Last updated: September 2, 2008
The Lusk Herald
January 26, 1984
Three-part series details Niobrara County history
Editor's note: The following is the first of a three-part series on the history of Niobrara County as written and submitted by noted area historian and author, Mae Urbanek.
Three flags have flown over the land that is now Niobrara County - those of Spain, France and the United States. It has been part of six territories - Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, Idaho, Dakota and Wyoming; and of two other counties - Laramie and Converse from which it was split in 1911.
Harry C. Snyder suggested the name Niobrara since that river ran just west of Lusk. Lusk was chosen the County Seat at a special election. Governor Carey appointed E. B. Willson, Albert Rochelle and Thomas H. Thompson as the first county commissioners.
Although most of Niobrara County is treeless prairie, a ridge of pine and cedar-covered hills known as "the breaks" runs from east to west through the south central part. These breaks make a climatic division. To the south of them deep snows usually fall and rich grass grows in sandy soil. This is one of the best dry farming areas in Wyoming, and the county grows heavy crops of summer-fallowed wheat.
North of the breaks, a thousand feet lower in altitude, most of the land is gumbo type and it receives less moisture. Winters are more open, and allow grazing of short, nutritious grass. Average rainfall of the county is 15.13 inches. It contains 2,613 square miles with a low population of less than 3,000. Its major source of income is livestock.
Like most of Wyoming, Niobrara County was an ocean millions of years ago. As the Rocky Mountains rose, part of the water drained away, leaving tropical marshes with dense vegetation. Huge dinosaurs feasted and fought where sheep and cattle now graze. Again and again the cukling (as printed) earth heaved up the land.
Prehistoric animals trapped in mud and covered with volcanic ash were preserved as fossils. Northern Niobrara County is a treasure chest of petrified bones of dinosaurs, oreodons and dawn horses.
Here in 1907 George Sternberg, a noted fossil hunter, found a duck-billed dinosaur with shrunked skin, well preserved, the only dinosaur skin ever found. The specimen is now in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
On a tributary of the Cheyenne River, Lou Bass found a bone from a Triceratops dinosaur, a three-horned monster of the Mesozoic Age. Some of these Niobrara fossils are in the University of Wyoming museum, the School of Mines, Rapid City, S. Dak. and the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D. C.
Probably the first organized industry in Wyoming took place in Niobrara County about 10,000 years ago at Spanish Diggings. These prehistoric quarries were dug 30 some feet deep in solid quartzite with only stone tools. They were misnamed by early cowboys who thought Spaniards had mined here for gold. But Spaniards never came as far north as Wyoming.
Smithsonian scientists studied Spanish Diggings, and judged their age by lichen growths on discarded rocks. The early natives chipped crude digging and hunting tools from the lavender and golden quartzite that they mined. Tepee rings and chipping sites spread into Goshen and Platte counties.
Indiana named the river that rises as a stream west of Lusk. The name was first written in a government treaty with Pawnee Indians in 1853. "Ni" was their name for water; "obthatha" for spreading. In white man's language this became Niobrara. In early days, Niobrara was called Running Water.
Gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1874. Indians fought the invasion of gold-crazed prospectors flooding into the land. It had been promised to the Indians "as long as grass shall grow and water flow" in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868.
Captain Egan was sent with troops from Fort Laramie in 1875 to build a fort on Hat Creek in Nebraska for protection against the Indians. The troops, wandering in the unmarked wilderness, misjudged their location. They build a log fort on Sage Creek in Wyoming, and named it Fort Hat Creek.
A tunnel connected the fort with Sage Creek so water could be obtained in time of siege. This fort is about 12 miles northeast of Lusk. In the early 1880's, John Storrie and Tom Swan erected a large two-story log building where the fort once stood. This building is now an historic landmark.
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