Nebraska Moments

By Donald R. Hickey; Susan A. Wunder et al. | Go to book overview

14. The Great Nebraska Migration

In the 1870s the Great Nebraska Migration began. It would last for three decades, distributing population throughout disparate parts of frontier Nebraska. Many communities were planted, and as they matured, they became known for the immigrants they attracted. Each settlement harbored great hopes of becoming a metropolis, but few did. In this process, however, Nebraska developed a rural international diversity few other states could match.

Three such towns—Sutton, Overton, and Dannebrog—among many others, participated in the Great Nebraska Migration. Modest at best, Sutton’s beginnings started in the spring of 1870, when Luther French constructed a homestead dugout on the banks of School Creek in northeastern Clay County for his “flock of motherless children.” French had moved to Nebraska from Iowa with his eight children after his wife had died, perhaps in childbirth. Later that summer French broke six acres of land, and although he planted and harvested wheat to prove up his homestead, he had something else in mind for his land—a town site.

By August 1871 French had laid out six hundred lots on his property, and upon the suggestion of a new neighbor he named the projected settlement “Sutton” after a town of the same name in Massachusetts. The new year found thirty-five residents calling Sutton home. On the town site were two houses, a grocery store that also sold whiskey, and two tent saloons. After some land disputes and a serious shakedown by the Burlington and Missouri Railroad for the rights to a depot, the railroad reached Sutton, kindling hopes of building a city by local residents and speculators.

In the fall of 1873, the railroad’s recruitment of immigrants bore fruit when a large colony of Germans from Russia, who had journeyed all

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