Prairie Settlement | Oblinger Family

About the Letters from the Uriah W. Oblinger Collection
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Letter from Uriah W. Oblinger to Mattie V. Oblinger and Ella Oblinger, March, 1873.

The Uriah W. Oblinger Collection was donated to the Nebraska State Historical Society in 1958. Though the collection includes a variety of papers relating to the Oblinger family, the most important items are 318 letters dating from 1862 to 1911. At the heart of this correspondence lies the story of land and its settlement, of Uriah's lifelong attempts to settle and prosper on a farm of his own. Principal writers include Uriah, Mattie Thomas (Uriah's first wife), Giles Thomas (Mattie's brother), Laura Bacon (Uriah's second wife), and the Oblinger children. A large cast of supporting writers--blood relatives, relatives by marriage, friends, and associates--also plays a part.

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Uriah Oblinger and Mattie Oblinger

Uriah W. Oblinger was born May 14, 1842, in Montgomery County, Ohio, the son of Samuel and Esther (Zook) Oblinger. The family moved to Miami County, Indiana, in 1843. As a young man Uriah helped both with farm work and with the running of his father's grist and sawmills. Samuel Oblinger was also a Dunkard (German Baptist) minister. Uriah's early religious convictions are unknown, but letters written during their courtship indicate that he met his first wife, Martha Virginia "Mattie" Thomas, at Sunday school. The Thomas family was Methodist Episcopal, and farmed in neighboring Cass County, Indiana.

Near the beginning of the Civil War in April 1861, Uriah enlisted for three months service in Company D, Sixth Indiana Infantry. He re-enlisted in August 1861 and served for three years in Company A, Thirty-ninth Indiana Volunteer Infantry, and in the Eighth Indiana Volunteer Cavalry.
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Uriah Oblinger's Discharge Papers
He was mustered out of service in Indianapolis in September 1864. During the war Uriah corresponded with Mattie; a few of these letters survive in the collection, along with some written to the Thomas family by Giles Thomas, Mattie's brother, who served in Company K, Ninety-ninth Indiana Volunteer Infantry.

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Giles Thomas (detail from group portrait)

Uriah and Mattie continued their courtship after the war, but Uriah had few resources and Mattie's father apparently had reservations about the relationship. It would be five years before they married. Searching for a place to settle and trying to earn enough to marry and support a family, Uriah traveled to Minnesota in 1866 and to Illinois in 1868. A number of letters survive from this period in which the couple discuss their separation, their longing to be settled together on a farm of their own, religion, politics, family, crops, weather, and local events.

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Letter from Uriah W. Oblinger to Mattie V. Thomas and Ella Oblinger, December 1, 1872.

Mattie and Uriah were finally married on March 25, 1869. They rented a farm about three miles from the Thomas family farm in Indiana until the fall of 1872, when Uriah and two of his wife's brothers, Giles and Samuel Thomas, journeyed west to settle in Nebraska. The three young men took advantage of the Homestead Act which Congress passed in 1862. The act offered 160 acres of free land to qualified entrants who fulfilled residence and improvement requirements. Uriah filed for land approximately eleven miles west of Geneva in Bennett Township, Fillmore County, Nebraska. Giles and Sam took claims nearby, approximately a mile and a half south in Momence Township. Sam, however, returned to Indiana within a year. Uriah's letters back to Indiana between September 1872 and May 1873, when Mattie joined him in Nebraska, paint a vivid and detailed picture of the homesteading experience: filing a claim, sod-busting, building a sod house, and all the accompanying hardships. In a letter dated December 1, 1872, Uriah wrote, "the longer I stay here the better I like it, there are . . . mostly young families just starting in life the same as we are and I find them very generous indeed. we will all be poor here together."

Mattie and Uriah worked their land together for almost seven years--fighting blizzards, drought, grasshopper infestations, and low crop prices throughout the 1870s.
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Fillmore Co. Agricultural Society Certificate
Their letters to the Thomas family in Indiana are filled with descriptions of their homestead and their improvements on it, crop and livestock reports, weather, neighbors, local activities, and politics. Giles wrote about similar subjects, especially crop conditions, prices, and farming.

The Oblingers' personal finances were beginning to improve when Mattie
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Maggie, Ella, and Estella (Stella) Oblinger.
died in childbirth, along with an infant son, in February 1880. She was thirty-six and left Uriah with three young daughters: Ella (age nine), Stella (age five) and Maggie (age two). Unable to make a living farming and take care of the household and his children too, Uriah sold nearly all of his possessions and moved to Morristown, Minnesota, to be near his father and siblings. There he took whatever work he could find. His daughters lived with relatives, separated from each other and their father, until Uriah could provide a home and mother for them.

Little is known of their meeting or courtship, but on October 30, 1881, Uriah married Laura Iona Bacon at Sharon, Le Sueur
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Laura Oblinger (after remarriage) and Uriah Oblinger
County, Minnesota. The couple had three daughters, Sadie, Nettie, and Lillie; a son, Chester, was also born but died at nine months of age. Uriah initially supported his family by working for a railroad surveying party, moving throughout the region as sections of the line were finished, while Laura stayed near Ottawa, Le Sueur County, Minnesota. After leaving the construction crew in 1882, Uriah again took work where he could find it until 1883, when he returned to Fillmore County, Nebraska, with his family. The Oblingers rented a farm about a mile and a half south of Uriah's original homestead, farming there until 1885.

In late 1885 Uriah heard good reports of the Kansas country and made a trip to survey his prospects in the area. By April 1886 the Oblinger family was settled in Gove County, Kansas, where Uriah farmed and served as clerk of the Gove County District Court. Laura broke her arm in January 1887, and when the break was not set properly, went to her parents' home in Ottawa, Minnesota, for treatment and rest. She took the younger Oblinger daughters, Sadie and Nettie, with her to Minnesota. She
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Sadie (age 15), Lillie (age 10) and Nettie (age 14) Oblinger.
discovered that she was pregnant (with Lillie) while in Minnesota. A large number of letters survive from this separation, including several from Stella and Maggie Oblinger to their stepmother. Laura's letters tend to focus on health-related topics, the children, and Uriah's Minnesota relatives, while Uriah's replies include his own opinions about Laura's health, weather, crops, information about court cases and land proofs, local Gove County news, politics, and the children. Stella and Maggie wrote mostly about housekeeping in the Oblinger dugout, livestock, and school.

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Uriah Oblinger's pension certificate

Laura returned to Gove County in the fall of 1887. Uriah lost his bid for re-election as District Court clerk in 1890, largely because he was out of the state at a Grand Army of the Republic (G. A. R.) regimental reunion in Indiana during the campaign. A series of letters in 1890 document Uriah's application for a veteran's pension, and also include descriptions of the trip to Indiana for the reunion. Laura kept the clerk's office running during Uriah's absence, and her letters relate mostly to court business, politics, and her health.

Soon after the election Uriah visited friends in Wheatland, Hickory County, Missouri, searching once more for a new place to start. By spring of 1891 the Oblingers were living on a rented farm near Wheatland, where they stayed until the fall of 1894. Letters from 1894 make it clear that the Missouri venture was not a success. With mounting debts in a failing economy, Uriah headed back to Nebraska, while Laura remained in Wheatland to settle the family's affairs. He rented a farm near Danbury, Red Willow
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Giles Thomas
County, where his oldest daughter, Ella, farmed with her husband and children. Laura and the younger children joined him there, but on her doctor's recommendation Laura spent the winter of 1895-96 in San Francisco, staying with her parents, who had moved to California from Minnesota. She came back to Nebraska during the spring and summer of 1896, but returned to San Francisco permanently that winter. Letters are sparse from these later years, but show that despite enduring so many setbacks, Uriah maintained a basic optimism and was ready to start again. By 1900, however, with his health deteriorating, Uriah had to move in with Ella. He died on March 27, 1901.

Giles Thomas stayed in southeast Nebraska. His letters to the Thomas family complement those of Uriah and Mattie during the 1870s. It was Giles who wrote to Indiana with the news of Mattie's death in 1880, and of Uriah's desolation in the months that followed. Between 1880 and 1886 Giles' letters reflect his own growing prosperity as he expanded his farming interests into neighboring Clay County, Nebraska. No letters by Giles survive after 1886, but he lived to a very old age and died in Geneva, Nebraska, on February 16, 1929.


Prairie Settlement | Oblinger Family