In the decades before maps with names for the places of the Niobrara valley were readily available, the native residents, explorers, and land surveyors designated their own attribution upon places they visited. This all started to change in the mid-1850s when government-sponsored expeditions determined features of the land and prepared maps indicating the geography for United States officials. Additional efforts contributed further insight and another set of names to some of the prominent features along the running water. Then, in the 1870s, land office surveyors toiled to define legal boundaries as the unfettered territory became parcels of government land, with names set and which would last evermore.
During the mid-1850s into the 1870s, a variety of different names were used to depict landmarks, especially the tributary creeks of the river. By evaluating the original written sources - as there are no books or online sources to conveniently reference - and considering their routes or maps in comparison with modern geography, and closely evaluating similarities for the features mentioned, it is readily possible to determine places mentioned by the few essential authors from so many years ago.
In the first years of written history, there were different names given for the different creeks and other water-related places along the middle portion of the ever-flowing Niobrara River. It is a wondrous consideration of people during the times, and how they projected their influence on a land indifferent to labels and miniscule influences on their realm, though invasive forces imposed a stricture of names and designations essential to the progression of time and people across the land of the region.
Military Expeditions in the 1850s
Lieutenant Gouverneur Kemble Warren, of the U.S. Army topographic engineers, received the assignment to determine the optimal route for a military road from Sioux City on the Missouri River, to the South Pass across the Rocky Mountains. This effort started in 1855, and would finish early in the winter of 1857.
The first presence on the river of interest was in August 1855, with the Sioux expedition under the command of Bvt. Brig. General William Selby Harney. During a portion of the journey, the big caravan went southward from Fort Pierre, past the marshlands and creeks of the eastern sandhills on their way to the Platte River and Fort Kearny, then further west to Blue Water Creek and its day of infamy, then to Fort Laramie.
Lt. Warren made daily entries in his journal, which convey the setting as they reached a prominent river on the northern fringe of the "Great Sand Hills" on August 15th.
On the map, it was designated according to the Dacota Indians, as "Mini Tonka or Big Water." Further to the east, the caption was "Niobrarah or L'Eau qui court or Rapid River." Thus, there were five names attributed in 1855, derived from nomenclature of the Indians, French trappers (who formerly had a post at the Snake River confluence), and as interpreted by the first explorers. Notably, none match its modern name.
Lt. Warren's journal has detail of the river crossing vicinity. Once on the south side, the military caravan continued seven miles and encamped on the "Wah-zee hanst kee ya," or "the place where the pine runs far out." This was spelled Wazi-han-skiya on the map. This stream is interpreted as being Long Pine Creek, a name which is still familiar.
"The prevailing wood on the Running Water and the ravines is yellow pine, but the trees are not very good." Warren wrote. "Cotton wood, scrubby oak, small ash and other trees to be found."
"Running Water is clear, .... All the ravines contain springs of clear water. The bottom of the river is hard and when the river is low can be easily forded. We found some Indian had been out a few days before as going towards the north. Our guide said they were Pankas" [Poncas].
The only other waterway of note depicted on the map showing the route of the Sioux Expedition, is the "Wamdashka Wakpi," or Snake River, with a notation of falls on its lower reach, near its confluence with the larger running water river.
Eastward Along the Niobrara Valley
Further experiences associated with the valley of the running water occurred in 1857. The Warren Expedition had finished their arduous journey along the Loup Fork and western sandhills, and after a sojourn at Fort Laramie, continued traveling, going eastward to get to Fort Randall.
The expeditionary party had been split. One group included Lt. Warren and others, including Ferdinand V. Hayden going to investigate the Black Hills and other places in southern Dacotah. Another bunch of men on the government payroll went to explore the Niobrara River valley.
The best account for the latter is given in the words expressed in the journal of topographer J. Hudson Snowden, a prominent man of the caravan, which traversed the river valley, noting its features and mentioning significant daily events.
In reaching the area of interest on September 25th, the first river tributary of interest was denoted on the map of the portion of the route as "Mini-Nape-ho, Ini-sni-he Stinking Hand Creek" with an additional notation of "Antelope Creek." Some small teal were noted in water holes along the tributary on the 26th. The caravan camped here at its confluence with the Niobrarah, until their departure on the 27th.
"We came to a small creek with clear running water, four feet wide, very little bottom in which the grass was pretty good," Snowden wrote. "The bluffs along the L'eau qui court are similar to those mentioned yesterday and wood in the valley increased in quantity as we descend. Some pine in ravines."
A dramatic clue to the name for the creek was in the topographer's journal: "We saw to day a great many antelope. Two were killed. Before reaching camp one of the soldiers having killed an antelope one of the herders went to assist him in bringing it into camp. His mule, getting restless at the train having ... broke away from him and went back on the road which we came, the man followed him until dark. He returned being unable to catch him."
The caravan remained stationary the next day so the mule could be found, and it was located about ten miles to the west, near an Indian camp. Everything was found except a Colt pistol, which the Indians said was not in the holster when they found the mule. Snowden and Dr. Samuel Moffitt explored the lower portion of the creek, and noted that "the valley of the creek was filled with antelope."
This name remains to this day.
During the next day's travel the caravan went past a running stream which was not named. This is now known as Hay Creek.
The next tributary along the south side of the river, provided a site suitable for a stay from 28-30 September.
It was identified as "Maca sea Wakpa" or "White Earth Creek" in the written words of Snowden's daily diary. His maps, include the names of "Shiftola Wakpala (Bearroot Creek)?" and "Clay Creek." On the 28th, "large flocks of cranes passed over our camp this evening, traveling south."
Departure was at 8 o'clock on the morning of the 30th and the caravan went only three miles before their reached the creek of many names. The night's camp was about a half-mile west of the confluence of this creek at the L'eau qui court, on "a little bottom shut in by hills with good grass and plenty of wood for fuel."
This was to be a camp until October 13th. The Snowden group was awaiting the arrival of the Warren party that was in the Black Hills and southern Dacotah, so there was no great urgency to continue their travels down the river.
The creek, now known as Leander Creek, was six or seven feet wide, with clear running water, that was 18 inches to two feet in depth. The ravines were filled with small pine trees. Also along the L'eau qui court, there were "immense quantities of plum bushes laden with fruit now ripe, and grapes in profusion," Snowden indicated in his journal entry on October 1st. "Many signs of elk in the vicinity and several were seen."
Two mules were gone on October 2nd, so a search ensued. The travel hiatus continuing on the 4th, which slowed any forward progress.
On the 6th, Snowden and Dr. Moffitt went southward to explore southward, thinking they might find the Snake River. They were not successful, but noted on their return ride that they followed the "bottom valley which is narrow and low filled with springs and in many places boggy, a species of cane some fifteen feet high and very thick grow in places. While red willow grow in great profusion on the wet places while the rose and plum and cherry bushes chose higher ground." One of the horses sank in one of the bogs and was extricated, with difficulty.
The next notation, a few days' later, and pertinent to a particular landmark, though not geographic in character, is quite dramatic, and a highlight of the region's history.
For October 11th, 1857, Snowden wrote these words, vividly illustrating the interaction between the government force and the Indian residents: "About 2 p.m. twenty-two Brule Indians crossed the river and charged into the camp with their bows strung and arrows in their hands. They said, they left Snake River this morning, where they left their village and chief 'White Black Bird' who was on his death bed, and who sent his paper, given him by Gen. Harney, by one of those present, who was leading the party. They said one of their young men who was out hunting had seen us on our road and supposing we were French traders they were going to take all our property away from us. They were very indignant at our going through their country, and wanted us to pay for the privilege of passing. The said we were eating all their plums and wild fruit and burning their wood. That our horses were eating and destroying all the grass along the river. That we were killing and scaring away all the game that they met - the buffalo and antelope flying from our approach 100 miles before they reached us. That Gen. Harney has assured them no white men would come into their country without a license from him, and had told them to stop and rob any one who came into their dominion with such a passport. We had some difficulty to make them leave camp at dark, and had to threaten to fire on them before they would leave. They camped near us."
On the 12th, "The Indians left early this morning," Snowden wrote, " all of them separating, going in different directions, saying they were going to join Little Thunder when their village moves over from Snake River." Chief Little Thunder was a survivor of the Battle of Blue Water Creek, two years previous.
On the 13th, the caravan crossed the White Earth Creek, having to double the wagon teams and unload some of the wagons to ascend the steep hill.
The caravan then remained in a camp, until the Lt. Warren party arrived on the 15th, with celebration and additional time spent at the place to deal with matters. Provisions were divided and some men wanting to return to Fort Laramie were discharged. The stay continued the next day, especially since it started snowing in the evening, and continued the next day. On the morning of the 18th, there were 4 inches of snow on the ground.
Upon the departure on the 19th, Snowden used the name "Little Rapid River" as the name for what is shown as Reunion Creek on the expedition map for the mid-1850s.
This is the modern-day Bear Creek.
Their route continued along the north side of the river valley, distant enough to avoid the ravines, on the 20th making a "considerable detour to head some ravines which run out a long distance into the prairies passing over low rolling ground." Pine and cedar grew on the bluffs.
The Snake River was mentioned, even though it was not along the direct route of the caravan, bit P.M. Engel, meteorologist went exploring to this notable river, and noted some of its features.
The journey continued, and on October 23rd, the next creek was noted. The map shows it was called the "Mini Chadusa" which is now spelled Minnnechaduza and is the second prominent river in the vicinity of where the settlement of Valentine was established more than two decades later.
On the next day, after leaving the camp along the L'eau qui court, the day's entry by Snowden mentioned the availability of water from springs. On the map for this reach of the river, there is the only indication of a spring for the entire reach of the Niobrara traversed. A spring is indicated, which correlates with Tyler Falls, at the modern day Fort Niobrara NWR.
As the caravan's route subsequently went eastward along the uplands north of the river, there is little information given on features along the Niobrarah valley. Dr. Hayden did travel along the river on the 25th, and Snowden mentioned: "These ravines are filled with scrub oak, ash a few elm, plum and cherry bushes in the beds, while their sides are covered with pine."
Moving to the north, the military force, eventually crossed the Turtle Hill River, beyond the Niobrara valley, thus ending their visitation and any notes about this riverine place.
Sawyer Expeditions of 1865-66
Colonel James A. Sawyer was the commander of an expedition allocated $50,000 to establish a road from Niobrara, Nebraska to the Montana gold fields. The first journey was in the summer of 1865, along a route going east-to-west on the south side of the Niobrarah.
The first note of pertinence in Sawyer's account was on June 23, 1865: "came to Pine creek upon which we camped at 4:00 P.M. This creek has much pine and cedar timber of a second rate quality growing on its banks. Grass, wood and water plenty and good - the weather was cool in the morning but sultry in the middle of the day - Several mules in the escort train gave out during the day."
This is probably Long Pine Creek.
On the "28th. Severe thunder shower last night and some rain this morning. The first two miles of our days travel today were quite rough and broken but at the end of that distance we entered the valley of Bear creek which, running from the west, enabled us to travel up to it for about 9 miles when we made a ford and crossed over and camped on the north side at 2:00 P.M. - The creek valley is about 3/4 of a mile wide level and covered with a most luxuriant growth of grass. - It seemed to be the finest place for farming that we had seen, though for timber one would have to go to the river, distant about 5 miles. The stream is very sluggish, being backed up by a succession of beaver dams. No wood at this camp but plenty of 'buffalo chips'."
The next day, ... "we passed a very fine stream about 6 feet wide, running very swiftly over a rocky bed over which a ford was made without difficulty - below the ford the ledges break off very fast, making a canyon through which the stream races - the sides were composed of lime and sand stone rock embedded in which Dr. Tingley discovered the fossil remains of two huge tortoises, quite perfect and entire. The transverse diameter of each could not have been less than 3 feet."
Early July was torrid. The high mark of the daily temperature exceeded 100o, for several days. A temperature of 103o was noted on July 2nd - "two oxen died from the heat during the day and a soldier was rendered insensible through sunstroke." On the 3rd, it was 100o at 1:00 p.m., according to Sawyer's journal, with 104o to day's high on Independence day.
Further along, Sawyer's journal for August 8th, mentioned a tributary which conforms well with the modern-era Medicine Creek: "arrived at a fine spring stream over which we made a ford and camped on the west side in a very fine site - plenty of grass at camp, and wood on the river half a mile below camp - the surface of the country here very fine to travel over - the river at this point flows in a single channel over a rocky bed and through a canyon 80 to 100 feet in depth though in some places the ground slopes gradually from the plateau to the river bed, alternating on either side - very recent Indian signs were seen and one of the scouts saw where an antelope had been killed by them on yesterday."
In subsequent days, mention was made of Antelope Creek and Rush Creek, well known in Sheridan County today.
There were few additional notes pertinent to this discourse, but in 1866, more facts of interest were presented in the account of the journey to the gold fields of the mountain west..
The account for the middle Niobrara River, comes into focus on June 18th, when Sawyer's caravan nooned at Pine Creek. About 5.4 miles further along, was Harlan Springs, where the group "corralled."
This particular locality cannot be determined with accuracy, but it was certainly a spring-branch canyon on the southern side of the valley.
Further west - on June 19th - was a tributary dubbed Lone Pine Creek. "This beautiful stream is 25 feet wide, cool, clear and rapid with gravel bed - timber typically burr oak and pine," is possibly Plum Creek, based on the distance from Long Pine Creek.
On the 20th, they reached "Bear Creek" after traversing about 14 miles. This is likely Fairfield Creek, based on the distance from the previous landmark, and as it flows straight from the west as mentioned in the travel narrative.
The caravan once again nooned on another creek on June 21st. The name given in the historic account was "Fossil Creek," and was 13 miles west of Bear Creek. This is likely Schlagel Creek, the next prominent creek westward.
Camp on the night of the 21st was further upriver. Sawyer and the many others "corralled at the mouth of Bogus Snake creek on the Niobrara river - the scenery at this camp was very fine, the bluffs along the river rivaling in grandeur the Palisades of the Hudson..." The details of the narrative point to their being at Gordon Creek, since after departure from camp, the next tributary mentioned was the Snake River, well-known to explorers, and mentioned further: "The river here was about 100 feet wide and about 18 inches deep with a rock bottom. The scenery above the crossing is grand, the river descending over numerous falls of from 6 to 25 feet, the nearly perpendicular walls of the canyon being composed of lime, sand stone and marl, among which are many fossil remains. Pine in abundance grows along this stream."
The people on the move continued on their way, and about 25 miles further west, was another prominent flow. It was called Deep Creek, where it was hot, the "mercury at noon 95 degrees in the shade." Details convey that this was most likely Medicine Creek.
There are few additional details of the flowing waters along the Niobrarah, except for a reference to a spring branch on June 27th. This could have been one of the flows from the canyons along the north side of the river, between Medicine Creek and Rush Creek, which was reached on the 28th.
Diary of Dr. Maghee
Dr. Thomas G. Maghee was the physician hired to accompany the Yale University expedition of 1873, in pursuit of ancient bones desired by Othniel Charles Marsh, a professor of the college.
They departed from Fort McPherson in the Platte Valley and reached the Niobrara in latter June, about a half mile below Antelope Creek. One of the notable places mentioned in the Doctor's terse account was a notable boiling spring: "During the day we found and named Fossil Spring," his journal noted. "It springs out of solid rock in a high bluff North bank of river about 19 miles below mouth of Antelope Creek."
This is likely Leander Creek, and it is about this distance eastward from Antelope Creek.
On the 4th of July, his journal with its distinctive misspellings, indicates: "Well when I remember last 4th and realize what my present situation is I exclaim "What hath God Wrought" Believing as I do that there is no luck but pluck and good management I ascribe to the Infinite the praise realizing that only the energy with which he endowed me has enabled me to achieve my present success. We communicate with the 2nd Cavelry tomorrow having marched nearly twelve miles today and camped in the forks of the rapid creek & Niobrara. We are 2700 ft. above the level of the sea at Antelope creek we were 4200. This is a magnifficent Camp and the Rapid Creek is a swift clear stream about ten ft. wide 1 ft. deep. Wooded at its mouth. There is about 5 miles by three between the two rivers flat and pretty over the N. there is a beautiful grove, plenty of timber a nice place for a ranch."
This was likely the Minnechaduza River. This was it for the Niobrara notes by this expedition, as the party then went southward to return to the Platte River.
Land-Office Surveys of the 1870s
The most-detailed renditions of the land were made by the government surveyors, marking lines for the principal meridian lines, townships and individual sections to mark parcels, which would eventually become property to be claimed by homesteaders. The hired men of the land-office were required to denote primary features and accurately mark and map the territory. Their notes indicate the features present during the dates of their work, documented by the myriad of land office surveys. A detailed map and description was prepared for every township.
It was an ongoing progression from south to the north, and east to west.
There is little to note about the origins of place name, as the attributes given on the maps match the modern names. This includes Fairfield Creek, Schlagel Creek and Gordon Creek. Snake Creek was the name given for the Snake River. Going westward along the river, the place names noted conform with the names still used in modern times. Medicine Creek was noted as a spring branch.
Leander Creek was identified as a spring-branch creek, based on surveys in the latter 1870s. Antelope Creek kept its moniker, as indicated on the map of the township, and as a name which is still the proper attribution more than 125 years later.
Considering Landmark History
During the first years of history along the Niobrara River, the designated names were based on the perspective of the person writing about them. The Brule Indians did not write history, so their names were known only from what they told trappers and military men intruding into the territory. As the historic period progressed, the place names garnered some consistency as people used a common name again and again to refer to some site, in order to indicate it in a manner that would be readily known.
Indian names with their distinct spelling, distinctive pronunciation and probably because of unwanted memories, fell out of favor. Derivative names held sway, in some cases as the era of settlement descended. Pioneer stockmen with their hired hands used names that eventually came to be the standard of nomenclature for the various localities along the river. Despite the obvious gaps in the maps from the Land Office surveys, names continued in common use and made their way onto maps used to guide settlers to the western frontier.
Despite the near loss of the original names, their distinctive attributions are a profound aspect of the native culture, and should never be forgotten when considering the history of the region.