A Dirty, Wicked Town: Tales of 19th Century Omaha


Distributed by the University of Nebraska Press for Caxton Press

Omaha, Nebraska, is a laid-back city in America’s heartland. In the nineteenth century, however, it had a very different reputation. Omaha grew from a speculative scheme in 1854 to a booming city. Along the way there were scores of great stories.

 “It requires but little if any, stretch of the imagination to regard Omaha as a cesspool of iniquity, for it is given up to lawlessness and is overrun with a horde ...

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Distributed by the University of Nebraska Press for Caxton Press

Omaha, Nebraska, is a laid-back city in America’s heartland. In the nineteenth century, however, it had a very different reputation. Omaha grew from a speculative scheme in 1854 to a booming city. Along the way there were scores of great stories.

 “It requires but little if any, stretch of the imagination to regard Omaha as a cesspool of iniquity, for it is given up to lawlessness and is overrun with a horde of fugitives from justice and dangerous men of all kinds who carry things with a high hand and a loose rein. . . . If you want to find a rogue’s rookery, go to Omaha.”—Kansas City newspaper.

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Editorial Reviews

Recounts stories from the history of Omaha, drawing on contemporary newspaper and other accounts, covering the period from 1854 through 1898. Includes b&w historical illustrations and photos. Bristow has written articles and is working on a novel. He has lived in Omaha since 1992. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780870043987
  • Publisher: Caxton Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2000
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 300
  • Sales rank: 699,840
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

David L. Bristow has lived in Omaha since 1992.  He writes for various magazines and is currently working on a novel.  A Dirty, Wicked Town is his first book.
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Read an Excerpt

A Bushel of Doughnuts

Mathilda Peterson was alone and defenseless when the Indians entered her cabin. They came-we don't know how many there were-unannounced, and entered without knocking. That was the Indian way. Mathilda was terrified, of course, but refused to panic.

She was a young bride, lately come to Nebraska Territory with her husband, John. They had settled in Omaha City, building their cabin on the bank of the Otoe Creek, near what was to be the corner of Ninth and Jones.1 John Peterson was an ambitious man. He was going to build a hotel, and not just a log cabin, but a real frame building. Just now he was away, cutting timber.

The Indians, saying nothing, sat on the cabin floor. Mathilda was frying a batch of donuts. Not knowing what else to do, she continued working as though nothing was out of the ordinary. But she was nervous, and soon accidentally dropped a donut. It rolled around on the floor, stopping in front of the leader of the Indians.

We don't know if Mathilda recognized the leader, but he lived nearby and was known in the community. He went by the name "No Flesh," and was said to be "no good." He also was hungry. Though the boiling-hot donut still sizzled, No Flesh snatched it up off the floor-and just as quickly dropped it with a howl of pain. Sticking his burnt fingers in his mouth, he realized that . . . his fingers tasted unnaturally good. The donut lay on the floor, cooling, and No Flesh picked it up again and tasted it.

It was delicious. He ate the donut, then called for more.

For more than an hour, the donuts disappeared as fast as Mathilda could make them. Working quick as she could, she kept a nervous eye on her shrinking store of provisions. What would the Indians do to her when the donuts ran out?

At last, and just as the supply was being exhausted, John Peterson arrived home. He entered the cabin to find his wife frantically slaving over the fire while No Flesh and his companions happily stuffed themselves with donuts.

Quickly, Peterson drove the Indians out of the cabin. Mathilda, safe at last, collapsed.2

In the 1850s, Omaha City was a new town in a new territory, but the settlers were by no means the first or the only residents of the area. In the early years, settlers were reminded of this daily. One early resident said that upon his father's arrival in 1855, "there seemed to be more Indians than white men in Omaha."3

In fact, five tribes lived in the vicinity: Pawnee, Omaha, Ponca, Otoe, and Missouria. Of these, the Omaha and Ponca were closely related, while the Otoe and Missouria had virtually merged into a single tribe. Though the tribes had their differences, they all shared an appalling poverty. Our friend Erastus Beadle described the following scene in his diary:

The Pawnee Indians are camped near here. The old men women and children. The strong and healthy are out on a Buffalo hunt. Those remaining here hang about the houses begging their living, stealing cats, dogs, and the refuse of the slaughter houses. Some one trying what he could do with his revolver shot a fine dog about a week ago. today the indians found it, and although it had commenced putrifying, they squat down skined it and carried it off to cook. Such is about the best food the filthy Pawnees get while the hunters are away.4

On another occasion, Beadle found a place where "a mud hut of the Pawnees had been during the winter. The ground in the vicinity was strewed with bones of animals of various size including skulls of cats, dogs, deers, horses and cattle. The vicinity resembled the entrance to a wolfs den more than that of a human habitation."5

What neither Beadle nor most of the other settlers realized was that the Indians' extreme poverty was a relatively new condition. Life for the eastern Nebraska Indians had changed dramatically over the past generation, and generally not for the better. Though the changes were mainly the result of the United States' westward expansion, most settlers were unaware of the connection. They were unaware because most of the effects of westward emigration were felt in the region long before the first Nebraska settlers arrived.

Here's how it happened: As the frontier of white settlement advanced from the Eastern seaboard to the Appalachians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and then across the mountains and on into the Mississippi Valley in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, more and more native peoples were pushed west ahead of settlement and compressed into a smaller space. For instance, of the five eastern Nebraska tribes, only the Pawnees lived in the region prior to the eighteenth century. The other peoples migrated westward from the Great Lakes region. The Otoe, for example, had come west across southern Minnesota and northern Iowa, pressured by the Dakotas (Sioux) from the north and by the Sauk and Fox from the east. The migration took place gradually, over the course of many years. Finally, in the early 1700s, the Otoes crossed the Missouri and moved into what is now eastern Nebraska. The Omahas, Poncas, and Missourias, facing similar pressures, arrived later that century.

These groups did not find peace in their new homeland. More people were competing for fewer resources. Wild game became more scarce. Inter-tribal warfare became more common.

And then there was disease. Smallpox, diphtheria, cholera, and other maladies had existed among European peoples for centuries. Many had died, but over the generations the Europeans had built up some tolerance to these diseases. The Native Americans, isolated as they had been from the rest of the world, had no such tolerance. When the outside world began at last to trickle in, the effect was devastating.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: "No Sound Save One's Own Breathing" (1857) xi
1 The First Day (1854) 1
2 A Journey to Omaha (1857) 7
3 A Long Way From Home (1850s) 17
4 A Bushel of Donuts (1850s) 27
5 The Claim Club and the Battle of Gophertown (1857) 37
6 Parliamentary Procedure (1855-58) 47
7 The Coming Dictator (1863-1873) 63
Extra! Extra! 77
8 A Dirty Town (1850s-1880s) 83
9 Hard-Hitting Journalism (1873) 93
10 The Delicate Art of Bunco (1870s) 105
11 The Prizefight (1873) 115
12 Go Around It (1869-1873) 131
13 Mr. Rosewater and the Great Balloon (1872-1875) 135
Extra! Extra! 147
14 The Bridge (1868-1877) 151
15 The Trial of Standing Bear (1879) 163
16 Quacks (1880) 181
17 Buffalo Bill (1883) 191
18 City of Harlots (1870s-1910s) 199
19 The Giggling Horror of It All (1880s) 215
Extra! Extra! 221
20 The Lynching of George Smith (1891) 227
I. "He Is Too Vile to Live" 227
II. Steel on Steel 238
III. "You'll Need No Coat Where You're Going" 247
IV. Murder in the First Degree 253
V. Epilogue 264
21 Charlie the Hobo (1897) 269
22 New White City (1898) 273
Extra! Extra! 287
Epilogue: The Young Strangers 293
The Author 296
Index 297
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