Among the first white men to know the Decatur area were Captains Lewis and Clark and members of their expedition who moved up the Missouri River in 1804 to explore the Northwest. The first permanent settlement by a white man within the corporate limits of Decatur was Woods. Woods settled at the mouth of Wood Creek (his namesake) in 1837.
Decatur’s origin dates back to 1854 when Indian traders, Colonel Peter A. Sarpy and Clement Lambert of Bellevue and Henry Fontenelle, built log houses and transacted business with the Omaha Indians in the interests of the American Fur Company at the mouth of Wood Creek.
In September of 1853, the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs visited the Omaha Indians to negotiate for the purchase of 300,000 acres of their land. The treaty was signed June 21, 1854.
Stephen A. Decatur arrived from Bellevue in 1841 and made his home with the Omaha Indians. He was later a clerk in Sarpy’s trading post. He settled on a farm which was called Decatur Springs, owing to a spring of pure water which supplied water for the town for another century. S.A. Decatur was a highly educated man who claimed he was a nephew of Commodore Decatur, Naval hero of the War of 1812.
The incorporation of Decatur took place in the fall of 1856. The name of the incorporation was “The Decatur Townsite and Ferry Company.” Incorporators were Stephen A. Decatur, for which the town was named, Thomas H. Whitacre, T.H. Hineman, George W. Mason and Herman Glass. In the spring of 1857 the town was laid out and surveyed by Thomas H. Whitacre, assisted by Silas T. Leaming. Following the dissolution of the Decatur Townsite and Ferry Company, the first Decatur Village election by the people was on January 14, 1858. Silas T. Leaming was elected as the first Mayor of Decatur. Letters patent of the United States, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, were granted the town May 1, 1862.
The first blacksmith in Decatur was George Irwin, and the first shopkeeper, John Chase. The first physician was Dr. Thomas Whitacre. The first postmaster was Robert Percival, appointed in 1857. Another early settler was the Honorable Frank Welch who located in Decatur in 1857. He was later elected to Congress from Nebraska. The history of Decatur would not be complete without mentioning Hamilton and Fontenelle. The Reverend William Hamilton, who made his home in Decatur, was for many years a missionary to the Indians. Henry Fontenelle lived on a farm on the southeast corner of the Omaha Indian Reservation, just outside of Decatur. Henry was a brother to Logan Fontenelle, who is considered by many to have been the greatest Chief of the Omahas. One of the first buildings erected in Decatur was the “Turn About Tavern;” a shanty made of cottonwood slabs owned by Matt Wilber.
The town’s first newspaper, The Decatur Herald, was established in 1881. About the same time, a monthly magazine called the Round Table also began circulation. A second paper, The Decatur Eaglet, was published in 1884.