INCIDENTS OF PIONEER LIFE ON THE NEBRASKA FRONTIER
Background and Notes by Bryce Babcock
In 1872 a group of families became the first non Native-American settlers in the North Loup River valley in central Nebraska. These pioneers were led by my great-grandfather, Oscar Babcock. Born on March 15, 1835, in Persia, NY, then a pioneer settlement, Oscar Babcock was the son of George C. and Almira Brown Babcock. Besides Oscar, there were two other children, Delia (born in 1838) and Heman A. (born May 19, 1842).
George was an ordained minister of a small denomination known as Seventh Day Baptists. Their belief that the proper day of worship was the "seventh day" (Saturday) set them apart from those they often referred to as "first day people", including other Baptists, and gave the denomination it’s name. The denomination was formed in this country when seven members of the First Baptist Church of Newport, RI, had broken away to organize the 1st Seventh Day Baptist church in 1671.
Migrating to frontier areas and starting communities was nothing new to those bearing the name Babcock, or Badcock as it had been spelled in England. The first immigrant of that name, James Badcock, arrived in this country, probably from Essex, England, sometime prior to 1642 and settled near Portsmouth, RI. At the age of 59 James Badcock had been baptized and united with the Seventh Day Baptist Church of Newport and Westerly, RI, in 1678. In 1662, he and his son, John Babcock, as he would come to spell the name, then a boy of 16, were among the first to settle at what became Westerly, RI. Three generations later, another John Babcock, moved to Brookfield, NY, in about 1796, and from there to Persia, NY, about 1831.
Finding themselves greatly outnumbered by "first day people" who also held most of the best land, a number of these Seventh Day Baptist (S.D.B.) families had moved in 1846 from Persia, NY, to the vicinity of Milton, Rock County, Wisconsin. Among the new arrivals was George C. Babcock’s family. This area had already been settled by some members of the denomination, but again finding most of the good land already taken, several of the families, including the George Babcock family, moved north, probably about 1849, to locate a new S.D.B. colony at Dakota, Waushara County. Oscar, the eldest son, was about 14 years of age at this time.
On June 1, 1858, Oscar married Marietta Amanda (Metta) Bristol. He was "licensed to preach" by the S.D.B. church that same year, but was not officially ordained as a minister until 1872. Four children were born to Oscar and Metta Babcock: Edwin Jeffrey (May 14, 1860) , Arthur H., (1865), Myra Henrietta (Aug. 6, 1869), and George Ira (1871). Oscar was elected to the Wisconsin State Legislature in 1863 and served two terms (1863-1866) during the Civil War years.
Unfortunately, the soil in the area proved to be rather poor and after a number of years was becoming exhausted, and with soldiers coming home from the war another move seemed to be indicated. A number of the Dakota families, including George C. Babcock, his son Heman and Oscar’s and Heman’s in-laws, Ira and Nancy Bristol, moved to Brookfield, MO, and others to a location in Minnesota, but neither location proved to be very satisfactory.
Meanwhile, Oscar remained in Dakota where, in 1871, he was instrumental in organizing a group interested in founding an S.D.B. "colony" in Nebraska. Oscar served as president and corresponding secretary of the group. A committee of four was appointed to go west and seek out a suitable location. They traveled to Omaha where they were told about the virgin country of the North Loup river valley. They proceeded up the Platte and North Loup rivers to the mouth of Davis Creek., climbed the Chalk Hills and looked down on a fine expanse of valley about the present towns of North Loup and Scotia. One member of this "scouting committee", Charles P. Rood, was particularly impressed with the beauty and apparent fertility of the valley as seen from the top of the Sugar Loaf, the highest point and closest to the river of the Chalk Hills.
(It is an impressive view. I remember first climbing it myself, with some of my Nebraska cousins, when I was a boy of about 10 years of age, visiting from my home in Wisconsin. We knew this high hill then, not as Sugar Loaf, but as Happy Jack, which had been the affectionate nickname of a lone hunter, scout and trapper, Jack Swearengen, who was living in the area when the first settlers arrived and aided them on many occasions. Even now, whenever I drive north from St. Paul, NE, to see the old homestead at North Loup, I never fail to stop at the foot of the Sugar Loaf -- or Happy Jack -- and climb to it’s summit to take in that view. I can, for a brief moment at least, share the feelings of the little band of explorers.)
Returning to Dakota, the committee made a favorable report, and plans were put in motion to make a start on settling the new location. In the fall of 1871, another small party of four men returned to a location a few miles north of the Chalk Hills and entered claims, before returning to Dakota for the winter. The names of some of these early pioneers may be of interest: the original exploring committee consisted of C. P. Rood, Capt. N. B. Prentiss, C. H. Wellman and Amos Travis. The second party led by C. P. Rood also included Oscar Babcock’s confidential clerk and associate, John Sheldon, Herman Rood, and Mansell Davis.
E. J. Babcock, eldest son of Oscar Babcock, in an Historical Address delivered to the S.D.B. General Conference on August 19, 1923, fifty years after the settlement of the North Loup area, described the next steps in these words:
"Elder (Oscar) Babcock, as president and corresponding secretary, spent much of the following winter in correspondence, first with his brother Heman at Brookfield, who at once joined the movement, with the two Johnson boys, Byron and Gib., and other Minnesota people, with the Humbolt people, a large party of whom agreed to join the movement early the next spring, with people at Welton, Iowa, at Milton and other Wisconsin points, and with very many others all over the denomination, sending them samples of the North Loup soil brought back by John Sheldon, and writing copiously for the public press upon the movement. So thoroughly did the colony function and the movement materialize, that on almost the same day in early May, 1872, settlers gathered in two camps at the new settlement.
"From Dakota came Elder Babcock, John Sheldon, C.H. Wellman, George B. and Charles J. Rood, Mansell Davis and Mrs. Sarah James and families; from Humbolt (though most of them very recently from Welton, Iowa) came Albert H. Davis, A.J. Davis, Jr., Austin H. Terry, Albert L. Clark, T.C. Davis, John Furrow, Martin Elliott and Garritt Maxon; from Welton, direct, came Wilson (N.W.) Babcock, and L.H. Babcock and families and others; from Brookfield, MO, came Heman A. Babcock, Ira S. Bristol, George W. Larkin and families, S.P. Horr and Frank Larkin and a very little later the Horr family; and from Milton came Dr. Charles Badger, Amos R. Burdick, and families; and from various points came D.C. Meryott and family, L.C. Jacobs and family, Albert E. Green and family, and several others.
"Early the next spring, also came from Dakota, William A. Prentice, C.W. Hill and others; and from Berlin and other Wisconsin points soon came Henry T. East, A.F. Payne, William B and Morris T. Green, the Cottrels and a little later, Thomas O. Barker, T.P. Weed, Alonzo CollinsTaylor, young D.A. Stewart, Solon C. Terry, Mary T. Babcock, all settling in Mira Valley, and Frank Watts and Alpha L. Crandall from Illinois, and a further strong contingent from Welton, Iowa, consisting of Jud (A.J.) Davis, William Stewart, Jesse Worth, George (N.G.) Clement and families, Peter O. Babcock and a little later John Hill Babcock and families and others; and soon also Herman (W.H.) Rood, returned to the settlement and in 1875, Charles P. Rood and Elder M.B.C. True and families came and settled in Mira Valley.
"A little later most of the rest of the Brookfield, MO, group, the aged Elder George C. Babcock, Henry A. Chase, Henry and George Thorngate, John Larkin, John Manuel, Ezra Brace, P.W. Crandall and families and Frank Larkin came."
Oscar Babcock had traveled to Nebraska with the first group of settlers, including his brother Heman. Heman and Oscar had married sisters, daughters of Ira and Nancy Warner Bristol. I’ve mentioned Oscar’s wife Marietta Amanda (Metta) Bristol; Heman’s wife was Theressa Oressa (Retta) Bristol. Another sister also came to North Loup; Dora Bristol, had married Henry Babcock, a cousin of Oscar and Heman’s, but Henry had been killed at the Civil War battle of Shiloh in 1862.. After laying out his claim and constructing a "dugout" in which to house his family, Oscar returned to Wisconsin to prepare his family for the move to Nebraska that fall.
Originally, they had planned to make the trip using a team and wagon but the baby, George, was seriously ill and this delayed the start. Then suddenly Metta was stricken with typhoid fever. She died just three weeks later, and was buried in Dakota, WI. George had recovered from his illness, but it was now too late in the fall to make the trip by wagon, so the grieving Oscar with the children, ranging from 12 year old Edwin to the baby George, just over a year old, traveled by train to Grand Island and then the last 50 miles to North Loup by wagon, arriving there in November, 1872, and moving into the dugout home where they would spend the first winter.
The first years of the colony were difficult ones. The stories that form the main part of this booklet relate some of the major events of those years. Before getting on with these tales, however, I want to add just a bit more background of the major players in these events. Oscar Babcock, went on to become the first postmaster of North Loup, a position he held for 27 years, and first pastor of the S.D.B. church, preaching the first sermon, performing the first marriage and conducting the first funeral in the new county. He played a major role in the organization of Valley County, laid out the townsite for the village of North Loup from a part of his homestead, was chairman of the village board, and a member of the school board for a number of years and served terms as Superintendent of Schools for Valley County, Immigration Agent and County Commissioner.
Oscar Babcock was elected as first County Judge of Valley County and, in 1878, was elected to the Nebraska state legislature where he served one term. Throughout his lifetime he took an active part in keeping saloons out of the community and maintaining North Loup as a "dry" community. He was also instrumental in persuading the railroad to build through North Loup and Ord, communities the original survey had bypassed. Oscar Babcock passed away in his 80th year, on October 9, 1914, following a brief illness, though he had been suffering from severe health problems for many years. He is buried in the North Loup cemetery.
In the summer of 1873, Oscar Babcock replaced the "dugout" with the first log house in the community, a structure built of red cedar logs hauled from over 30 miles away. He donated the dugout to the community to be it’s first school house. The log cabin also served as the town’s postoffice and later also as a schoolhouse.
Edwin Jeffrey Babcock was the eldest son of Oscar and Metta Babcock, having been born May 14, 1860, at Dakota, WI. Eddie, as he was known as a boy, was 12 years of age when the family moved to Nebraska, assuming heavy responsibilities for the motherless family consisting of his brother Arthur, 7, sister Myra, 3, and the baby George, just over one year old.
E.J., as he was generally known as an adult, wrote the following accounts of those difficult first years of the North Loup colony. They were written, in 1923 to help commemorate the 50th anniversary of the settlement of the community. He and his father are the major figures in the stories, but the reader will meet a number of the other pioneers mentioned in the foregoing account.
Like his father, E.J. Babcock, was to play a major role in the community of North Loup. He attended Hastings, NE, high school, Doan College, and graduated with honors from Alfred University in New York state. Having qualified to practice law, he intended to establish a practice in Omaha but gave up any larger ambitions and, as the dutiful eldest son, returned to North Loup instead, due to his father’s health problems.
With limited opportunities as a lawyer in such a small community, he engaged in many other activities in order to eke out a living. He organized the irrigation company and was it’s manager for three years, organized and was secretary of the Building and Loan Association, helped to organize the town’s first telephone company, served as secretary of the school board, was one of the originators of North Loup’s annual Pop Corn Days fair, was a leader of the Good Roads Movement, and during World War I served as the Food Administrator of Valley County.
E.J. Babcock lived his entire life, after his 12th year, in North Loup where he and his wife, Jessie True Babcock raised a family of 5 children, the eldest, Oscar True (O.T.) Babcock, being my father. E.J. died on December 28, 1925, at his home and, like his father is buried in the North Loup cemetery. His obituary stated in part, ".... (the) characteristic of always putting others ahead (of himself) was the leading one of his life.... he was the head and front of everything that tended toward bettering conditions in this valley he loved so well." My grandfather died 5 years before I was born and it’s one of the great regrets of my life that I never knew him.
The stories that follow were preserved by my grandmother and have been in my possession now for many years. Periodically, I have taken them out and re-read them and have never failed to be moved by these firsthand accounts of early pioneer days. It seems time that they were shared with a larger audience.
NOTES ON THE STORIES
I do not know the order in which my grandfather wrote down these stories, but I have chosen to arrange them chronologically as they actually happened. It seems to make the most sense, and I would not be surprised if that was, in truth, the order in which they were written. The first in the series, is a kind of introduction to the others and concerns itself mainly with a description of the new country and of the building of the first dugout home. It concludes with an anecdote which, I like to think, shows E.J. to not be without a sense of humor. The description of how the dugout was constructed is, I think, of particular interest.
The story of the Great Blizzard of April, 1873, is unusual in that it is written in a kind of blank verse style. I have no idea what possessed my grandfather to write it in that style, but am grateful that he abandoned it after that one effort. I think his narrative writings are much more effective. It has always been my thought that the Blizzard story was the first, and that my grandfather, also, decided that the style was not his strongest suit and never repeated it. Still, it is a story that grips me every time I read it and I marvel at the courage and fortitude of these new settlers in a strange land having to cope with such an event.
The brief but vivid account of the flood that almost ended the family’s days in their new home is an exciting tale. Again, the matter-of-fact courage with which dreadful hardships are met is a tribute to all pioneers. The story is so graphic that when I read it, I can almost hear -- along with my grandfather -- little Myra scream as the dam gives way and the flood waters rush into the dugout. It is, I believe, also typical of Oscar Babcock’s character that he spends over an hour in the water, swirling chest deep, salvaging first his important papers and documents, and only when that is done, turning to things like clothing, bedding and provisions.
More evidence of my grandfather’s sense of humor is apparent in the episode of the coyotes, and the account of the real "Indian Scare" brings out one more element of the dangers and hardships that were almost everyday occurrences for these hardy pioneers. The description of how to jerk venison and the memory of how good this simple fare tasted to a very tired and very hungry 14-year-old, also helps bring the story alive.
The account of the great Prairie Fire of 1878 has, to me, always been the most thrilling and exciting of all these stories. The speed at which a prairie fire can travel and the ease with which it can jump fire breaks is almost beyond belief. This story, as well as an account of the great blizzard, are recounted in the book "The Trail of the Loup", but, in my mind at least, with much less impact. I can’t help feeling a great sense of pride when I think of my grandfather’s actions and narrow escape on that grim day. The losses suffered by so many of the settlers were severe, yet, as was true after each of the other natural disasters, they persevered and carried on. They met each test with courage, fortitude and determination. It is my hope that other readers will derive from reading these accounts a deeper understanding and appreciation of those remarkable pioneers who went before us.