Volume 5, No. 1                Buffalo County Historical Society          January, 1982

Part I

by Margaret Stines Nielsen
         Most of the early settlers of Buffalo County came from the eastern states; however, of the 121 adults and children listed in the 1860 census, twenty-five were English, eight Irish, two Canadian, and one was French.

         The earliest English people to settle in what became Buffalo County were Mormons who located around Wood River Center (Shelton).  It was customary for the Mormons to establish temporary support bases along the route of their migrations and some of those who assisted in this enterprise chose to go no further.  Sarah Oliver and her family were among the Mormons who found life in the Wood River valley preferable to the uncertainties of going on to Salt Lake City (Buffalo Tales, February 1978).

          The first history of Buffalo County was probably the Fourth of July oration given  by N. H. Hemiup in 1876, and reprinted in the Kearney Times.  In this he stated that "one  Carter", an Englishman, was with Henry Peck, the first to plant a crop of corn and potatoes, "but owing  to the newness of the breaking and other causes produced but little."  According to Mr. Hemiup, the first  white child born in Buffalo County, on July 10, 1860, was Henry Dugdale 1, son of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dugdale, natives of England.   Mr. Dugdale was elected sheriff in the county's first election in 1861, which was nullified because some of the  officials did not qualify. Another election wasn't held until 1870, when Dugdale was named county treasurer.   Mr. Hemiup stated, "During those early days, Mr. Dugdale sold potatoes to the Fort and emigrants for $5.00 per bushel, and corn as high as $4.15."
8-sided residence of William Nutter, Sr., 1886. - Solomon D. Butcher Photo. 

    The first Fourth of July celebration in the county was held in 1872 in a grove on the Dugdale farm by the Sunday Schools of Gibbon and Wood  River Union.  The Buffalo County Beacon stated "...we found it a cool and delightful place on the banks of the Wood River, carefully cleaned of underbrush, and fitted up with seats, swings and rostrum.  The oration was given by Colonel H. D. Niles and "not less than five hundred children were assembled and singing  praises to God where eighteen months before Indians roamed at pleasure and Buffalo occupied the very grounds the picnic was held on."

Joseph Owen, early pioneer.
Mr. and Mrs. William Nutter, early pioneers. 

           David and Elizabeth Owen brought their children to this country with the intention of going to Salt Lake City, but while visiting with relatives near Wood River Center, they decided to stay.  A log cabin was provided for the family who were "soon snugly quartered on the cheerful banks of the Wood River."  Mr. Owen was working as a blacksmith in Wood River Center when he died in 1864.  Joseph Owen, a son, raised vegetables and sold them to the immigrants on the Mormon Trail and to the Fort.  As with many of the early settlers, their cash income was dependent on these sales for a time.  Joseph was deputy sheriff of Buffalo County under John Oliver, and was elected treasurer of School District No. 1 when it was organized in 1871, holding that office for more than forty-five years.  He married Sarah Ann Oliver and they had six children.

         Mr. and Mrs. William Nutter left their native England in 1853, and went to Philadelphia, where Mr. Nutter finally found work at his trade as a carder and spinner of cotton.  In 1860, the family made their way to Florence, Nebraska.  Here they purchased a yoke of oxen, a new wagon, and a cow, and joined a train going to Salt Lake City.  On their way west, they had been favorably impressed by the Wood River valley, and in 1862, when they became disillusioned with the Mormon faith, they returned to Nebraska where they purchased a "squatter's right" to a claim in Hall County.  Mrs. Nutter traded her gold watch for a cow, and Mr. Nutter put up hay and sawed wood for use at Fort Kearny. The family had raised one good crop when the Indian uprising of 1864 drove all the settlers from the region.  In their haste to leave, the Nutters forgot the baby, Helen, who was still asleep in the dry goods box they used as a cradle.  The anxious father retrieved the infant and they went on to Omaha, returning to England by way of Canada.

         Unable to forget the Wood River valley land they had left, the Nutters decided to give the United States a second chance.  Returning to Philadelphia, William worked at his former job in a mill until he had earned enough money to purchase another claim in Buffalo County in the spring of 1869.  Here he worked as a section hand until his family joined him in July, 1869, and later sold potatoes to the Soldier's Free Homestead Colony.  By the 1880's, they had one of the best improved farms in the county, including an orchard of 2,000 trees.  When worms destroyed his apples, he set aside a room in his house to make a study of the pest, the results of which were printed in a bulletin of the State Agricultural College.
F. G. Keens standing under a tree planted by him in 1872 on the grounds of Mount Carmel-Keens Memorial Home. 

         On their return to Buffalo County, the Nutters had bought the log home of William Storey, who had been killed by the Indians in 1868 (Buffalo Tales, March, 1978 ).  They built an addition to the cabin for their growing family, but as their fortunes improved they decided to build a new house.  The octagon-shaped house, built in 1886, was the showplace of the area.  Van Nutter, son of Mr. and Mrs. Donovan Nutter, a fourth generation member of the family, is now living in the remodeled house between Gibbon and Shelton on the north side of Highway 30.

         Francis G. Keens "footed it into Kearney ahead of the railroad" (the B. & M.) in 1872.  Born in Exeter, England in 1853, he came to this country at the age of sixteen.  Working his way across the country as a painter, he had acquired a little money, and when he arrived in Kearney, he built, with Thomas S. Nightengale, the second store in town where they sold drugs and general merchandise.

         In a bitterly contested election on October 13, 1874, voters chose to move the county seat to Kearney.  Shortly after that, Mr. Keens, as deputy county clerk, accompanied county clerk Joseph Scott to Gibbon in the dead of night to remove the county records.  Returning to Kearney at 2:00 AM, Keens stood guard in the Chandler Building for the remainder of the night until the records could be placed in a more secure place.

         In 1875 Keens built his "castle" at what is now 401 W. 27th St. where he installed a Kearney first, a copper bath tub.  After serving a term as deputy county treasurer, he went into the insurance and loan business, later he became president of the City National Bank.  In 1880 Keens and Nathan Campbell were empowered by Kearney citizens to offer 330 acres as a site for the "State Reform School", if it was located in Kearney.  He was also one of the organizers and secretary of the Kearney Canal Company.  In his later years, he moved to California, where he had a number of investments.


F.G. Keens "Castle," 1875, 401 West 27th Street in Kearney. 
After a fire in 1946 the second floor was torn off and the house extensively remodeled. 
It is now the home of Lt. Col. (Ret.) and Mrs. R. J. Dunn. - A. T. Anderson Photo

         Of the many controversies Mr. Keens was involved in, the one with the most far- reaching consequences was his disagreement with his own church, St. Lukes Episcopal.  The upshot of this was that in 1929, he offered to the Grand Island Diocese of the Catholic Church, the block of ground on 17th Street which included the Keens Flats and a frame residence.  The Carmelite Sisters acquired the property and established a care home in the apartments, using the home as a convent for training Corpus Christi Carmelite Sisters.  Mr. Keens helped the Order in planning the landscaping of the grounds, and presented them with money to help with remodeling.  At his death at the age, of 85, he bequeathed a large sum of money which made possible the construction of the chapel and other rooms in 1952.  The name of the home became Mount Carmel-Keens Memorial.  Among the Sisters' prize possessions is a hammered copper Indian Temple gong, along with two elaborate brass urns, which Keens had acquired during his travels.

         Keens also gave money to the Good Samaritan Hospital which was used in the construction of the fourth and fifth floors of the building.  At one time he had also given a generous donation to the Kearney Military Academy.

        William H. Knaggs came from England to Fort Kearny in 1862.  William Knaggs, Sr. was deputy postmaster under his cousin, Moses Sydenham, also from England (Buffalo Tales, April 1981 ).  Mrs. Knaggs was head matron of the Fort hospital. In 1881 William Knaggs, Jr. piled all his possessions on the family cart and moved to Kearney where he worked in a drug store for ten years before going into the grocery business.  In 1907 he was elected to the city council and became Mayor of Kearney in 1913.  During his term of office the first paving was laid in the city.
1) Other sources name James Boyd's daughter, Eleanora, as the first white child. (Buffalo Tales, September, 1980 .)

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revised 3/10/2003
Proofread 1-30-2004