Before the Nebraska Territory was opened for settlement, there were land speculators sitting in Council Bluffs chomping at the bit to get land in or nearby a town that didn’t even exist yet called Omaha City. Some were shaggy opportunists without any money, while others were well-heeled capitalists waiting to make a fast buck. One of them was George Smith.
Early Years in Omaha
Born in 1826 in Genoa, Ohio, George Smith came from the East and arrived in Omaha without a lot more than the coat on his back and a wagon full of supplies. At the age of 30, he landed on the west side of the Missouri River and staked out a slice of land on the south end of present-day North Omaha. That was May 15, 1856, and the land was located between present-day North 16th and North 18th, from Grant Street to Lake Street. The address was 1602 North 16th Street, which is at present-day North 16th and Clark Streets.
Just three days after landing, Smith already had a house 3/4 of the way built on his newly claimed homestead. The Omaha Claim Club showed up that day with 100 riders though, and when Smith saw them coming he ran like the wind and hid in some trees. Apparently, he knew they weren’t going to be okay with his claim because he hadn’t approved it with them. Figuring that 100 men on horseback weren’t there to bargain, Smith hid instead.
The leader of the group had his force tear down the house, then rode up to Smith’s hiding place. Yelling about the house, Smith eventually agreed to leave town right away, and he did. According to his own telling from an 1881 newspaper story, he went back to his old farm in Glenwood, Iowa, and stayed there except to visit Omaha occasionally. For several months, he didn’t say anything about the farm he lost in North Omaha.
However, in January 1857 Smith filed a letter with the United States General Land Office to claim his turf. In February, the Omaha Claim Club held a large meeting at Pioneer Square in Omaha City, declaring the rule of law over all of Douglas County, with forces from Florence, Bellevue and elsewhere attending. Attempting to formalize and legitimize their vigilantism, the group made by-laws and created committees, and terrorized the county freely to their own benefit. In December of that year, the land claim office rejected Smith’s letter under the premise that he hadn’t lived there for a year, and declared that his claim was null and void.
In early 1858, Smith went on to hire a Washington lawyer to appeal for him. The lawyer had pamphlets about Smith’s case printed and distributed throughout Nebraska, and got the register of the land office in Omaha as a witness for Smith’s case. The register, John A. Parker, testified that not only had a mob torn down Smith’s improvement on the land, but that nobody else had improved it since.
Smith’s claim was re-instated and the land was his again.
Decades of Public Service
In 1870, Smith became an Omaha City Council member.
Later, George Smith was elected repeatedly as the Douglas County Surveyor from 1865 to 1887, and was deputy surveyor from 1887 to 1901. Working on behalf of landowners to establish, formalize and otherwise make legit their claims to land, real estate sales, and more, he was often cited in the Omaha Bee and the Daily Herald with opinions and ideas about the city’s development and growth on topics including gutters and sewers, street lowering and grading, and public places. This outspokenness seems to have peaked in 1888 with the siting and development of the new Omaha City Hall. In 1889, Smith had a testy public exchange with Andrew Rosewater in the newspapers, complete with name-calling and backbiting. Originally pulling for a site along Farnam which required street grading and a lot of surface work, he eventually advocated for Jefferson Square to become the site of the City Hall. That argument didn’t win though, and the building was constructed on Farnam against both mens’ wishes.
In his position, Smith was also a primary figure in establishing the Nebraska/Iowa state line through Cut-Off Lake, now known as Carter Lake, in 1892. The line was ratified by the federal government in 1893. That year, the Omaha World-Herald rallied against Smith continuing as the surveyor, and was effective in getting him booted from the office. They continuously called him incompetent, especially regarding the Platte River canal debacle. In that instance, apparently Smith’s judgment of distance cost Douglas County thousands of dollars in fines when they were off by more than 10,000 feet. His error was attributed as the reason why the canal from the Platte through Omaha to the Missouri River was never constructed. He sat on various committees and commissions after his public service. For instance, he was on the board for the Omaha and North Platte Railroad in 1886.
Referred to as “Doc Smith,” some references called his old house on North 16th Street as the “Dox Box.” At the end of his life, his address was listed at 2202 North 16th Street. Apparently, the Doc Box was his original cabin, eventually marked by a sign outside the building and placed next to his fine, large house. Inside it was filled with books and music that he listened to everyday in his older age. He kept surveying land until a few days before his death. His wife was Sarah M. (Converse) Smith (1837-1909), and they were married in January 1862 in Omaha.
“Emanations from Dox Box”
In September 1900, “Doc” George Smith was “stricken with paralysis,” and the “whole of his right side” was affected. When he died in January 1901, with an obituary proclaiming, “Guide, philosopher and friend of early settlers goes to his long home. He resisted demand of claim club, had a big heart for children and young men and settled here forty six years ago.” He died on January 10, 1901, and was buried in North Omaha’s pioneer resting place, the Prospect Hill Cemetery (note that his headstone there is dated wrong, and says he died in 1900. All the newspaper reports say 1901).
Aside from his tombstone, today there’s no marker for Dox Box, in memory of Pioneer Smith’s fight for land justice, or in honor of the decades of public service Doc Smith paid as surveyor for Douglas County and the City of Omaha.
As a side note, “Dox Box” was still standing in 1946 when it was the topic of a question in a letter to the editor of the Omaha World-Herald. Located just south of North 16th and Burdette, it stood for several years longer.