Editor's note: This piece originally was published on Sept 10, 2006, as part of David Harding's "Everyday History" column in The World-Herald.
I've always thought that if we could follow our ancestry back far enough, each of us might find a little bit of royalty and a horse thief dangling from the family tree.
John Braden has proved half of this theory — he's found a horse thief among his forefathers.
Braden is an engineer in Massachusetts who likes to piece together his family's history through genealogical research. One set of dates in the family record intrigued him for years.
His great-grandfather, William Braden, was born north of Council Bluffs in 1859, the same year in which William's father died at age 28. John suspected some sort of tragedy and decided to stalk this mystery for an answer.
His research led him to an early history of Nebraska, which described an 1858 incident in which two men were lynched near Omaha for stealing horses. One of them was named Harvey Braden.
John was amazed. Could this horse thief be his ancestor, who had the same name?
Not if the lynching took place a full year before his great-grandfather William was born. Mormon church records said Harvey Braden died a year later in 1859, but they placed the death in Iowa, not Nebraska.
Another book of early Omaha history had an artist's woodcut showing the unusual hanging. Stealing horses was considered a very serious crime by settlers who depended on these work animals, but local law enforcement often failed to track down the bad guys.
Farmers north of Omaha apparently got tired of the situation and did their own police work in this case. When they captured Harvey Braden and John Daly with a few extra horses in tow, they took the pair to the Douglas County Jail in Omaha.
A few days later, a man walked into the Sheriff's Office while the sheriff was absent. He grabbed the jail cell keys off their hook on the wall and walked out as the office staff protested.
More than a dozen men dragged the alleged horse thieves outside and threw them in a wagon. On their way out of the building, they returned the keys to the Sheriff's Office.
These vigilantes drove the wagon out the main road about two miles north of Florence, where they threw a rope over a sturdy branch of an oak tree. Then they hung one man from each end of the rope. The bodies were discovered there the next morning.
Harvey Braden's body offered a particularly grisly spectacle, as he had been hung with the rope passing through his mouth instead of under his chin.
This is not the sort of story you would wish on your ancestors. But at the same time, John Braden wanted to know if this tragedy belonged in his family history.
Prospect Hill Cemetery was Omaha's only burial ground at the time. John contacted the cemetery to see if there were burial records for either of these lynching victims.
Cemetery board member Louise Baumann couldn't find any such records. The story piqued her interest, so she burrowed into the newspaper files at the Douglas County Historical Society.
There she discovered a newspaper account of the hanging, which proved that it had occurred in 1859, not a year earlier as the history book had indicated.
When John combined this information with all he had learned about Harvey Braden's wife, it added up to indisputable proof of his relationship to the alleged horse thief.
"I was shocked at first, " John said, "but I was happy to learn the story. Out there on the bleeding edge of the frontier, I'm sure times were tough for everyone.
"Maybe it turned him into a horse thief. It also turned some upright churchgoers into murderers. It's a great story, and it does enrich the family history."
Now if he can just find a king or queen in his ancestry, John Braden will have proved my theory.
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Ferry boat 'Irene' is seen on the Missouri River looking west toward Omaha in this undated photo by William Henry Jackson.
An 1854 map of Omaha City from the collections of the Omaha Public Library.
Known as the founder of Omaha, William D. Brown operated a ferry service for travelers headed west from Council Bluffs. He staked a claim to part of what is now downtown Omaha before it was legal to do so, and his ferry company functioned as the original developer of the new city.
Alfred D. Jones, Omaha's first postmaster
Omaha City in 1856 as portrayed in Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper. The second territorial capitol stands on the hill. From the Illustrated Newspaper story: "OMAHA CITY, NEBRASKA TERRITORY. OMAHA CITY is the capitol of Nebraska Territory, and has a population of about four thousand. It has and commanding site and is built close upon the margin of the river. It was laid out by the Council Bluffs and Omaha Ferry Company in 1854, and now some magnificent buildings, among the most prominent of which are the State House, Herndon House, the Pioneer Block, etc. Omaha has, through great opposition, held the capital since the organization of the Territory in 1854. The first Legislature met at Omaha in January, 1855. Omaha is the most populous city in the Territory, and has a commanding commercial position - the only drawback being want of a good landing, which a little expense might remedy. The site of Omaha was first known as the "Lone Tree Ferry," where, for years, W. D. Drown ran a flat-boat across the river with California emigrants; and the place was an old camping-ground, where the Indian war-dance and other wild extravaganzas were practiced without restraint. Its distance from St. Louis, by land, is five hundred miles, and by the river navigation, eight hundred; from Fort Laramie five hundred. A fine ferry plies between Omaha and Council Bluffs. Omaha, being one of the earliest places settled, been the theatre of scenes of interest, excitement and border collision, the pique and jealousy of other rival towns being brought constantly to bear against 'the capital.'"
The Nebraska territorial capitol building was built in 1857 on the site where Central High School now stands. It housed the territorial legislature until statehood in 1867.
A photograph of a drawing cut from Leslie's Illustrated Weekly of Nov. 6, 1858. The drawing was sent to the Bee by Janet McKay Cowing of Seneca Falls, New York, and shows Omaha in 1858.
Looking east on Farnam Street from 17th in 1859.
An old ferry landing on the river in Omaha circa 1860.
Looking Northwest from 13th and Farnam Streets in Omaha in 1860. The territorial capitol is visitble on the hill in background.
A 1954 AP release: "From a ferry landing Omaha City, Nebraska, in 1867, and the same city, now just Omaha today. Both views look toward the Missouri over, where the city got its start in 1854 with the opening of a ferry boat landing. It grew fast as a port of entry to the West."
According to the Omaha Bee News, this photo, taken about 1870, shows “high society” watching a Fourth of July parade from the balcony of the Redick Opera House at 16th and Farnam Streets.
Ferry and a train southwest from Iowa mud flats circa 1870.
The Nebraska State Fair held in Brownville in 1870.
The Willow Springs Distillery in 1875. The man behind the whiskey barrel is distiller Peter Iler.
The town of Saratoga was established in 1854, between Omaha and Florence, and named for Saratoga Springs, New York. This 1885 photo shows the town’s first school, at 24th Street and Ames Avenue. A building was constructed at its current site, 2504 Meredith Ave., in 1926 and has been expanded and updated over the years.
Storz Brewing Co. workers in 1897.
This photo, published in the Omaha Bee News, shows the crowded streets of downtown Omaha in the early 1900s.
George and Sarah Joslyn ride their favorite horses, Signal Light and Bay Chief, in this photo from the turn of the 20th century.
Willow Springs Brewery in the early 1900s.
Easter Sunday ended tragically in Omaha in 1913. A powerful tornado swept through town that evening and killed 94 people. More than 3,000 buildings were damaged, and the property damage was estimated at $3.5 million. This photo is looking north on 24th Street from Erskine Street.
On June 9, 1916, Harry H. Gardiner, called the “Human Fly,” thrilled crowds as he climbed up the Omaha World-Herald building at 15th and Farnam Streets. While the 30,000 to 35,000 people gathered in the streets to watch gasped and shivered, the newspaper story said, Gardiner was unfazed. “It seems all a part of a day’s work to me,” he said. “There’s the wall with the little projections, ledges and places to which I must hold. And there’s the top of the building, where I’m going to stop.” According to the June 10, 1916, newspaper story, the enormous crowd was the largest in the history of Omaha to gather for such an exhibition. People in the streets were so numerous, they caused a massive traffic jam.
Camp attendees at Camp Brewster in 1917. Camp Brewster, the Young Women’s Christian Association camp, had recently opened on the former grounds of the South Omaha Country Club. In 1998, Fontenelle Forest purchased the 82-acre Camp Brewster from the Metro Omaha YWCA for $500,000. This land connects to the existing forest. According to World-Herald archives, at the time of purchase, Ken Finch, executive director of Fontenelle Forest, said Camp Brewster’s land was more open and gently sloping – easier-to-handle topography for preschoolers – than Fontenelle Forest’s. The forest’s plan was to use the additional property for its summer day camp and preschool program, the federally funded Early Childhood Outdoors Institute.
The Krug Brewing Co. on June 22, 1920.
Ed Weir, an All-American Nebraska tackle in the mid-1920s. More on Weir.
Santa is welcomed to Boys Town by Father Edward Flanagan on Dec. 16, 1926.
Cowboy movie star Tom Mix nearly caused a stampede when he came to Omaha on April 9, 1928, for an appearance at the Orpheum Theater. That’s Mix on the left being greeted by Mayor James Dahlman as he arrived for the judging of a cowboy costume and a roping contest. The World-Herald account of the event said more than 10,000 people gathered at the corner of 15th and Farnam Streets to see the star ride in on his horse, Tony.
In February 1928, under the headline “Music getting hot,” The World-Herald announced that the newly organized firemen’s band was beginning rehearsals. Practice was held at 11th and Dodge Streets, which was an old firehouse, but at the time was being used as the National Guard Armory. John Otte, standing in the middle row at the far left, who was director of the Creighton University band and a member of the Omaha symphony orchestra, was tapped as bandmaster of the firemen’s group. Players in the band signed up for the group as a recreational activity. All members worked the same shift, so they could be free to practice together. The hope was that the group would be become proficient enough to give a benefit concert in six to eight months.
Helen Huntley, the first female pilot to be licensed in Iowa. The Davenport, Iowa, native was 17 when she made her first solo flight on June 22, 1929. One year later she was flying for Rapid Aviation in Omaha and was “barn storming” in air shows. This photo ran June 17, 1930, after she was injured in a plane crash. She suffered a broken arm and bruises on her head and shoulders.
An undated photo of the Metz Brewing Co.