Jim McKee: Famed attorney almost left Omaha

September 16, 2018

As Nebraska became a U. S. territory in 1854 the official population grew rapidly from zero to a few thousand. Into the original settlers’ mix it became necessary to almost instantly form local and territory-wide governments and fill the necessary numerous offices.

Not surprisingly the small number of attorneys on hand quickly occupied an almost disproportional number of these offices, most well-meaning civically-responsible men. One of this original mix was attorney Andrew Poppleton, who quickly rose to the topmost rung of political and civic organizations and had clients ranging from Jefferson Davis and the Union Pacific Railroad to Chief Standing Bear.

Andrew Jackson Poppleton was born in Troy, Michigan, in 1830. Although he entered Michigan State University in 1847, he switched to Union College in 1850 in Schenectady, New York, graduating in 1851. After teaching for a year, he began reading the law in Detroit and took a six-month course at Fowler’s Law School. After admission to the Michigan bar he became a partner in a Detroit law firm in 1853.

With a possible goal of California, he started an investigatory journey which landed him in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in October of 1854 just as Nebraska became a territory and opened for settlement. A trip across the Missouri River in October convinced him that the village of Omaha with a population of about 20 would never have a population large enough to support an attorney, but as he went back to Council Bluffs he chanced to meet a boyhood friend and fellow lawyer, prophetically named Andrew Jackson Hanscom. Hanscom convinced Poppleton that Nebraska was about to form a legislature to which, as attorneys, they could easily be elected, and Omaha could quickly support two lawyers.

Both Andrew Jacksons were indeed elected to the new territorial legislature’s House with Poppleton immediately siding with acting Governor Thomas Cuming in supporting Omaha as the capital. Within a year Poppleton was involved in the first law case and later the first murder case in Nebraska. Still in his first year in Nebraska, he joined O. D. Richardson in forming Omaha’s first law firm. The following year he married Caroline Sears in Council Bluffs and opened an office in the Western Fire & Marine Insurance Company’s building on the southwest corner of 12th and Farnam.

The year 1855 also saw the establishment of the Omaha Bar Association with Poppleton as one of its initial seven members. One of his compatriots pointed out that the 27-year-old Poppleton “was more than a match for all comers, eloquent and mastered in both attack and defense [and as a] parliamentary manipulator” could talk until exhausted.

In 1856 Poppleton bought what was claimed to the be fifth house in the city at 1001 Farnam from P. G. Peterson for $1,500 and established it as the first dedicated law office in Omaha. Democrat Poppleton was elected Omaha’s second mayor in 1858 but was forced to resign for health reasons within a year.

On December 2, 1863 Poppleton gave a brilliant speech, from the back of a wagon, at the Union Pacific’s groundbreaking ceremony and the following day became the railroad’s general legal counsel. Although a candidate for the U. S. Senate in 1868 he was defeated by John Taffe.

Poppleton’s most famous case came in 1879 when he was part of the defense team wherein Chief Standing Bear’s trial granted American Indians the status of “persons.” Poppleton’s address to the court was said to have been a “wonder of brevity occupying only four hours.” Judge Dundy, siding with Poppleton, said the government’s stand threatened the principles of liberty on which the U. S. was established.

In 1880 Poppleton hired Omaha architect Henry Voss to design a building at 1001 Farnam for his law office and retail businesses. The building, described as Commercial Italianate, was a brick and stone, cast iron-fronted, 66 by 100-foot, three-story structure which had an 1890 single-story addition> It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 and still stands in excellent condition.

Poppleton continued as an active member of the community, was on the first board of directors of the city’s library in 1871, incorporated the Pacific Express Company in 1879 and built the second Poppleton Bock at 413 South 12th Street in 1886 and a new home at 206 South 25th Avenue the following year. Resigning as Union Pacific’s general counsel in 1888 he became city attorney in 1890 but was struck totally blind by 1892 and died September 24, 1896.

A. J. Poppleton, a man now largely remembered for a street named in his honor, lived a rich life that left a huge legacy, represented Chief Standing Bear, argued many cases before the U. S. Supreme Court, never owned a share of railway stock, was never a member of any church, never occupied the existent building he planned for his law office, “habitually did not wear a coat but a red flannel shirt,” held only one elected office, was quoted as saying 99 percent of Congress “is about as competent to perform their duties as a cabin boy to take the helm of a ship,” and nearly left because Omaha would never be big enough to support an attorney.

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