A Nebraska Biography of Omaha’s Thomas B. Cuming by Ryan Roenfeld
|Thomas B. Cuming (1828 – 1858), Acting Governor of Nebraska Territory|
One of the key figures in that scandalous speculation that became the city of Omaha was this man, Thomas Cuming. Staid Mormon Kanesville lasted barely four years before it was renamed Council Bluffs City at a public meeting in October 1852. Most of the town spent their time drunk or thinking how they were going to really strike it rich when Indian Territory across the Missouri River opened up. Most were likely both. Meanwhile, Iowa politicians like Augustus Dodge put on the pressure and the Kansas-Nebraska Act went through the Senate on March 3, 1854 and then the House on May 21 and was duly signed into law by President Pierce on May 30. That ended the Missouri Compromise that had avoided questions over the expansion of slavery since 1820.
The new Nebraska Territory covered over 350,000 square miles. including most of what later became the States of Nebraska, Idaho, Colorado, North and South Dakota, and Montana. Two months before the territory legally existed Peter Sarpy, his Glenwood, Iowa clerk William English, and Mills County, Iowa Judge Hiram Bennett gathered at the Council Bluffs Indian Agency to organize the Bellevue Town Company.
In June 1854 not long after Pierce’s pen, incipient Omaha already consisted of the ferry company’s claim shack, “round logs, sixteen feet square,” near 12th and Jackson Streets charitably called the St. Nicholas House. The population of Council Bluffs had fallen to around 950 people and dropped still further after some residents packed up and moved across the river. Alfred Jones moved across the Missouri to become Omaha City’s first Postmaster after Iowa Congressman Bernhart Henn used his influence to secure the new town a Post Office. “Henntown” was one of the early suggestions as a name for the new community. Jones was that guy who delivered letters out of his hat.
That July 1854 was a busy month as the Nebraska City Township Company was established near Old Fort Kearney and Nebraska Territory’s first newspaper was printed in St. Mary, Iowa across the river from Bellevue. It was on July 22 when, the Omaha Township Claim Association was organized at the Lone Tree landing and Omaha’s original town site covered 4,000 acres. Members of the Association were allowed to claim up to 320 acres and one source claimed that club membership “comprised almost all the male residents of the town in 1854…”. The claim club also recognized the Council Bluffs ferry company’s property from the banks of the Missouri River west to Hadley Johnson and Gaylord’s claim, north to Jeffrey’s claim, and south to the claim of Omaha City Postmaster Alfred Jones. Jones also found himself elected first Judge of the Claim Association.
The next day, Jesse Lowe and Jesse Williams rowed across the Missouri River to staked out their own claims and it has been suggested that this is when Lowe coined the name Omaha City. Even Bellevue’s mouthpiece The Palladium later admitted that the location was “nevertheless a handsome place” with a view “extensive and picturesque.” Omaha City’s first newspaper appeared on July 28 and printed in a Council Bluffs building that still stands in the 100 Block. That was the offices of Joseph E. Johnson’s Western Bugle newspaper and the Arrow’s first issue included notice that Indians required ten dollars from each settler in Omaha and that this was a good idea and was payable to Logan Fontenelle, Hadley Johnson, or at the newspaper. The Arrow was filled with booster claims of Omaha City’s future fortunes while disputing any suggestion of its insignificance, boasting that they had had “editors, squatters, deer, turkeys, grouse, and other ‘animals’ aplenty“ and “in full view, and due east, is Council Bluffs City, the great and well known local point of the Iowa railroads.”
But what of Thomas Cuming? Well, he showed up in Bellevue on October 11, 1854, the day after Territorial Governor Francis Burt. Now Burt was a 47 year old good old boy from South Carolina who participated in that state’s 1832 constitutional nullification convention. President Pierce appointed Burt Governor of Nebraska Territory in August but he was sick by the time his traveling party got to St. Louis and his condition only worsened when his party landed at Bellevue.
Every Omaha school child should be told about October 11, 1854 when Thomas B. Cuming, Secretary of Nebraska Territory, and his wife Margeurite landed at Bellevue. One source called Cuming “rather below medium height. . . Compactly built; his complexion swarthy; his hair black as the plumage of the raven; his eyebrows heavy; his eyes deep-set, restless, dark, and flashing.” He was 25 years old and was born in New York where his father was an Episcopal minister. Cuming’s family moved west where he entered the first freshman class at the University of Michigan. At the start of the Mexican War, he had enlisted as Private in Second Michigan Infantry under the command of a certain Andrew J. Hanscom and was commissioned Lieutenant. After the war, Cuming followed the Gold Rush to St. Louis where he worked as a telegraph operator and was then placed in charge of the office at Keokuk, Iowa. A devoted Democrat, Cuming started writing anonymous letters to the Keokuk Dispatch and took over the newspaper when he received as appointment in the new Nebraska Territory.
A reception to welcome the new government was held at Bellevue with Colonel Sharp and Judge Bennett from Glenwood both in attendance but Burt was too sick to show up. The competition practically oozes through the October 13 announcement in the Omaha Arrow that similar plans were in the works under the direction of Alfred Jones and others that would be held “in a style which would have done credit to many an older place.”
In spite of this welcome from Omaha, Burt took his oath of office at Bellevue on October 16 and promptly died two days later. According to the organic act, Cuming became Acting Governor two months before he turned 26 years old. According to Morton & Watkins History of Nebraska, “In audacity, and in his methods in general he was Napoleonic”. Cuming no doubt relished this sudden, if unfortunate, promotion that ensured that Omaha City was the territory’s new seat of government and major city.
Cuming and his wife soon left Bellevue in favor of semi-civilized Council Bluffs and set up residence at the Pacific House, owned by Sam Bayliss. That was from where Judge Horace Deemer claimed he “issued his orders and proclamations.” Yes, in its earliest days all of Nebraska Territory was run out of a West Broadway hotel room.
That October the Plattsmouth Town Company was established at “the Barracks”, mostly by Platteville ferryman Sam Martin, once labeled a drunk who “kept an Otoe squaw”, and wily one-eyed Glenwood lawyer Colonel Joseph Sharp. Now on October 21 when Cuming announced a census of Nebraska Territory would begin three days later and completed within four weeks. It was on October 26 when Cuming divided Nebraska Territory into six districts and named six deputies to conduct the census, including Colonel Joseph Sharp of Glenwood.
The Omaha Arrow ended publication in November when the first census of Nebraska Territory was completed and found 2,732 Nebraskans, including 13 slaves. There were 1,818 people south of the Platte River and only 914 residents to the north. The 1882 History of Nebraska makes clear that “strictest adherence to truth was not a conspicuous characteristic of those whose wishes to become an organized body exceeded their abilities to attain the end by purely lawful methods” and also reported that one of the census deputies, Marshal Murphy “actually crossed the river and secured most of his material for the returns upon the other side.”
With liberal interpretation, Cuming created four counties south of the Platte River represented by six Councilmen and 12 Representatives and four north of the Platte with seven Councilmen and 14 Representatives. The glaring disparity between representation and population was obvious to everyone but Acting Governor Cuming who claimed the census south of the Platte was bogus. Cuming sent Jesse Lowe to inspect Richardson County where Lowe disputed the tally made by Colonel Sharp. According to Deemer, “Doubtless true that his Council Bluffs environment had much to do with his decision,” considering that “his Iowa friends were interested in Omaha as in no other proposed location.” Morton & Watkins is typically more blunt: “That there were gross falsifications and other irregularities in this census there is no doubt…” but that they were “gerrymandered by Governor Cuming in the interest of Omaha” and in the “interests of a coterie of enterprising Iowa speculators who had gathered in Council Bluffs…”
No one was more outraged by Acting Governor Cuming’s decisions than the people of Bellevue. Although north of the Platte River, Bellevue had been somehow attached to the odious Omahans as part of a much larger Douglas County. In early December, upset citizens held a public meeting to secure the capitol at its rightful place and ended up accusing Cuming of accepting the bribes of Omaha City promoters. Acting Governor Cuming left the meeting in disgust, and in the words of Morton & Watkins, “ placed upon Bellevue the perpetual seal of “the deserted village.” The same book also points out that Bellevue’s failure to secure the capitol was “not backed up with material arguments sufficient to meet those of the Council Bluffs and Nebraska Ferry Company, which not only represented but constituted Omaha’s interests.”
Even as the animosity towards Cuming grew, the election to select a territorial legislature and a delegate to Congress went on as scheduled on December 12. Judge Deemer admitted that “nearly all the settlers of Mills, Fremont and Pottawattamie counties voted at these elections.“ Council Bluffs resident Hascal C. Purple was elected from Burt County although Deemer reported that “in fact he was elected by nine residents of Council Bluffs who went across the river on a hunt for that county in order that they might cast their votes on proper territory. They never in fact got into Burt County, but this had no effect upon the election returns.” Another Council Bluffs resident, James Megeath first visited Omaha “for the purpose of voting” although he waited until 1857 to move there. According to the 1882 History, many others remained “as permanent residents of Iowa.” A Missourian, Napeolon Gidding, beat out Iowa’s Hadley Johnson in the race for territorial delegate to Congress. But Gidding never moved to Nebraska either and shared other traits with the men from Iowa as Morton & Watkins described it, Gidding had only ventured to the west bank of the Missouri two weeks for the election and “brought no other property with him except a carpet-bag.“
The mood across the territory remained ugly, particularly down in Nebraska City where citizens gathered on December 15 to vent their frustrations. They unanimously declared Thomas Cuming an “unprincipled knave” and passed resolutions charging him “with neglecting to reside within the limits of the territory but keeping the actual seat of government in a foreign city” that we all know and love as Council Bluffs.
Foreign or not, the interests of Council Bluffs and the ferry company in particular were successful and December 20 Cuming selected the date of January 16 to open the territorial legislature at Omaha City as that became the de facto seat of territorial government. Three days later Cuming proposed forming two regiments of militia in case of attack by Indians although anti-Omaha Nebraskans were probably more of an actual threat to his personal safety. Nineteen representatives from five counties met in Nebraska City on the December 30 with pleas to President Pierce and resolutions demanding Cuming’s removal from office as he was “neither an upright, honest nor honorable man” that “seeks rather to control than consult the people.”
Except in the far southwest corner, a similarly hostile mood had settled across most of Iowa where much public discontent had followed passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. An unlikely coalition brought together “Conscience” Whigs, Free-Soilers, Abolitionists, Know-Nothings, Prohibitionists, Germans, and disgusted Democrats in support of James Grimes successful election as Governor of Iowa under the “Opposition” or “Coalition” Party whose platform recognized the “binding force of the Missouri Compromise.” The Muscatine Democratic Enquirer lamented that “The all absorbing question of interest was ’Nebraska’.” Within a year in office Grimes was calling himself the first Republican Governor in the United States.
In early January 1855 another “anti-Cuming convention” was held in Bellevue that once again decried the fact that Cuming lived in Council Bluffs. Florence booster Jim Mitchell declared that the territorial census was total bunk as “the officer who took the census in Dodge county enrolled numbers in the grog shops of Council Bluffs. Omaha was supplied the same way.”
This was the mood of Omaha City in Nebraska Territory when the steamboats and bateau still ran up and down the river and the first session of the legislature of Nebraska Territory prepared to convene. I’ll tell you about that later. Today, Tom Cuming is probably best known as the butt of the corner of 69th Street jokes.
- “Thomas B. Cuming” on Wikipedia
- “Collection Record: Cuming, Thomas Barnes, 1828-1858” from the Nebraska State Historical Society
- “Thomas Barney Cuming” on Find-A-Grave
- “Celebrating the Holidays with the Cumings” by Pat Gaster for the Nebraska State Historical Society Blog