Farm Bureau - Melissa Wheeler

The North Bend Eagle

 

Legend of Rawhide Creek

In search of the Rawhide Creek:
Creek name has bloody backstory

by Nathan Arneal
Published 7/28/21

The Rawhide Creek once cut a path from its origins north of Schuyler through southern Dodge County on its way to joining the Elkhorn River. Native Americans, explorers, Mormon pioneers, settlers and gold rushers have walked along its banks.

More:

A map and pictures from Nathan's journey tracing the path ofthe Rawhide Creek from start to end

• Part 1 of the story: In search of the Rawhide Creek

• Part 3 of the story: The Legend gets a local twist

Read the original sources cited in part 2, Creek name has a bloody backstory:

• LJ Abbott's 1887 History of Dodge County, with comments on Rawhide Creek on the fifth page (marked as p. 260)

• The July 15, 1926, Eagle story, "How the Rawhide got its name" trying to trace the name's origin: Page 1, Page 2

• R.W. Hazen's 1893 book "History of the Pawnee Indians" with his detailed account of the Rawhide Incident

• The 1909 plat map of Douglas County, showing the Chester Miller ground in section 8, the supposed site of the Rawhide incident

• A clip from the Feb. 23, 1850 Ottawa (Ill.) Free Trader discussing the earliest account of the skinning

March 1, 1928, Eagle story about George McVicker's Purple Cane history touching on the Rawhide's name

• Jan. 2, 1964, Eagle column "Ouf of Old Nebraska" by the Historical Society on the Rawhide Creek Legend

History Nebraska's Folklore in Nebraska giving an alternate explanation for the name

History Nebraska's map of pioneer trails around Omaha, including the Mormon/California routes that lead to the Rawhide

The creek has been known as the Rawhide as far back as recorded history goes, though how exactly it got that name has become legendary piece of local folklore.

History of Dodge County written by Dr. L.J. Abbott in 1887 – just 33 years after the county was founded – gives an outline of the popular explanation behind the name:

“Rawhide Creek received its name from the fact that during the California travel of 1849 a white man is said to have been flayed alive by the Pawnee Indians on its banks.”

In 1926, the Fremont Herald made an effort to get to the bottom of the legend and verify the facts of the story, and much of the Herald’s work was reprinted in the North Bend Eagle.

As reported by the Herald and the July 15, 1926, Eagle, the general story goes like this: “According to legend a young Wisconsin emigrant was flayed alive on the banks of the Rawhide Creek by a band of Pawnee Indians whom he had scorned by shooting one of their members, an innocent squaw. The shooting, it is said, was done in cold blood and without provocation... The heartless slayer of the squaw, who was skinned alive for it, had sworn on starting that he would kill the first redskin that crossed his path on this way westward to the California goldfields.”

In 1926, Clarence Reckmeyer, secretary of the Dodge County Old Settlers Association, proposed erecting a monument on “the site of that tragedy of early local history from which the Rawhide Creek has derived its rather gruesome name.”

Of course, Reckmeyer’s proposal brought a couple of questions: Where exactly did this happen, and more importantly, did it actually happen?

One of the more detailed and graphic sources for the tale comes from Reuben W. Hazen, a former Army captain and Dodge County Sheriff who published a book titled History of the Pawnee Indians in 1893, a copy of which can be found online through Google Books.

In a chapter named “The Pawnees Flaying a Man Alive” Hazen tells the story of a party of travelers from Kenosha, Wisconsin bound for the gold rush of California in the spring of 1850. Hazen’s account adds names and stunning detail to the legend:

“One man of their party, by the name of Seth Esterbrook, rather wild in his nature, had taken an oath before leaving home that he would kill the first Indian he saw...

“After crossing the Missouri River at Council Bluffs, thence traveling 22 miles, they came to the Elkhorn River. After crossing the river the young man saw a squaw sitting upon a log, and to make his promise good, he drew a bead upon his rifle and the squaw rolled off the log.

“The party proceeded to a small stream of water and camped the night. They had not been in camp but a short time before the Pawnees began to collect around them, their faces painted in warlike colors in streaks of red and black, to the number of hundreds, and demanded the culprit who killed the squaw... The party saw their situation and thought better that one of them be sacrificed than the whole party lose their lives... The young man was surrendered to them... stripped of his clothing, then laying him upon his back, his hands and feet pinioned to the ground. Then they drew a knife lengthwise of the body, skinning him alive. At the same time, the Pawnee compelled the party to look upon the ghastly and horrid sight.”

Hazen goes on to say Esterbrook’s body was cut into pieces. The rest of the traveling party collected the remains as best they could and buried them along the little stream. “The Pawnees immersed the man’s skin in the little stream and since that event it derived its name, the ‘Rawhide.’”

In a footnote, Hazen adds: “The man’s skin has been tanned and was in (the Pawnee’s) possession when they went to their reservation.”

Hazen does not give his source for his Rawhide origin story, but his book’s preface he says his stories are “compiled from authentic sources” and includes “thrilling events as described by eye witnesses.”

Reckmeyer, the historian trying to track down the location of this event in 1926, learned the location from B.W. Reynolds of the Dodge County Old Settlers Association. He placed the site of the skinning three miles due west of Elk City, which today is a tiny, unincorporated village just south of Highway 36 about a mile and a half east of the Elkhorn River. In 1926, the site of the skinning was located on the farm of Chester Miller.


The Eagle was able to locate a plat map of Douglas County from 1909 online. It shows Chester Miller owning the southeast quarter of Section 8 in northwest Douglas County, a half mile west of the Elkhorn River bridge and a mile south, which lines up straight west of Elk City. The Rawhide Creek – what was labeled as the “Old Channel” in the maps published last week [July 21, 2021]– flowed right through the middle of Miller’s ground.

The county road one mile south of Highway 36 is called Bennington Road today. Reynolds placed the location of the tragic event a quarter mile north of where the bridge on Bennington Road crosses the Rawhide.

Reckmeyer told the Fremont paper that “a woman who was born at a nearby ranch probably 50 years ago attests that the spot has always been a fording place on the Rawhide as far back as she can remember.”

Read the full story in the print or e-edition.

<<Back to the front page