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Hidden historical monuments exist in Saunders County
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Hidden historical monuments exist in Saunders County

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Hidden history

ON THE MARK: Yutan native Jeff Barnes speaks to a group at the Wahoo Public Library on Sunday, Oct. 17 about his book that lists hidden historical markers and monuments in the state, including a handful in Saunders County. (Staff Photo by Suzi Nelson)

WAHOO – Jeff Barnes has climbed over fences, crawled under tree branches and gotten his car stuck a few times in his quest to find hidden historic markers located far off the beaten path.

His efforts paid off with an award-winning book, “Cut in Stone, Cast in Bronze: Nebraska Historical Markers and Monument, 1854-1967.”

Barnes, who grew up in Yutan, was in Wahoo on Sunday afternoon to give a presentation at the Wahoo Public Library called “Marking Nebraska: Our (Mostly) Hidden Historical Monuments.”

He calls these monuments our state’s “hidden history.” And there are a handful that are located in Saunders County.

Near Cedar Bluffs, the first monument ever placed by the State of Nebraska is a tiny marker hidden by trees on private property. Barnes found this marker almost by accident.

He picked up a book on historical monuments that had been printed in 1930. There he found a reference to this marker, placed at the site of a meeting between Pawnee Chief Petslesharo and John Thayer in 1855.

Thayer was a military man who had been asked by Nebraska Territorial Gov. Thomas Cuming to broker peace with the Pawnee tribe in Saunders County.

Thayer and his party arrived in a wagon that struggled to make the trip across the Platte River. In fact, he fell in the river not long before meeting the Pawnee chief.

Petelesharo agreed that the Pawnee would no longer raid white settlements. Of course, during the meeting, the wagon was raided and Thayer was relieved of his lunch and a 35-year-old bottle of brandy.

Fifty years later, Thayer was the only person still alive who had attended the Pawnee council. He was present when the marker was placed.

Barnes said there were plans to expand the site into a major monument that could be seen as people traveled on the train from Omaha to Fremont. But for some reason, these plans never materialized.

Instead, the marker lay forgotten. Trees have grown up around it. The landowner is aware that the marker is there, and the history behind it, but she doesn’t plan to let anybody know it is there, Barnes explained.

But Barnes knows, and so do many others now that he has put it in his book.

Including Saunders County history buffs.

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“It’s actually the oldest state placed historical monument in the state, and it’s right here, right up the road, which was kind of cool,” he told the audience.

Barnes also told of another spot in northern Saunders County that has historical significance and was once marked by a monument.

In 1858 the territorial legislature was fighting over where to locate the state capitol. It was in Omaha at the time.

Barnes said the fight was between those living on either side of the Platte River, which had no bridges to connect those in the north and people living south of the waterway. Both camps felt the power would shift to where the side of the river where the capitol would end up.

The legislators recessed to give everyone a break from the fighting. But a group of senators gathered in Florence to continue the discussion. They chose a tiny village called Neapolis along the Platte River for the capitol’s new location.

As soon as word got out that Neapolis would be the next capitol, the village began to bustle. A saw mill went up. People started building homes.

Until the legislature reconvened and put a halt to these plans.

“So of course, people started, abandoning Neapolis after that,” Barnes said.

In the 1920s, a Boy Scout troop from Fremont erected a monument made of concrete with a bronze plaque to recognize Neapolis’ short stint as the state capitol.

Unfortunately, the marker is no longer there, Barnes said. It may have been used by a farmer to weigh down his harrow at one point. But no one has seen it since the 1970s.

Barnes’ presentation included a hypothetical vision of what the landscape would have if Neapolis had been the capitol. Up on a bluff overlooking the Platte River, it would have been seen for miles.

“It really would have been neat to have this here because people see this for miles and miles and miles, kind of like the Emerald City in the ‘Wizard of Oz,’” he said.

Barnes received a Nebraska Book Award from the Nebraska Center for the Book in the Nonfiction Nebraska as Place category for the monument book. He will receive the award at a ceremony on Saturday.

It is his second award from the organization. In 2018, he won the Nebraska Book Award in the Nonfiction Sesquicentennial category for “150@150: Nebraska’s Landmark Buildings at the State’s Sesquicentennial.

Barnes said his next book will focus on sites that pertain to the final years of the lives of famous Native Americans in Great Plains.

Suzi Nelson is the managing editor of the Wahoo Newspaper. Reach her via email at suzi.nelson@wahoonewspaper.com.

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