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One of the early encounters of Europeans with catfish in this area of the country is found in the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Just north of an Omaha tribal village they reported catching 318 fish of various kinds, and the next day caught "upwards of 800 fine fish," 490 of which were catfish.

The value of this creature is acknowledged by Lewis C. Edwards, whose History of Richardson County, Nebraska (1917) praised "the great value of the catfish as a means of assisting the early pioneers in maintaining body and soul together." He includes in his book the recollections of Margaret H. Maddox, who recalled that catfish was an integral part of her 1855 Christmas dinner in Nebraska City: "Besides a wonderful roast turkey we had baked catfish, the largest I ever saw cooked. It weighed twenty pounds and was browned and cooked to a turn."

Edwards also stated that catfish oil was "used for a variety of purposes such as to grease the boots of the entire family, oiling or greasing the harness, and to oil the gun locks, the oil also being considered a fine specific for rheumatism and sore throat." Senator John J. Ingalls of Kansas bestowed the name "catfish aristocracy" on indolent settlers along the bottomlands of rivers in eastern Kansas and Nebraska because they supposedly lived by fishing and hunting instead of cultivating the land intensively.

Stories of oversized catfish dot the columns of Missouri River area newspapers. The Brownville Advertiser of August 13, 1857, reported the catch of a 120-pound catfish at the Brownville wharf. The Omaha Nebraskian of May 5, 1860, reported a 175-pound specimen captured when it went aground a short distance below Omaha.

A curious episode in Nebraska territorial history, the so-called "Catfish War," was only indirectly associated with the fish. In July 1855 near Fontanelle, then a recently established village on the Elkhorn River twenty miles west of Omaha, C. L. Demaree and a Mr. and Mrs. Porter met a small group of Sioux. Accounts of the hostile incident which followed vary, but all agree that Demaree and Mr. Porter were killed; Mrs. Porter was not harmed and she fled to Fontanelle. Afterward, Mark Izard, Nebraska territorial governor, sent a detachment of thirty men to the Fontanelle area. However, the general Indian uprising which had been feared never materialized. The soldiers had little to do for the rest of the summer besides enliven the social life of Fontanelle and shoot catfish in nearby lakes and rivers--from which the episode became known as the "Catfish War."

(December 1999)


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