Madison County experienced exploration as early as
1795, when James Mackay mapped the county during his exploration of the
Louisiana Territory. Louis and Clark held council in 1804 with local
Native Americans in Madison County. In 1859, General John M. Thayer sent
a small army from Omaha to the present site of Norfolk to pursue a band
of Native Americans who had stolen property from settlers. However,
Chief Peta-le-sharu surrendered and Battle Creek is named for this
battle, which was never fought.
The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed many people to
travel west in search of free land. Among these travelers was a group of
125 from Wisconsin of German descent. They were led by Herman Braasch
and Louis Heckendorf who settled at the junction of the Elkhorn and
North Fork rivers. This group came by wagon, with four oxen and two cows
per family, but only seven men had horses. When the group arrived at
their destination, they found a small group of settlers who had come a
few months beforehand from Illinois. Not wanting to live among the
Germans, the group from Illinois moved to Columbus. Several settlers
later moved and re-settled on Union Creek, forming what later became the
town of Madison. Others started a settlement at present-day Battle Creek
the same year.
The settlers lived in their wagons while their log
cabins, sod houses, or dugouts were being built. Many suffered through
harsh conditions such as locusts, blizzards, floods, and prairie fires
throughout the beginning of their settlement. In December of 1867, the
county was officially organized. The county was called Madison, as a
tribute to the capital city of the settlers former home in Wisconsin.
Norfolk was chosen as the county seat, but later a dispute arose and by
a majority vote, Madison became the new county seat.
Soon after the organization of the county, many more
settlers moved to Madison County. In 1874 the government land office was
opened in Norfolk, and stage coach lines were established from Norfolk
and Madison to Wisner, O'Neill, Niobrara, and Columbus. The Madison
Review, the first county newspaper, was first printed by T.M. Blakely in
1874. The gold rush to the Black Hills in 1876-1878 provided an increase
in business and trade in Madison County. Trains of wagons carried food
provisions to the miners, helping the county to prosper.
At this time, railroads were connecting more and more
cities across the United States. Numerous proposals were made for a
railroad going from Sioux City to Kearney that would pass through
Madison County, and in 1876 bonds were voted to start construction but
the project was abandoned. Three years later the Fremont, Elkhorn, &
Missouri Valley Railroad was built and reached Norfolk. One year after
that, the Omaha, Niobrara, & Black Hills Railroad reached Norfolk and in
1882 the St. Paul & Sioux City Railroad also reached the county. The
railroads provided an increase in business and profits for merchants and
farmers within the county, triggering a significant population growth.
The completion of a railroad lines paved the way for a successful future
for Madison County.