Villains, Miscreants, and the Salt of the Earth

by Don Cunningham

“Approaching Lincoln from the east, the first remarkable object that meets the eye of the stranger is a succession of what appears to be several beautiful lakes extending along the lines of Salt Creek to the northward and westward of the town, the nearest a mile distant. As their crystal surfaces glisten like molten silver in the sunlight the illusion is complete, and the most critical landscape painter would be deceived as to their character. But there is no water enclosed in their grassy banks . . .

“These apparent lakes are the Salt Basins of Lancaster County, in themselves natural curiosities well worthy of a long journey to visit them. The floor of these basins is hard clay, smooth and level as a brick-yard and polished as that of a Hollander’s kitchen. They are covered with a white layer of crystallized salt, wonderfully pure . . . Intersecting these salt floors are little streams of salty water, so strongly impregnated that it will abrade the tongue and lips when tasted.

“Upon the west side of Salt Creek the whole surface of the soil for two or three miles around the basins is covered with salt . . . Salt Creek itself is, as the name implies, a briny stream, and when the vicinity of the basins shall become a fashionable watering place, salt water baths will be indulged in without danger from hungry sharks or receding water.” – Nebraska Commonwealth, (Lincoln), September 7, 1867.

From apparent lakes to real lakes (Capitol Beach and Oak Park), from hopes of a salt industry worth billions to lake-side living for the well-to-do, from Governor David Butler, impeached in 1871, who granted suspect leases in the salt basins, and J. Sterling Morton who sued the state to eject them from the land, to contemporary financial scandals, and “sharks” of a variety unsuspected by the Commonwealth writer, the Lancaster County salt basins loom large in Nebraska history.

At the time of the “official” discovery by government surveyors in 1857 (the basins, of course, had been a source of salt for Indians and early pioneers well before that date) the basins must have looked much as the Commonwealth article describes them. Lying to the west and north of the present city of Lincoln, the area, though now greatly changed in surface appearance, consisted of four basins and their associated lowlands, amounting to some 17,000 acres.

Upward movement of groundwater and free-flowing saline springs brought brine of some 8 to 15 percent salt to the surface. Early observers declared that this water, much saltier than sea water, would rise at night, covering the cracked, dry surface with several inches of brine, which would then evaporate during the day, leaving behind a layer of salt crystals which could easily be scraped up, especially during dry periods when successive flows might leave deposits several inches thick.

In 1905, William Wallace Cox, an early Lancaster and Seward County pioneer, recalled his first visit to the basin in 1861. Coming from Nebraska City, he and his companions followed a trail across the prairie where LIncoln is now located “down to the bottom and crossed O Street (to be) about where the U.P. Palatial depot now graces the valley, and we found a ford just by the mouth of Oak Creek. Here was an old trail made by Salt Pilgrims in former years, but it was nearly overgrown by tall sunflowers . . .

“Just as we were crossing the western part of the site of the future grand city we had the exciting pleasure of seeing . . . a drove (perhaps 30 or 40 beautiful antelope . . . cantering across the prairie about where the Government Square is now [presently the block from O to P, between 9th and 10th Streets] . . .

“The great basin covering three or four hundred acres was as smooth as a pane of glass, and looked just like a vast slab of highly polished, clouded marble . . . All was wild and solitary, but our soul was filled with rapturous delight. The bracing air filled with ozone or salt, we hardly knew which. The shrill notes of the swarms of wild geese, brant and pelicans all lent a charm.”

Like many others who made the pilgrimage to the basins, Cox choose to stay. Salt, after all, was a valuable commodity, necessary to health, a principle means of preserving meat and hides, and prized as a basic seasoning. Transportation was expensive and unreliable, and local sources of supply were sufficiently important to impel the federal government, as early as 1796, to reserve saline lands and salt springs as public land.

Thus, the “salt pilgrims” Cox refers to, who began arriving in the late 1850’s and early 60’s, were of two sorts. Many were pioneers of the region who regularly traveled 100 miles or more to gather salt for their own use and for trading with neighbors. Others were speculators, entrepreneurs and would-be businessmen, who saw the salt deposits as their way to wealth.

The usual method for gathering the salt used by the incidental harvesters was simple. If the weather had been dry, the basins, frequently flooded by the almost “tidal” flows of brine, were covered with salt crystals which could be scraped up from the surface with shovels or homemade scrapers. The Nebraska City News of April 21, 1860, reports that “Nature is the only evaporator used in the manufacture of this salt,” and on April 28 of the same year reports receiving a sample of some 30 bushels of good quality salt which had been “scraped up from the banks of Salt Creek with a shovel.”

That same news item reflected the general optimism surrounding the basins: “The probability is that the salt, as well as gold, silver, and coal mines of Nebraska are inexhaustible.”

Sometimes the scrapings were refined by dissolving them in water. Dirt would precipitate out of this heavy brine, which would then be boiled, yielding a clean, pure salt. Many brought large pans for this purpose, and brine from the salt springs was also collected and boiled.

Both boiling and solar evaporation were employed by the salt manufacturers who, unlike the incidental gatherers, hoped to make a living from the deposits. Although fuel was scarce, boiling was the quick way to produce salt, but evaporation, although time-consuming, was cheap. Later manufacturers constructed large vats for this purpose, often with covers which could be used to protect the salt from rain.

In his reminiscences, Cox describes the activity at the basins in the summer of 1861 when he and his associates decided to go into the salt business: “We hurriedly made us a salt pan out of sheet iron and plank . . . and set up a furnace constructed of sod, went to the timber, dropped and hauled a few loads of wood and were ready for business . . .

“We kept our furnace running day and night and soon accumulated a little stock of salt. Now would come a drove of people, when the scraping was good, and they would get a vast amount, more crude salt than they could haul. So we would trade them fine, manufactured salt at $2 per hundred and take their scrapings at twenty-five cents per hundred. They would go home happy with plenty of scraped salt for the stock and plenty of nice salt for meat and table use. They left us happy for we knew it would rain someday . . . and our scraped salt would suddenly rise to a dollar per hundred. Human nature “you know,” we had a corner on salt, that’s all.”

And business was not limited to salt — when rain dissolved the surface deposits and made scraping impossible, Cox and company would trade disheartened pilgrims manufactured salt for firewood. “Salt,” he says, “was legal tender.” They traded weary boilers out of their pans and wood in exchange for salt, and “we run a regular exchange business. Some would bring apples, butter, chickens, a dressed pig, potatoes, etc., all to trade for salt . . . It is amusing at this time to think over the trades we made. One fellow brought a great tent for camping purposes and we traded him out of it. Another brought a fine suit of clothes and we took them in. One company came from Winterset, Iowa, with two, four-horse teams with five thousand pounds of flour, and we took it in and gave them pound for pound, or five thousand pounds of salt. We were ready to trade anything but yellow dogs. We drew the line on yellow dogs.”

Cox also remembers “distinguished visitors that fall while we were batching,” among them a group including J. Sterling Morton, a figure who was later to play a significant role in the history of the basins. Morton, Cox reports, “was not partial to slapjacks,” even though host Cox says “we put in our best licks” baking for the company.

Society at the basins appears to have been about as convivial and rowdy as even Hollywood and the dime novel could imagine. John Sanford Gregory, another early resident, remembers arriving at the basin in 1862, when “neighbors were few and far between,” and there were “nightly serenades from hundreds of coyote wolves who loved chickens better than traveling ministers . . .”

That fall, he recalled in 1905, the denizens of the basins held an election which, “was a picnic for office seekers,” since “there were but eleven voters in the county,” and “everyone could have one.”

Small, freckled-faced Alf Eveland was elected justice of the peace — and thereafter “was ambitious to be called “Squire” Eveland.” The new justice opened a saloon in his soddy, “his stock in trade being a keg of whiskey and a caddy of tobacco. His wife, Elizabeth, was of massive proportions, at least four times the size of her husband, and as strong as she was big — could easily hold her lord at arm’s length over her head, with her right arm alone. It was said that after Eveland’s stock in trade had been paid for, he had ten cents left, with which he purchased a drink at his bar, while his wife kept the saloon, and then she in turn used it for the same purpose while “Alf” was bartender, and by alternating this process, quite a trade was established.”

And there was quick-tempered Will Pemberton, “another of the characters of Salt Basin.” One day Pemberton showed up at Gregory’s place all in a sweat. “His face was pale and his eyes were green, and he was trembling with excitement. He said “Greg, I want to know if I can depend upon you as my friend in trouble?” I answered him that he could up to the last hair. He then asked me if there was any law in Nebraska against killing birds. I told him there was not. He said he was awful glad to know of it, for he had just killed Jim Bird over at the Basin. Said Jim had called him a liar, and he had shot him through the head, was awful sorry now that he had done so, but it couldn’t be helped.”

Gregory decided he needed to confirm Bird’s death, in spite of Pemberton’s assertion that “his revolver never failed to plant a bullet where he aimed it,” and Gregory rode over to Bird’s cabin only to find Bird “busy cutting wood at the front door of his log cabin . . . a hole through his hat, and a red streak on his head where the bullet grazed.” Bird was anxious to arrange for Pemberton’s funeral, but Gregory negotiated a settlement whereby Pemberton was to go to Bird, “and pass to him his pistols, as evidence of good faith, and beg his pardon for his rashness, and promise to keep the peace . . . To all these Pemberton gladly complied, and again peace and goodwill hovered over Salt Basin.”

But the peace and goodwill of the basin was threatened not only by impulsive salt pilgrims with six-shooters, but also by exaggerated hopes for wealth, by the rough-and-tumble politics of the young territory, and by the legal maneuvering for control of this supposedly inexhaustible resource.

The government survey of 1854 (which reached these townships in 1857) established the lands as saline, but as settlers began entering the region in increasing numbers, especially following the Homestead Act of 1862, some question arose about whether or not the basins, indisputably saline, actually qualified under earlier federal acts reserving such lands to the states.

In 1864, Nebraska became a territory. The enabling legislation granted the state “all salt springs in said state not exceeding twelve . . . with six sections of land adjoining,” (provided there were not valid prior claims) to be selected by the governor within a year of admission to the union. In 1867 the territory became a state, and in June of that year Governor Butler began his selection of lands in the basin.

As issue of great concern to the newly created state was the location of its new capital, an issue which had plagued lawmakers in territorial days, as well. South Platters were determined that the capital be removed from Omaha; the Omaha faction, vigorously supported by the Omaha newspapers, was equally adamantly opposed to removal.

Nevertheless, the legislature passed a bill creating a commission to choose a location for a new capital to be located on land in Seward, Saunders, Butler, or the northern portion of Lancaster County.

The new seat of government was to be called “Capital City,” but the name “Lincoln” was substituted in an attempt to sway the South Platte Democrats, with their southern yearnings, away from the relocation measure. The strategy failed, and Lincoln, as yet unlocated, was to become the new capital.

The commission made a tour of the proposed areas, and settled on a site between the communities of Lancaster and Yankee Hill, on the banks of Salt Creek. The economic promise of the saline deposits was a primary factor influencing the commission’s choice, and Lancaster, population about 30, became Lincoln.

In 1869, addressing the first legislative session to meet in the newly constructed capitol building. Butler boasted, “Although comparatively little has been accomplished in the actual production of salt, that little has settled beyond question, if indeed further proof was needed, that we have, within sight of this hall, a rich and apparently inexhaustible supply of this pure and easily manufactured article. It will be directly and indirectly a source of wealth to the state whose great value no one can fully estimate.”:

Augustus Harvey, editor of the Nebraska Statesman, and surveyor and civil engineer, as well, accompanied the commission on its tour of the potential capital sites. A one-man department of economic development, his enthusiasm for the prospect of salt manufacture was unbounded; he proposed a scheme which involved a thousand wells to be sunk in the basin (which he claimed covered a wildly exaggerated 300 square miles). He anticipated each well would produce at a value of half a million dollars a year, bringing the annual worth of his thousand-well project to an astronomical $500 million dollars a year!

John Henry Ames, early commissioner of the Nebraska Supreme Court, commenting on Harvey’s proposal in his 1907 reminiscences, says “The foregoing shows what can be done by a vivid and vigorous imagination with a little rainwater and a moderate quantity of chloride of sodium slightly adulterated with alkaline salts.”

But Ames had the advantage of profiting from hindsight. Harvey and his fellow entrepreneurs wanted to profit from salt. The problem was, whose salt was it?

The state, through the federal legislation granting saline lands to the state, seemed to have a solid claim. The lands were indisputably saline, and the survey maps show several salt springs. The surveyor’s field notes refer to salt frequently; after setting the cornerstone between sections 14, 15, 22, and 23, (just south of the point where the present north First Street meets west Charleston), for example, his notes say, “Surface mostly low, wet and barren. With a great many Saline Springs, Soil 2nd rate.”

In his general description following the survey of township 10, range 6, he says, “The water in all the creeks are (sic) Extremely Salty. I discovered valuable salt springs along the bed of creeks and in Sections 22, 23, and in 34, and 27. A small operation (sic) for boiling the water is carried by a company in Section 22. The specimens (sic) of salt was (sic) very fine.”

But ambiguities in the acts of Congress, omission in the surveyors’ reports to the Secretary of the Interior, as well as the existence of prior land warrants to some of the land, make it unclear whether these lands were actually reserved from private sale. In his history of Nebraska, J. Sterling Morton (who was not without a vested interest) reports that the Secretary of the Interior declared that he had been informed that there was “good reason to believe that large quantities of saline lands have been reported as ordinary lands by fraudulent collusion between the surveyors and speculators.”

Whatever the case, (still following the Morton history’s account of events), Morton held these military land warrants as agent of their eastern owner. In 1859, he conveyed them to John W. Prey, the first bona fide Lancaster County settler.

Patents were sent to the land office but were withheld by the commissioner of the general land office. Nevertheless, the following November, Prey made warranty deeds “of an undivided third interest in these lands” to Morton, Andrew Hopkins, and Charles A. Manners, who, interestingly enough, was, according to A.T. Andreas” 1882 History of Nebraska, “one of the surveyors who made the discovery of the basin in 1856.”

The state, however, continued to treat them as reserved lands, and in 1869, the year of his optimistic address, Butler granted a lease to Anson C. Tichenor, who granted half his interest to the Nebraska Salt Company of Chicago. This company did not develop the basin, although Tichenor had invested a considerable about of money. In February, the legislature voided the lease, and the governor reassigned it to Tichenor and Jesse T. Green, who began to produce salt, according to Morton, “by boiling in iron vats the brine which was pumped from a windmill from a shaft five feet deep.” The Omaha Republican of August 26, 1867, reported that by that date Tichenor and Green’s works were completed, and that they anticipated producing 50 barrels of salt per day from the brine produced by 20 wells. He expected each barrel of water to produce two bushels of salt, and promised 180 barrels of salt a day to any railroad which would “build to Lincoln and carry the product to the Missouri River.” According to the terms of their lease, they were to pay the state a royalty of two cents per bushel of manufactured salt.

But during the winter of 1870, Morton decided to test the legality of Butler’s leases. Butler’s administration was, to put things in the kindest light, loose. There were significant legal questions about the state’s right to the lands. By this time Tichenor had disposed of his interest in the works to Horace Smith (of Smith and Wesson Arms fame), who placed the salt works under the management of James P. Hebbard of Nebraska City.

Morton realized that the question of title could only be determined in court, and his claim would fare better if he were defendant, in possession of the lands, than if he were to bring an action as plaintiff. So, in December 1870, he packed a wagonload of supplies and set out for Lincoln.

Arriving in Lincoln on the 24th, Morton and his assistants, including Edward Roggen, later to come Nebraska’s Secretary of State, drove to the big basin. Among the structures there was a small building intended as a headquarters and barracks for workers. The weather was cloudy and threatening, it was Christmas eve, and no manufacturing was going on. The building was unlocked and unguarded, and Morton and Roggen, according to Ames, “went into occupancy.”

Hebbard and Green learned of Morton’s invasion, and they went to Col. James E. Philpott, “one of the leading legal practitioners in the city.” Philpott advised his clients simply to keep watch. Green and Hebbard had a large quantity of cordwood stacked nearby, and he said if Morton and Roggen used any of it they would be committing larceny and be liable to arrest and prosecution on that charge, conveniently skirting the complex issue of trespass on land whose ownership was in dispute.

Observers were sent, and they watched Morton and Roggen come out of the building and help themselves to the woodpile. A complaint was prepared and sworn before Ames as justice of the peace, and at about 10:30 p.m., the “constable appeared at my office with both the defendants in charge as prisoners,” along with their lawyer. A hearing was set for the following Monday (December 26th), and Morton and Roggen were released.

In the meantime, Morton conferred with the State Attorney General, Seth Robinson, and agreed to desist from his attempt to take forcible possession of the property in return for charges being dropped. On Monday, the case was dismissed.

Two weeks later, Morton began an action against Hebbard and Green to recover $20,000 damages for malicious prosecution and false imprisonment, and in June of 1871 received a judgement of $100 for damages and costs. Ames declares that Morton was not actually seeking the large damage judgement, but vindication from the accusation of larceny. At the same time, Horton, Hopkins, and Manners began an action in ejectment against the state to determine the legal title to the land.

Morton lost in Lancaster County district court, appealed to the state Supreme Court and lost again, and finally carried the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1875, that court also ruled in favor of the state of Nebraska. In spite of these setbacks, salt for Morton, apparently had not lost its savor; and the familiar cylindrical blue boxes advertising a product which, unlike that scraped up from the ground near Lincoln, continued to pour even when it rained, still carry the Morton name.

Morton went on to other enterprises, though not, apparently, without some harbored resentment against the lessees. His history continues the salt story, recording the subsequent failures of salt manufacturing in the area and describing his opponents thus: “Tichenor was a hare-brained adventurer of that class who commonly float on the foremost tide of emigration and are soon stranded on its borders, and Green was an enthusiast who walked into and through the illusory experiment by the faith and not by sight.”

Eventually, hopes of a Nebraska salt industry were extinguished, but the story of the basins, and their evolution into a pleasure garden, an amusement park still remembered by virtually any Lincoln native older than 40.