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Jim McKee: The history of Indian Cave State Park and St. Deroin

Jim McKee: The history of Indian Cave State Park and St. Deroin

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Indian Cave State Park

Since this photo was taken in the early 1970s, the paths and entrance to the cave at Indian Cave State Park have been leveled and wooden stairs and railings built. With the exception of the graffiti, the cave has changed little over centuries. (Courtesy photo)

With the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, missionaries and fur traders visited what would become Nebraska, though actual settlement was controlled by the federal government and generally not allowed until the area became a territory in 1854. During the pre-territory period, French Canadian fur trader Amable De Rouins married an Otoe woman and about the time their son Joseph was born in 1819, the name was anglicized to Deroin.

Like his father, Joseph became a fur trader and in the early 1840s unexplainably obtained two 160-acre grants in the Half-Breed Tract. This tract of free land for mixed-bloods was established by the Prairie du Chien Treaty with the Otoe in 1830. The 140,000-acre tract, which was in what became Richardson County, was soon abandoned as settlers arrived, but it did allow Joseph Deroin to establish a trading post near the point where the Nemaha River joined the Missouri.

In 1853-54 Joseph Deroin, who was then referred to as an Otoe chief albeit with no particular authority, and Robert Hawke drew up a plat for the village of Deroin on land owned by Joseph. This village challenged the title of Brownville, which claimed to be the first official townsite in Nebraska. A post office was opened in March 1854 and named St. Deroin. It is assumed that "Saint" was added at that time to give the village added status, as the area had a St. George and St. Frederick, and all were hoping for the cache attached to the prosperous Missouri towns of St. Louis and St. Joseph.

In 1858, the often-confrontational Deroin was shot and killed when he tried to collect a $6 debt from a neighbor who was subsequently acquitted of the ensuing murder charge. Deroin, who claimed four wives, some probably overlapping a bit, was reportedly buried in the town's cemetery astride his horse.

The town became an accepted steamboat landing with a population that claimed to have peaked at about 300 with a hotel, blacksmith and flouring mill as well as many small businesses. Although it was strictly illegal, much of the local timber was harvested and sold as fuel to passing steamboats using the river landing there. In 1910-11 the Missouri River began eroding the Loess Hill banks, destroying much of the town and forcing the brick school to be disassembled and moved to higher ground, while the post office was closed.

In 1915 the Missouri River ferry closed and moved to Brownville, and by the 1920s only the relocated school remained in operation.

What was to become Indian Cave State Park was a longtime picnic area for locals on the border of Richardson and Nemaha counties and was referred to as the "Ozarks of Nebraska." This "botanical and geological puzzle" area claimed vegetation normally found in Tennessee and geological features similarly unique or at least very unusual in Nebraska. The location was loosely referred to as east of Nemaha City or north of Falls City or northeast of Shubert or south of Brownville and claimed by both Shubert and Barada.

Perhaps the major feature of the park is the cave itself, which is in the southeast corner of the park on the west bank of the Missouri River "eroded into Permian sandstones" and said to date "back several thousand years." Some estimates of the origin of the cave claim it may be 12,000 years old and probably formed by a combination of the Missouri River, rain, wind and the cycle of freezing and thawing.

In the cave are prehistoric Native American carvings dating back perhaps 1,500 years. These preserved carvings in the limestone are the only ones in Nebraska and are largely unexplained.

A few hundred yards south of the cave are the remnants of the Deaver coal mine, which is one of only a few in Nebraska, all of which in the southeast corner of the state. This 18- to 30-inch seam of coal, which was discovered in the late 1800s, was not a commercial success but did furnish enough soft coal for Mr. Deaver to heat his home for a number of years.

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission began acquiring land in the area with the initial 1962 purchase of 1,300 acres that it announced would produce one of the state's largest parks and would be within 3½ hours of 62 percent of Nebraska's population.

Today Indian Cave State Park covers more than 3,000 acres, about three-fourths of which feature dozens of varieties of trees and about 30 miles of horseback and hiking trails. On the site of St. Deroin, one can examine the original cemetery and reconstructed brick school as well as a re-created general store and log cabin. Although vandals have destroyed many of the petroglyphs, more than 15 original drawings are intact.

From Lincoln, drive east on Nebraska 2 to Nebraska City, then south on U.S. 75 to U.S. 136 east of Auburn, then to Highway 64E, where signs lead the way to a unique day trip.

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at


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