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James H. Pratt

James Hervey Pratt, rancher, farmer, land speculator, and freighter, was a frontier entrepreneur of the post-Civil War era. Born in Plainfield, Massachusetts, in 1825, he participated in the Civil War as a quartermaster officer, much of the time at Little Rock, Arkansas. Mustered out in January 1866 he returned to Hillsdale, Michigan, where he had resided before the war, and operated a flour mill.

In 1870 Pratt secured an appointment as post trader at Fort Randall, Dakota Territory. This appointment drew him into the Great Plains just when it was attracting many different kinds of businesses. During the Fort Randall years, Pratt became associated with Cornelius Ferris in the Pratt and Ferris Cattle Company to furnish beef to both the fort and the Red Cloud and Spotted Tail Indian agencies.

When the Sioux agencies were relocated to northwestern Nebraska, Pratt and Ferris sought a convenient location for moving their supplies to the agencies. They decided to form a freighting company and in 1875 located their headquarters at Sidney, Nebraska. Goods could be shipped to Sidney by Union Pacific, unloaded, and carried north to the agencies.

In the summer of 1876 Henry T. Clarke built the two-thousand-foot Camp Clarke Bridge over the North Platte River. Sidney acquired major importance as a Black Hills shipping point in the next five years. Pratt and Ferris, believed to have freighted the largest share of Indian annuity goods to the agencies in northwest Nebraska, now became the biggest outfit in Sidney's Black Hills trade. In 1876 they shipped 9,230,560 pounds of freight and had 70 wagons with 550 animals. In 1877, in association with George H. Jewett, they organized the Sidney and Black Hills Transportation Company and entered the merchant and outfitting trade for miners and ranchers.

Sidney's freighting boom was of short duration (business was already declining in 1879), but Pratt and Ferris moved beyond freighting to a new opportunity: raising cattle. They brought Marshall Field and Levy Leitner, two of Chicago's most prominent merchants and financiers, into their business and acquired vast land holdings in Nebraska, Wyoming, and Texas. This proved lucrative until the winter of 1886-87 brought savage blizzards, which bankrupted many cattle raisers on the northern Plains.

Pratt and Ferris stayed in business. Pratt bought and sold tracts of land in scattered locations, and in 1898 he bought into the Omaha Anchor Fence Company and became its president. He served as president of the Arlington, Nebraska, National Bank and as director of the Union Stockyards in South Omaha. His death in 1910 at his ranch near Bennington brought an end to the career of a noted frontier entrepreneur and self-made man.

(April 2006)



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