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Jim McKee: The story of the other Morton

Jim McKee: The story of the other Morton

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thomas morton

This steel engraving shows Thomas Morton about 1885 for a biography published that year.

Today the name Morton is found around Nebraska City on public buildings, historic sites, businesses and events with literally all in reference to Julius Sterling Morton or his family. Nearly forgotten is another Morton, Thomas, who is unknown nationally, little remembered locally and, though absolutely unrelated to J. Sterling, was an ally, business partner and well-known in his day.

Thomas Morton was born in Wales in 1829 and immigrated to Ohio with his parents as a child. After apprenticing briefly as a harness maker, at age 14 he moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where he learned the printing trade. In 1849, during the California gold rush, Thomas moved west, still as a printer, and was noted as “one of the founders of San Francisco” before returning to Ohio via Central America and Mexico, still working at printing and newspapers.

In May of 1854 he again moved west, ending up in St. Mary, Iowa, then directly across the Missouri River from Bellevue, where he was employed by a small newspaper.

In May of 1854 Morton proposed publication of a Nebraska newspaper to be named the Platte Valley Advocate, but when he learned another paper, called the Gazette, had just appeared there, he feared Nebraska could not support two papers. He quickly regrouped and merged the Gazette and the Advocate into the Palladium, probably named for the Worcester, Massachusetts,  Palladium. On July 15, 1854 Thomas Morton published the Nebraska Palladium a newspaper which, though printed in St. Mary, Iowa was intended to circulate in Nebraska.

Although printing, and quite possibly a newspaper, had been created by the Mormons at Winter Quarters, later Florence and now part of Omaha, in 1847, no evidence of it exists today. Thus, when Thomas Morton crossed the Missouri River with a “shirt-tail full of type” he felt justified in saying his venture was the first printing in the new Nebraska Territory.

The four-page, Nov. 15 issue, though the editorial is dated Nov. 18, 1854, was called “number 16,” and named The Nebraska Palladium & Platte Valley Advocate. By calling it number 16, even though the first 15 issues were printed in Iowa, there was a certain inference that it had always been a Nebraska newspaper.

Morton spelled the Nebraska community Belleview which he referred to as “a beautiful spot, amid the far off wilds of Nebraska” though it was as far east in the state as was physically possible. The masthead noted Thomas Morton was editor and the owners were D. E. Reed and J. M. Latham.

When Bellevue was not made territorial capital as expected, the newspaper was picked up and moved to Nebraska City to the 1846 Fort Kearny block house, then empty after the fort was moved west on the Oregon Trail. Then the Democratic paper was renamed the Nebraska City News, with J. Sterling Morton as editor and paid $50 a month and Thomas Morton, head of the mechanical department, though he would later become the paper’s owner.

In December of 1854 Thomas Morton became chairman of a committee with J. Sterling Morton chosen a delegate to a Nebraska Territorial Convention. The convention resolved and sent an official statement to U. S. President Franklin Pierce saying that Acting Governor Cuming, in not allowing the city of Bellevue a representative in the territorial government, was “neither an upright honest nor honorable man ... an unprincipled knave” who should be removed as acting governor. Although President Pierce ignored the request, the two unrelated Mortons became “prominent for many years afterward in the affairs of the commonwealth.”

On May 12, 1860 a fire, which started in a butcher’s shop, destroyed most of Nebraska City’s downtown businesses including the newspaper and old block house. “The majority of the money reinvested in Nebraska City was spent by Thomas Morton to build new facilities for Nebraska’s oldest newspaper The News.” One of the immediate changes was that the “two Mortons, editors and proprietors, bought the Wyoming Telescope (located several miles north) and (the) printers at Otoe City eight miles south of Nebraska City on the Missouri River.”

Thomas Morton died August 10, 1887, and was noted as “one of the best known men in Nebraska” as he was then Nebraska City postmaster, on the board of Otoe County National Bank, printer of much of the territorial official documents and owner of the Nebraska City Gaslight Company. An obituary also said Thomas Morton “set the first stick of type in Nebraska and ... was senior publisher of the Nebraska City News, the oldest paper published in the territory.”

150 Notable Nebraskans

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com

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