John Alexander MacMurphy was born in Warren County, New Jersey on the Musconteing Creek on the line of Hunterdon County in 1837. It was at an old farm house pointed out in after years, the principal feature of which was an old fashioned stone milk-house, with the clear notes of a spring mingling with that of the creek to keep things cool. Placed as near the fountain of supply no wonder he grew up and lived to a considerable age though a very puny baby, and as ugly as mud so an envious neighbor says.
When about a year old his father migrated to the territory of Michigan and finally settled at Southport now Kenosha, Wisconsin. It was then very new there, many French and Indians being still in and about the settlement. One of the principal means of livelihood was the selling of wood to the steamboats on the Lake or shipping it on scows "Macinacs" or other boats to different parts not so well supplied, for that country was then heavily timbered.
It also had the "fever an Ager" (fever and ague) ingrained in the bark of the trees or the soil for the whole family caught it. His father shook, his mother shook and young John shook, and all the meat of his bones, and he returned to New Jersey the thinnest and poorest baby ever known, a few years after John Duncan McMurphy, on account of the ague and other causes, not liking Wisconsin and returning to New Jersey, about 1840. The family was wrecked three times going and coming; twice in Lake Erie and once in Lake Michigan. The navigation of the "Great Lakes" as they were always spoken of then, being at that time quite dangerous, the coast not being so well known or the boats smaller and less manageable than at present. At the wreck on Lake Michigan, the women and children were taken off in rafts and landed on Beaver Island while most of the men someway got away to Detroit for help. Rough houses were improvised, and while those who lost all their goods were glum enough, the baby of the occasion, John Alexander, crowed and laughed and kept the company in good humour. This Island was afterward seized by "King Grant" and turned into a Mormon Settlement. At this time it was inhabited, if at all, by Indians and our baby was said to have been the first white child known on the Island. An old water soaked German Bible date 1734 and some other books about the house yet bear witness to these adventures. The mother of John A. was Elizabeth Oesterlein, who was born at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and a member of the old Moravian Settlement there. Her mother was of French Huguenot descent, named De Huff and grandfather and grandmother Oesterlein lay buried in the quaint old Moravian Cemetery at Bethlehem. These people all fled from religious persecution in France and Germany as did the Puritan stock of Londonderry, N. H. on the father's side. The Moravian "sisters" (or nuns as they were sometimes called) of Bethlehem nursed Lafayette of a wound during the revolution, and many was the story of those times, as well as the persecutions of the Waldenses and Huguenots in the old Country, Elizabeth Oesterlein MacMurphy used to tell her boy during the short time she lived and watched over his youth. How Lafayette would swear (in French) at the nurses when his wounds hurt him, and the delay vexed him, and the good sisters would soothe him and go off in a room to pray for him - of the Hessian families that settled near Bethlehem and Nazareth after the revolution and for many years were persecuted and their children ostracized for a generation or more because their fathers fought for hire on the Tory side. These tales she got from her mother and grandmother and she had the true German knack of recounting the folk-lore of her time. Elizabeth Oesterlein McMurphy married out of the church as did her sister in New Jersey, a Mrs. Proll, which was at that time considered almost a crime. Both sisters were educated at the Bethlehem Moravian Finale Seminary then one of the most famous in the land.
New Jersey was a most backward state until near the fifties. There were no free schools, and the common district schools were irregular and without any modern appliances of education. No women teachers were known there, and no boys as teachers. The general run of "schoolmasters" as they were almost universally spoken of, were brokn down ministers (clergymen) and often Scotchmen, Irishmen or Englishmen of fine classical lore and varied attainments, but who from misfortune, abject poverty, or vicious courses, at sometime of their life were reduced to this strait. So that poor as the schoolhouses were and inadequate or totally missing as were all maps, blackboards etc., the rudiments and groundwork for a very good English education and even more could be acquired by a bright boy who set his heart on an education, in fact they grounded their scholars better in the main than the modern cramming system does.
When 13 years old or thereabouts, his mother having died, his father sent him back to Old Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N. H. to get that thing a Yankee boy and his father generally prized in those days and called "an education". For reasons not necessary to mention the boy did not stay long enough to graduate, but did get a fair English start towards "larnin". Prof. Henshew was then Principal of the School and old Mr. Hildreth one of the directors or trustees.
Returning to New Jersey and New York he entered a cousin's store in the city of New York but soon developed a taste for "writing pieces for the papers" and did have a number of articles printed in the earlier publications of Frank Leslie and Harpers.
In 1857 through the influence of this cousin he came west to the Territory of Nebraska (then a mighty new country) before he was 21 years old.
(You can quote this as from myself) "We came to St. Louis by rail as early as February 1857, and after some delay there shipped our goods on the old steamer Omaha Capt. Andy Wineland, and followed it to Leavenworth on the cars a few days afterwards, that being the last railroad point in the west at that time. The next morning after my arrival, while waiting for the boat to overtake us I saw my first man shot. It was in front of the Hotel. The Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri border ruffian troubles were at their height then. A tall fine looking young fellow with black eyes and dark hair which he wore long on his shoulders, got into some altercation with a Kansan (a Yankee as all the free soil men were called) the words were few but sharp when "pop" went a pistol and over the curbstone lay the young Virginian, as I found he was, with his eyes wide open and his long curly hair floating out in the muddy water at the street side, "a dark, damp, moist unpleasant dead body". We slept on the billiard tables in the basement that night and on the dining room table as the Hotel was jammed with new comers.
The boat got along that day and we shipped for Omaha and the great far away and unknown west. The river was high, the boat was loaded to the "gunnels" and we were some four weeks going up the river as I remember, but oh! the lazy exciting, novel beauty of the trip when I think of it now, through an almost unknown country every day revealing some novelty to the tenderfeet aboard. We were stopped in Missouri several times by armed men or officers and searched or made to say "can" and "at home". If we said "koen" and "to hum" our cake would be dough as far as landing at that point was concerned. At one point on the Kansas shore, cannon were mounted and our boat was halted in midstream. As we had no rifles aboard, we were nearly all bound for Nebraska and our Captain was well known and on the right side (whichever that was) we were not really molested or a man taken off our boat. Other parties going to Kansas did not fare so well about that time.
Above St. Joe, Missouri, we had to cut our own wood as "wood yards" above that point in 1857 were few and unreliable. The boat tied up at nightfall and the crews, passengers and all helped by turns. On bright moonlight nights it was a pretty sight, and when the negro deck hands began to sing "Wood up" or some other wild medley the old woods resounded with the ring of steel, the cadence of song and the hoarse shouts and oaths of the officers of the boats, with now and then a shriek of the whistle to add to the uproar.
The "deck hands" were negroes and foreigners and oh my! how those captains and mates used to swear at 'em. Talk of being clothed with curses they shingled, tarpapered and put an asphalt coating of blasphemy over every mother's son of 'em at every landing. The hold and all spare room on deck was used for goods. The few State rooms and the afterpart of the cabin was curtained off for the women and male passengers that had families and we young musters (bachelors) had to sleep on the floor of the cabin and around the deck, packed like sardines. The "bar" was on one side of the forward deck and the "office" on the other. Parties gambled on the foredeck nearly all night and the bar paid a large part of the expenses of the boat.
Two famous gamesters Frank West and Frank Gardner were aboard. They were partners, and West was very rough at times. One night he was playing cards and a deck sleeper near him snored loudly. West turned and ordered them to take that man away or he would shoot him. His comrades waked him up turned him over and told him not to snore. In a few minutes he was at it again, when West did draw a pistol and swear most ferociously that he would kill the man if he made another snore. They actually removed the man to a far corner of the deck out of Frank's way. I lay closely on my blankets shivering with fear and disgust and did think I had got into the toughest country on earth, where they shoot a man for snoring.
We arrived at Omaha April 27th I think. It was a little village then, the boat landing is in the middle of the river now. A frame shanty (saloon) and two old partly decayed cottonwoods marked the spot. The shanty was called the "Last Chance Saloon" and the two Franks asked the crowd in to drink and I don't know but a hundred went in. They could afford it, as they had got most of the loose money, in the crowd, during the trip. There were quite a party of us from New York. Our leader was a doctor who was the agent of some Wall Street men who had bought a half interest in the town site of Decatur 60 miles north of Omaha, and on the borders of the Omaha Indian Reservation. We had been told in New York City that there were four stores, and seventeen houses in Decatur. When we arrived there one cold April morning we found ten log "Trading Posts" kept by Frenchman who hated "The sacre ventre bleu Yankees" as they called us. We brought a little framed house from St. Louis on the boat, and "packed" it up on our shoulders and put it together for James Thompson and wife Mrs. Thompson being the only white woman in that part of the country as she continued to be for mostly that summer. The house was about 10 X 12. We curtained off one corner where Jim and his wife slept and four other men slept on the floor elsewhere. The rest of us men folks took possession of one of the log cabins the proprietor of which had gone over to Iowa for supplies during the winter and it being a very hard winter here he got snowed in and had not crawled home yet. We found snow in the gulches the 15th of May that spring. A saw-mill had been shipped from St. Louis as part of our plunder, but it got wrecked in the river and we had no employment and no amusement and not much to eat that summer.
We lived mostly for three weeks on a barrel of eggs that Thompson providently brought from St. Louis for speculation. Then a steamboat came up and we got some bacon "and sick", and a few potatoes - Oh! but they were good! None of us had ever camped out, cooked our own food, or washed our own clothes at that time. What a long lazy never to be forgotten summer that was! The French-Indian traders were both characters. One "Sarpy" had been a member of the American Fur company and one of the best known bordermen of the time. Sarpy county south of Omaha is named for him. Clement Lambert or "Old Lumbar" as he was called was one of Fremont's Lieutenants (a note between the lines: buried from St. Ignatius Church N.Y. in 1890 July) in his first trip across the plains when he located and named Pike's Peak, and got the name of "Pathfinder".
I was luckier in one way than the rest of the crowd for "Old Lumbar" took fancy to me, and along in August invited me to come over and live with him, and clerk for him. I did so, and was soon pattering Indian, wearing moccasins, a belt and knife and smoking a pipe in sheer self defense, however, for they filled the shantie with smoke every evening and it was smoke or smother.
That old trading post packed to the rafters with skins sometimes smelling of all the scents of the animals they grew on and in addition all the smells of a country grocery store, tobacco, kinnekinick (kinnikinnick), Indians and Frenchmen when the store was hot on a cold winter's day, it was one of the most excellently perfumed places I ever dwelt in.
In January 1859 in putting out a prairie fire around a friend's cabin I got my face burned, and lost my right eye, in fact had a brain fever and never got out of the house until May. I had taken up a piece of land meanwhile under the old pre-emption laws, the homestead law being unknown then. The other eye sympathizing with the hurt one I was afraid of losing both, and in the spring of 1860 came home to New York for better medical treatment and attendance. I spent 13 weeks in the Eye Infirmary, but did not recover the sight of one eye. My father and step-mother in New Jersey persuaded me to stay there, and not return to Nebraska. In 1861, the War of the Rebellion broke out, and I tried at once to enlist. Some people ran away to avoid being soldiers and fought the draft. I fought to get in the Army. I enlisted three times in Duryea's 5th Infantry N.Y. Volunteers In Van Wyck's "Legion" and finally in Kilpatrick's "Mounted Rifles" where I was at last accepted as a scout, because of a supposed knowledge of camp life trails to be gained in my two years in Nebraska with the Indians. Before that when the Surgeon or mustering officer came 'round he threw me out on account of my eye.
The first Mounted Rifles was an oddish regiment enlisted without due authority, and had a queer career all through the war. Up to this time the Government had received no cavalry as they all thought the war was going to cease in "90 days" or a year at most and all the old regulars said it took three years to make a good cavalry man, and it was no use to enlist them for so short a term as this war would last.
Judson Kilpatrick was a graduate of West Point that spring. He was born in the next county to me in New Jersey (Sussex County) and I knew something of him and his people. He was a Captain in Duryea's 5th Inft. Regt. of N.Y. got wounded at Great Bethel in the first engagement, and came down to Fortress Munroe where he met Gen. Benjamin F. Butler. Butler and "Kill" concluded they wanted some Mounted men, "must have'em". They obtained a sort of informal authority from Simon Cameron, Secretary of War which read about this way: "Capt. Judson Kilpatrick is hereby authorized to raise a Squadron of Mounted Soldiers and report to Gen. B. F. Butler at Fortress Munroe at once.
Simon Cameron, Secty of War"
It was written on a scrap of paper without even an official heading, if I remember right, and on the strength of this Kilpatrick hurried to New York, game leg and all and opened a recruiting office on Cortland St. N.Y. Many Jersey boys rushed in to Kill's regiment. I had just despaired of being received in fact had gone to a newpaper friend and got a personal letter to Gen. Butler at Fortress Munroe asking that I be received in some capacity, and was looking about for some way to get there when I met Kilpatrick on Broadway one day. I told him my fix and he said in his offhand way "Oh that's all O.K. you come right here into my company I'm going down to Fortress Munroe. Turn in here and help us recruit, and I'll see Butler and get you in somewhere, you shall go down with the first squad of men we enlist".
So I did, and thus and how I drifted into the army. Gen. B. appointed me a Scout and I served largely at headquarters carrying dispatches to both for Gen. Butler and Gen. More afterwards. But the regiment (as it afterwards became) was not out of trouble yet. Capt. Kilpatrick was a Capt in Duryea's 5th Infty of N.Y. and had never got a leave of absence or a discharge, and when we got down to Fortress Munroe some old regulars there, who were opposed to volunteer cavalry any way, refused to receive a regiment so enlisted and refused to recognize Cameron's authority to raise such a body, and in course of time Kilpatrick was ordered to Washington to explain what he a Capt. of Infantry was doing in a Mounted Squadron away from his own regiment. Kilpatrick was popular, had already displayed bravery and the matter was fixed up someway, we were finally received and mustered into the Army of U.S. but "Kill" never came back to us. He was transferred to the Harris Light Cavalry, and it was with that regiment and brigade that he won his great renown as a Cavalry Commander, and not with the boys whom he originally raised and who were named after him. We were also at first sometimes called "Butler's Body Guard".
I was discharged "injured" in 1863. Came back to N.Y. served a short time as a war correspondent, and in 1864 returned to Nebraska and opened a store on Farnam St. Omaha where the Paxton Hotel now stands."
Trading out of the store Mr. McMurphy tried farming in Burt County a while but in 1869 came down to Omaha as a local reporter on the Herald. In 1870 and 1871 he was the first correspondent of a daily Nebraska Newspaper at the Capital City Lincoln and wrote a series of letters to the Omaha Republican during the Butler Impeachment trial that attracted great attention in the State. They were signed "Tip-Top".
In 1871 he bought the Blair Times and sold it in 1872. In May 1872 he bought the Plattsmouth Herald of H. A. Hathaway now of the Lincoln Journal. The Herald was one of the oldest and most influential of the county papers in the State at that time. He ran that twelve years, and sold it intending to go out of the business, circumstances prevented that and he bought the Schuyler Sun of Mr. A. E. Cody also one of the state papers. In 1886 he sold the Sun and that fall bought the Wahoo Independent of Major Davis and the Tribune of the same place, consolidated the two papers and called them "The Wasp" which paper is now in 1889 the principal Republican paper of Saunders County. Not satisfied with the business he parted with the Wasp in 1888 and the same fall built in South Omaha, and founded a Stock paper called the "Hoof and Horn" which had remarkable success and reached a large circulation in a very short time. During all these newspaper years Mr. McMurphy was very influential in the politics of the State and became one of the best posted men in that line in Nebraska. He also became an authority in the early Journalism of the State and had the reputation of buying and selling more newpapers in Nebraska than any other man (several that he owned temporarily not being mentioned here) in the State. He was for many yearrs Secretary or President of the State Press Association, and in fact almost began it and kept it going for that time. He was influential and active in having a Nebraska Press Building located on the beautiful Chatauquce grounds at Crete, and many ways and always, helped the young State to grow to her present proportions and position in the union.
Douglass Av. near Omaha Neb, October 5th 1889
Copied and typed
by Danny J. McMurphy, Sullivan, Missouri, 23 December 1991