice retired. He occupied the choice guest room of the hotel, which was directly over the office (there were no ‘corridors’ in Nebraska then), and warmed by a stove pipe through a hole in the ceiling. Towards midnight, the jury agreed. It was marshalled into the room beneath. The judge had risen; but his ‘robes’ were not strictly judicial. Down through the stove pipe hole, he ordered the clerk to call the jury, and take the verdict. It was for the defendant. Again came the order, ‘Clerk, record the verdict. The prisoner is released. Sheriff, adjourn court until tomorrow morning.



Become a Member!

Our members make history happen.

Join Now

Other Publications

Nebraska History Moments – For Further Reading

Do you have your copy of Nebraska History Moments, published by History Nebraska? This page is for readers who have the book and want to know more about its stories. ...

Nebraska History Index 1885-present

Searching Nebraska History Two ways to search past issues: Table of Contents (1885 to present) . Articles are listed issue by issue, with links to many that ...

Crazy Horse Surrender Ledger Foreward

Red Dog, an Oglala Lakota who lived at the Red Cloud Agency, Nebraska, 1876-77 (Nebraska State Historical Society RG2955.ph). In the summer of 1876, following the ...

Books Published by History Nebraska

In an effort to make quality stories from Nebraska's history more accessible, History Nebraska has partnered with University of Nebraska Press as a distributor of most ...

Darryl F. Zanuck

Darryl F. Zanuck Darryl F. Zanuck (1902-1979), a native Nebraskan, produced some of Hollywood's most important and controversial films. He helped found 20th Century Fox ...

History Nebraska newsletter

Darryl F. Zanuck Darryl F. Zanuck (1902-1979), a native Nebraskan, produced some of Hollywood's most important and controversial films. He helped found 20th Century Fox ...

The Burlington’s Profitable Pork Special

Nebraska railroads were much concerned with developing an adequate economy in the areas they served. The Burlington, for example, had a long history of caring for the ...

Bungalow Filling Stations

After the giant Standard Oil Company was broken into thirty-four separate companies in 1911, the newly independent Standard Oil of Nebraska dominated the state's market ...

The Bull Fight

This is the perfect time of year for a visit to the old fishin' hole. But a group of fisherfolk from Plainview discovered that this bucolic pastime sometimes has ...

Buffalo Soldiers West

African-American soldiers on the western frontier are the focus of an exhibit at the Nebraska History Museum in Lincoln. Buffalo Soldiers West, on loan from the Colorado ...

Protection for Buffalo

The extermination of the buffalo on the Plains occurred largely between 1870 and 1885. The Nebraska State Journal of Lincoln on February 1, 1874, editorialized in vain ...

Buffalo Hunting

In late October 1877 young Rolf Johnson and three friends left their homes in Phelps County, Nebraska, for a buffalo hunt in northeastern Colorado. The hunt was not very ...
About History Nebraska
History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
Explore Nebraska
Discover the real places and people of our past at these History Nebraska sites.

Upcoming Events

View our new and upcoming events to see how you can get involved.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.

Latest Hall of Fame Inductee

The Nebraska Hall of Fame was established in 1961 to officially recognize prominent Nebraskans.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.
Nebraska Collections
History Nebraska's mission is to collect, preserve, and open our shared history to all Nebraskans.
Explore Nebraska
Discover the real places and people of our past at these History Nebraska sites.

Our YouTube Video Collection

Get a closer look at Nebraska's history through your own eyes, with our extensive video collections.

Additional Research Resources

History Nebraska Research and Reference Services help connect you to the material we collect and preserve.
Support History Nebraska
Make a cash donation to help us acquire, preserve, and interpret Nebraska’s history. Gifts to History Nebraska help leave a legacy and may help your taxes, too! Support the work of History Nebraska by donating to the History Nebraska Foundation today.

Volunteers are the heroes of History Nebraska. So much history, so little time! Your work helps us share access to Nebraska’s stories at our museums and sites, the reference room, and online.