I visited Sam and Eleanor Nelson’s farm near what is now known as South Yankton, NE, northwest of St. Helena, to catch some river flooding photos and to write about the flooding heritage of their historic farm for a future print story in Nebraska Farmer.
The Nelson’s farm in northern Cedar County adjacent to the Missouri River, just downstream from Yankton, SD has an important and historic distinction. The farm is located near the old town site of Green Island, which was notoriously washed away in the great flood of March 1881.
NORTHERN BORDER: This is the monument to the northern terminus of the 6th principal meridian installed by Nebraska surveyors in 2007, the 150th anniversary of the original wooden post installed by Charles Manners marking the location in 1855.
But this heritage is perhaps not the most important of the historic events to take place on their farm. After the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854, creating the two territories, U.S. Deputy Surveyor, Charles A. Manners, was charged with surveying a baseline establishing a territorial dividing border. On May 8, 1855, Manners, assisted by Captain Thomas J. Lee of the U.S. Army and the best obtainable instruments of the day, according to “Sheldon’s History and Stories of Nebraska,” set a cast iron monument on the bluff west of the Missouri River at 40 degrees north latitude. Over the next two years, they surveyed westward 108 miles, establishing the border between Nebraska and Kansas territories at the initial point of the 6th principal meridian. The initial starting point of this all-important meridian is marked by a monument near Mahaska, Kansas.
From this initial point of the meridian, five states were surveyed including Nebraska, Kansas and parts of Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota.
According to Sheldon’s history, the 6th meridian is the naming line of all the land in Nebraska, for all deeds and patents to Nebraska land mention it. The line forms the western boundary of Jefferson, Saline, Seward, Butler, Colfax, Stanton and Wayne counties and extends through Cedar County to the northern boundary of the state.
The northern terminus of the 6th principal meridian was established on July 22, 1857 at a point somewhere north of the Nelson’s farm and the current river bank at the South Dakota border. Manners set a simple wooden post to mark the point, but this temporary post most likely washed away when the river rose.
HISTORIC FARMERS: Eleanor and Sam Nelson have farmed along the river all of their married lives. Their farm is historic in that it has witnessed great Missouri River floods of the past and hosts the 6th principal meridian that is a baseline for surveys across the upper Great Plains.
Since Manner’s posting of the northern point, which would be located today somewhere out in the middle of the riverbed between the states of Nebraska and South Dakota, the river has eroded the banks to a fifteen-foot vertical drop. In Manner’s day, the channel was farther north and the bank was a gentle slope.
The 6th principal meridian became the line along which the Meridian Road was developed by good roads boosters in 1912. Eventually renamed the Meridian Highway, the road became Highway 81, extending to Mexico and north to Canada. The route once passed through the towns of Hadar, Pierce, Wausa and Crofton, before crossing the Missouri River over Meridian Bridge, opened in 1924, as it connected to Yankton, SD. The highway was relocated to its modern direct route in 1939.
In 2007, Nebraska surveyors Gene Thomsen, Jerry Penry, LaVern Schroeder and Jim Richardson asked the Nelsons if they could place a permanent memorial marker on their property, signifying the northern terminus of the historic meridian. On April 20, 2007, approximately 150 years after Manners placed his original wooden post marker along the meridian, a simple concrete marker was installed on the Nelson farmland with Sam watching, honoring this important surveying location. Today, that marker, at least 50 feet from the river channel when it was installed, is only a few feet from the water as it continues to rise through these summer months.