Students of Nebraska history generally are familiar with U.S. District Court Judge Elmer Dundy for one thing: his 1879 ruling that Ponca Chief Standing Bear had rights under the U.S. Constitution and could not be confined to a reservation by the federal government. It was a landmark decision in American civil rights history, which we examined in a recent editorial.
There was more to the life of Dundy (1830-96), of course, who served 28 years on the bench as Nebraska’s first federal judge.
A new book from the University of Nebraska Press — “Echo of Its Time: The History of the Federal District Court of Nebraska, 1867-1933” — fills in details on the judge’s background and professional life, describing a colorful character in a period of dramatic change in Nebraska. The book’s authors are historians John Wunder, professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Mark R. Scherer, with the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
As an ambitious young man in the 1850s and ’60s, Dundy — a Pennsylvania native who moved to Nebraska in 1857 — showed great skill in navigating Nebraska Territory’s political waters and promoting his personal interests. He was keenly active in political and governmental affairs in southeast Nebraska and for the territory as a whole, serving as a judge and on the territorial council.
His machinations and successful self-promotion earned him political enemies, the fiercest of whom was J. Sterling Morton of Nebraska City, a conservative Democratic activist and Arbor Day founder who would serve as U.S. secretary of agriculture. In 1862, Samuel G. Daily, a political ally of Dundy, narrowly defeated Morton to be Nebraska Territory’s representative in Congress.
During a congressional hearing on the election, Morton testified and vented his fury at Dundy in an extraordinary statement, calling him: “one of those smooth, slippery beings that glide into corruption and rascality as snakes into slimy matter; his head is so full of base scheme that hair already refused to hide its deformities; his very walk a sort of dodge-the-sheriff quickstep; his voice villainously vicious; his mean eye cast down; all of his features cadaverous and miserable.”
As a federal judge, Dundy remained politically interested and was bitterly disappointed in 1880 when the Nebraska Legislature failed to name him U.S. senator. He had tried to improve his chances for consideration by writing an opinion essay for the New York Times in which he emphasized that his ruling in the Standing Bear case was a narrow one.
Dundy’s court rulings favoring railroad interests in regard to taxation and labor strikes spurred great controversy, to which Dundy offered his own public, sometimes self-pitying, rebuttals.
One of his harshest critics was Edward Rosewater, publisher of the Omaha Daily Bee newspaper, whose editorials lobbed rhetorical darts at Dundy. After one such dustup in 1888, Dundy responded, “The press may make all the comments they choose, and charge me with what they please … I have no office to seek, am not looking for one, and in fact am tired of the one I possess.”
With this new book, Wunder and Scherer have opened a window on important parts of Nebraska’s past, including the life of this outspoken judge.