LOOKING BACK: The high price of justice

The Gering-Sayre building was the first brick structure built in Gering in 1888. It was primarily a commercial building, but also housed the first county offices. The top floor was the county courtroom, where Scotts Bluff County's first murder trial took place. This picture was taken about 1908.

In his book “Pioneer Tales,” Gering Courier founder and publisher A.B. Wood transcribed an interview he did with former cowboy rancher Andrew M. Carr from Mitchell, who recalled some of the area’s early days.

One of Carr’s stories involved a land title, a friend that had been charged with cattle rustling, and a wayward gun. But before I set up the players, I’ll include a brief description of how settlers acquired land during Nebraska’s homesteading period.

The most common way was through the homestead method. A settler could acquire absolute title after residing on the land for five years and making improvements, such as a house or outbuildings.

The land owner then had to advertise in the newspaper that he or she would make final proof on a certain day. The owner would need to bring along two witnesses to the land office when documentation was presented to assure the improvements were made. The land office would then issue a final receipt, and in time, title to the land.

The county clerk would be in attendance to assure the documentation was in order and to hear witness testimony. For Scotts Bluff County, it was Ben Gentry, the first clerk for the new county.

Enter Kinch McKinney, a cattleman who filed for final proof on his Mitchell homestead even though he had been charged with rustling in Wyoming, where a reward had been issued for his arrest.

His friend, Andrew Carr, recommended he forget the final proof idea and leave the area before he was arrested. But McKinney wouldn’t listen.

Scotts Bluff County Sheriff Milton Byal heard about McKinney filing for final proof and waited in Gentry’s office for him to show up. That was on November 27, 1890, a time when the county was only a year old.

During the struggle, one or two shots went off from McKinney’s gun, but both went harmlessly into the floor. However, one of the slugs did go through Gentry’s pant leg.

After his arrest, McKinney was transported to Cheyenne and housed in the jail until his trial and conviction.

Soon afterward, he was on the loose again. McKinney escaped from jail and headed east back into Nebraska. He was recaptured in the Sandhills near Hyannis and taken back to prison in Wyoming to serve out his prison term.

After his release, McKinney went into the sheep business, which was unusual for a cattleman. Until his death in Laramie, Wyoming, he led a peaceful life free from further run-ins with the law.

Neighbors at the time said McKinney’s only drawback was his idea that he had no problem stealing cattle from the big cattle barons. But when he found one that belonged to a granger, he turned it loose.

Carr told A.B. Wood that once McKinney had invited him up to his place in Wyoming. As part of the visit, McKinney offered Carr a milk cow.

Carr said he couldn’t accept the animal, as he knew it belonged to another settler in the area. So McKinney found the man’s address and promptly sent him a check for the cow.

When Gering celebrated its 100th birthday in 1987, members of the community staged a Chautauqua to highlight some of the town’s milestones in the trek to the future. One of the show’s many sketches included Kinch McKinney and his shootout at the courthouse.

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