Although it was illegal to settle on the west side of the Missouri River before the Nebraska Territory formed in 1854, several men operated a ferry and erected buildings at what would later become Plattsmouth as early as 1848 when the area was simply known as Indian Territory.
The Mormons were perhaps the first group, other than fur traders or missionaries to receive federal approval to “settle” on the west side of the Missouri River. Winter Quarters, well north of Omaha, was their primary settlement but in 1848 Mormon Bishop Lebbeus Thaddeus Coon (sometimes Coons) was granted permission to operate a flatboat ferry “propelled by sweeps” below the Platte River’s mouth on the Missouri River. In 1852 this ferry was assumed by Samuel Martin and James O’Neil.
The following year Samuel Martin, also a fur trapper, secured permission from the U. S. Secretary of War to establish a trading post near the mouth of the Platte River at a point he called Platteville.
Martin at first lived on the east bank of the river at Coonville and later Glenwood, Iowa, but in the early winter of 1853 moved logs on the ice to the west bank and built a cabin on what would ultimately be the north side of Main Street in Plattsmouth. This two-story log building was called “Old Barracks” and served as a post office, polling site, Martin’s store, etc. until razed in 1864. That autumn James O’Neil built a house near Martin’s, enabling them to claim being the first true settlers.
1854 saw Cass County’s creation which was described as being bounded by the Platte River on the north, the Weeping Water on the south, the Missouri River on the east, then west “to the limit of the ceded land in a distance of about 100 miles.” The huge county was then divided into two precincts, Kanosha, renamed Rock Bluffs, and Martins which was renamed Plattsmouth, in April of 1855. In November Martin, O’Neil and others established the Plattsmouth Town Co.
On Dec. 15, 1854, Samuel Martin died, becoming the first official death in Cass County. Martin was well known as an Indian trader with the Pawnee and Otoe whose “reputation was not the best ... (was reportedly) very profane, indulging in intoxicants to excess” and, though no records survive, was buried somewhere “southwest of the Plattsmouth School” with virtually no one at his funeral. When relatives later sought his burial site “they failed to find any clue to them.”
In 1855 the only other Cass County village of any note was Kanosha, probably named for Kenosha, Wisconsin, but misspelled, which was about 12 miles south of Plattsmouth on the Missouri River in Section 33 of Rock Bluffs Precinct. At its height Kanosha had a dock, saloons, doctors, large store, school and blacksmith. Both Kanosha and Plattsmouth sought the Cass County seat but Kanosha pointed out that Plattsmouth was too far in the very northeast corner of the county.
Plattsmouth countered this argument by simply hiring a map drawn which showed them erroneously to be 10 miles south of the mouth of the Platte. The legislative committee accepted the fake map and made Plattsmouth the county seat. Kanosha quietly dwindled and today only its cemetery remains.
That August, Plattsmouth, already one of the oldest cities in the territory with six houses, Wm. Mickelwait(e)’s Farmer’s Hotel at Third and Main, obtained an official post office with Mickelwait as postmaster, though no building or even site was stated until the Saughter & Worley Building was erected on Main Street.
Although it was the official county seat, Plattsmouth did not incorporate until 1856 when Mickelwait became the first mayor, and James O’Neil built the first school on Gospel Hill in the southwest corner of the city which also hosted the first District Court. Interestingly the first lawsuit was won by O’Neil, who was sued for forcible entry by James Raines.
Plattsmouth’s title of county seat remained a ballot question and in 1861 the vote showed Plattsmouth 368, Rock Bluffs 223 and Mount Pleasant 100. The following year the first real Cass County Courthouse was completed as a two-story, brick structure. The seat location was again questioned in 1875 resulting in Weeping Water 1,034, Plattsmouth 856, Louisville 147 and Rock Bluffs 93, none with the required three-fifths majority. Subsequent votes in 1877, 1878, 1884 and 1888 all gave Plattsmouth the nod and a new courthouse was dedicated in 1892.
Often forgotten today, in 1855 William Kempton introduced a bill in the territorial House of Representatives to make Plattsmouth the territorial capital. The bill lost in both the House and in the upper chamber by just one vote! Then in 1869 J. C. Logan of Illinois suggested the nation’s capital be moved to the Midwest. Even though Plattsmouth was immediately on board and lobbied in its interest, the idea went nowhere.
PHOTOS: NATIONAL LANDMARKS OF NEBRASKA
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 email@example.com.