Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

August 25, 1901. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 36(329): 17.

When the Platte Gave Up Its Dead

Old Trapper of South Dakota Tells a Weird Story of Early Days in Nebraska.

Michael Donovan Disappeared in the Stream and Later He Came Out a Petrified Man.

"The water of the Platte river is certainly impregnated with various kind of minerals," said Jard Thomasen, an old trapper and hunter, who was known to the people along the Platte and Missouri river fifty years ago, and who now makes his home in the vicinity of Pierre, S.D.

Being importuned to tell why he thought the water of the Platte had more mineral substance in it than other streams in this locality he told the following almost incredible story of a date when Omaha was yet a suckling infant; in fact of a time when Omaha's population was composed of only red men, with the exception of a few traders and trappers who periodically came up the Missouri from St. Louis to barter with the Indians.

"It was fifty years ago last spring," said the old man, "when I was one of a party of five who set out from St. Louis to explore certain portions of the American desert. We came up the river in small boats and landed at the mouth of the Platte in the fore part of June. Some of the party wanted to cache our belongings and go on foot, but this I objected to, and we finally started.

"The first point we stopped at was Cedar Island, located about ten miles up the stream. There we found many wild turkeys and a few Indians, of whom we secured a quantity of jerked venison. The second day we pulled out up the current and by hard work had reached a point opposite what is now the Nebraska state fishery, where we camped for two days. We were on the lookout for indications of gold, but search as we might we found none. At the end of two days we again started on our long trip, determined to explore the Platte to its head, and for a week we paddled along and made good progress.

"As I said before it was in the spring of the year and the water was higher than later in the season. When about 100 miles west of the mouth of the Platte we came to a stretch of country where there were thousands of wild geese and ducks of all kinds. On the hillsides and in the valleys we found plenty of big and small game and enjoyed ourselves there for several days hunting.

"After we had replenished our larder and taken on board two or three fine buffalo hides which we intended to tan for tent coverings, we left early one morning, intending to reach a point about fifty miles farther on before we again took a lay off. We had gone but about five miles when we ran into a big flock of long legged white birds that we knew were swans by their white wings. In the party was Michael Donovan, a big New Orleans Irishman, who carried with him an old fashioned army musket with which he could kill game at a wonderfully long distance. Mike, as we called him, decided that he wanted some of those birds, and although we were in a hurry to get on up the river he had his way, and taking one of the canoes rowed out toward them.

"For fear we would frighten the swan if we went ahead the rest of us pulled in to the shore and waited for him to bag his game. He had gone but a short way when he got the range and standing up in his boat he fired and killed three, but as the charge was exploded we saw Mike stagger backward and fall into the water. We expected to see him come to the surface all right, but he never did. We waited a moment or so and then rowed out to where he had gone down, but there was nothing there except the drifting boat and the three dead swans. Mike had disappeared and left no trace.

"As soon as possible we stripped and dove for him, but could not locate the body. All that afternoon we hunted for the remains and finally had to give up and go forward without our comrade.

"Now there was one peculiarity about Mike that I neglected to mention. He had six toes and six fingers and this freak of nature is what finally caused his remains to be located and given a decent burial at his old home in New Orleans.

"Well, after leaving the point where Mike had drowned we went on up the river until we came to old Fort Laramie, which was located near what is now Julesburg, or Colorado Junction, and there we abandoned our trip westward.

"In time our party separated and I went up the Missouri to Fort Pierre, and trapped for several years. Ten years later I found myself back on the Platte near where Mike was drowned. The country had begun to settle up by that time and there were several places along the old California trail where one could stop and be accommodated with what they desired to eat or wear, including an abundant supply of very bad whiskey. One day I was sitting by the side of the trader's building thinking of the past and trying to look into the future when I heard one man say to another. 'It's the funniest thing I ever heard of. A man turned into solid stone.' In a moment, and I don't know why, my mind went back to poor Mike Donovan and I made some inquiries. They told me that while bathing in the Platte river they had found a petrified man and that he had six fingers and six toes. Instantly I knew it was my friend and securing the services of one of the men and a half-breed Indian I went down to the river and after a good deal of hunting about we located the body, just as they had said, which had been washed up to a steep bank and lodged, earth and sand partially covering it. We got ropes and drew it out and there, plain as life, was Mike, just as he had gone down in the water ten years before, except that his clothing had disappeared. He had been petrified by the water and that is why I say that the Platte contains a fluid that has much mineral substance in it."

"But what did you do with the body," was asked.

"We pulled it up on the bank," continued the old trapper, "and covered it over to keep it from being broken. A month later I took it up and placing it in a box hired a freighter to haul it to Plattsmouth, where I stored it for a week or so in the warehouse of a merchant named Hanna. Finally I had it put on board a boat bound for St. Louis and from there I shipped it to New Orleans, where I buried it and there the remains of Mike Donovan will rest until resurrection day."