Nebraska's History


Earliest Records

Nebraska's fossil beds and glacial deposits show that it once was the bed of an inland sea that was later elevated above water. The area once had a tropical climate, but during a later period, glaciers covered the land. Archaeologists estimate that prehistoric people inhabited the area from 25,000 to 10,000 years ago, based on discoveries of stone tools and weapons.

Indian Tribes

Indian tribes lived in Nebraska a few hundred years before white explorers arrived. The Missouri, Omaha, Oto and Ponca Indians were peaceful tribes, living by farming and hunting along rivers. The Pawnee tribe farmed beans, corn and squash, and hunted buffalo on the plains.

Although the Pawnees fought with other Indian tribes, they were friendly with white settlers. Western Nebraska was the home of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Brule and Oglala Sioux Indians. These wandering tribes, which built no villages and lived in tepees, lived by hunting buffalo. They eventually fought white settlers and U.S. government troops to keep these hunting grounds.

Spanish and French Explorers

In 1541, Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led an expedition across what is now the American Southwest into Kansas. He claimed the entire territory for Spain, although the Spainards never established settlements in Nebraska.

French explorer Rene Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, travelled down the Mississippi River to its mouth in 1682. He claimed all the land drained by the Mississippi, as well as its tributaries, for France. The land, which included Nebraska, was named "Louisiana," in honor of French King Louis XIV. During the 1690s and early 1700s, French traders and trappers moved into the Louisiana region. In 1714, French explorer Etienne Veniard de Bourgmont traveled up the Missouri River to the mouth of the Platte River.

Spain objected to France's presence in the regions it claimed. In 1720, a Spanish expedition of 45 soldiers, led by Pedro de Villasur, marched into Nebraska, intending to remove the French. But in a battle by the Platte River, Pawnee Indians attacked and killed most of the Spainards.

In 1739, two French explorers, Pierre and Paul Mallet, set out from Illinois to Santa Fe, N.M., with a party of six Frenchmen. They named the Platte River and traveled nearly the entire length of present-day Nebraska.

In 1763, at the close of the Seven Years' War in Europe, France gave up all its claims east of the Mississippi River to England and west of the Mississippi to Spain. However, French fur traders continued to operate in Nebraska. In 1800, French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte forced Spain to return the Louisiana Territory to France. He then sold the entire territory, which included Nebraska, to the United States in 1803. This transaction was commonly known as the Louisiana Purchase.

American Explorers

The first American expedition to visit Nebraska in 1804 to 1806 was led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who traveled up the Missouri River and explored the state's eastern edge. In 1806, Lt. Zebulon Pike visited south-central Nebraska as part of a U.S. government program to explore the Louisiana Purchase.

The Spanish-American trader Manuel Lisa established trading posts along the Missouri River between 1807 and 1820. One established in 1812 was near the site where Lewis and Clark held council with the Indians, in present-day Washington County.

In 1811, the Hunt party of Astorians skirted Nebraska on its way to Oregon. The following year, fur agent Robert Stuart set out for New York City from the Astoria trading post in Oregon, entering Nebraska early in 1813. Stuart's seven-man party followed the North Platte River to its junction with the South Platte, then along the Platte to the Missouri River. This route later came to be known as the Oregon Trail.

In 1819, the U.S. Army established Nebraska's first military post, Fort Atkinson (located near the present-day community of Fort Calhoun in Washington County) to protect the frontier. The fort, with more than 1,000 people, also became the site of Nebraska's first school, library, grist mill and brickyard before it was abandoned in 1827. The village of Bellevue, founded on the Missouri River in 1823, became Nebraska's first permanent white settlement.

In 1820, Maj. Stephen Long, with a 20-man party, traveled from the Missouri River up the Platte River, to the South Platte headwaters near Denver, Colo. In his reports, Long described the land including western Nebraska a "barren and uncongenial district," and " almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence." A map drawn by the cartographer of Long's expedition labeled the region a "Great Desert."


The Rev. Moses Merrill and his wife, Eliza Wilcox Merrill, were the first resident missionaries to the Nebraska Indians. They arrived in Bellevue in 1833 and continued their work until Rev. Merrill's death in 1840. The Rev. Samuel Allis and the Rev. John Dunbar, who arrived in Bellevue in 1834, served as missionaries to the Pawnee tribe for 12 years. Father De Smet, a Catholic missionary, came to Nebraska in 1835, ministering to Indians west of the Missouri River for 35 years.

The "Great Migration"

In the early 1830s, Nebraska's Platte River valley began to play an important role in the "Great Migration," the westward movement of thousands of pioneers. They followed trails crossing Nebraska, including:

the Oregon Trail, which followed the Little Blue and Platte River valleys

the Mormon Trail, which started from present-day Omaha and and traveled along the north bank of the Platte River

the Denver Trail, which extended from the Missouri River to Denver the "steam wagon road" or Nebraska City Cut-Off, which led from Nebraska City up the West Blue River to the Platte River and on to Denver

These trails were traveled extensively until railroad construction reached the Pacific coast. Between April 3, 1860, and October 24, 1861, Pony Express riders also followed the Platte River valley, carrying mail to the west coast. Fort Kearny was established near the present-day city of Kearney to protect travelers crossing Nebraska along trails.

In 1832, the steamboat Yellowstone began the first annual fur-trading voyages up the Missouri River, stopping at points along the Nebraska border. Steamboats were important forms of transportation until the construction of railroads in the 1860s, with 40 to 50 steamboats involved in river trade.

Until Nebraska became part of the Nebraska Territory in 1854, the U.S. government designated the area as Indian country, refusing to allow white families to settle there. Between 1830 and 1854, rugged frontier conditions prevailed in the state. The only two white settlements of any size were Fort Kearny and Bellevue.

Nebraska Territory

The word "Nebraska" first began to appear in publications of 1842, when Lt. John C. Fremont explored the plains and mountains of the western U.S. His report mentions the "Nebraska River," the Oto Indian name for the Platte River. The term was taken from the Oto word "Nebrathka" meaning "flat water." U.S. Secretary of War William Wilkins, in his report of Nov. 30, 1844, stated: "The Platte or Nebraska River being the central stream would very properly furnish a name to the (proposed) territory."

The first bill to organize the new Nebraska Territory, introduced in Congress on Dec. 17, 1844, by Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas, failed to pass. Another attempt for statehood was denied because of the territory's laws on disenfranchisements. A fourth bill, called the Kansas-Nebraska Act, was passed after a long, bitter struggle and signed by President Franklin Pierce on May 30, 1854. The struggle between the slave and free states for control in the Nebraska region gave rise to the Republican Party and caused border conflicts before the Civil War. Slaves were first bought and sold in the 1850s in Nebraska City and at one time, the Underground Railroad operated in Nebraska.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act officially created the Kansas and Nebraska territories, opening the area to settlement west of the Missouri River. The Nebraska Territory's boundaries extended from the 40th parallel of the Canadian border and from the Missouri River to the Continental Divide, including parts of present-day Montana, North and South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado, as well as Nebraska. By 1863, Congress created several more new territories from this region, reducing the Nebraska Territory to about the state's present size.

President Pierce appointed Francis Burt of South Carolina as the first governor of the Nebraska Territory. When Burt died two days after his inauguration on Jan. 16, 1854, the territory's secretary of state, Thomas Cuming, became acting governor. Cuming organized the territorial government and took a census so that legislative elections could be held.

A struggle between the new town of Omaha and the old town of Bellevue to be the territorial capital was decided in favor of Omaha by Cuming, who called the first session of the legislature to meet there. However, the issue was not settled until Nebraska achieved statehood in 1867, when the capital was moved to Lancaster, now known as Lincoln.

During Nebraska's early territorial days, settling the countryside, land and currency laws, the proposed transcontinental railroad, the capital's location, the rivalry between north and south regions of the Platte River, the Republican Party formation and the defeat of the first efforts to make Nebraska a state were the prevalent issues of the time. The territories population grew 2,732 in November 1854 to 28,841 in 1860.

Impact of the Civil War and Railroad Construction

The election of Abraham Lincoln as president and the Civil War which followed had a definite impact on Nebraska's development. The 1st Nebraska Cavalry, under Brig. Gen. John M. Thayer, was raised for service in the Union Army. Nebraska's entry into the Union was delayed until after the Civil War ended.

In 1865, the Union Pacific Railroad began building a line extending westward from Omaha, which stretched across Nebraska two years later. By the mid-1880s, the Burlington Railroad lines crisscrossed the state. Many railroads received land grants from state and federal governments to offset construction costs. These lands were sold to new settlers through extensive advertising campaigns. The railroads sent company representatives and pamphlets, which included glowing descriptions of Nebraska's farmland, to people in the east and even Europe. These campaigns, plus an influx of discharged Civil War veterans seeking land, helped swell Nebraska's population to 122,993 by 1870.


In early 1867, Congress passed an act admitting Nebraska to the Union, provided that certain changes were made in its constitution. President Andrew Johnson, convinced that this stipulation violated the U.S. Constitution, vetoed the act, but Congress overrode his veto. Johnson, a Democrat, also did not want Nebraska admitted to the Union because the territory had a Republican majority.

Nebraska joined the Union as the 37th state on March 1, 1867. The people elected David Butler as the first governor and the state capital was moved to Lincoln on July 29. A state university and agriculture college were established on Feb. 15, 1869. In 1872, Nebraska became the first state to celebrate Arbor Day - a special day for planting trees - largely due to the efforts of Nebraska City publisher J. Sterling Morton.

Hard Times

Beginning in 1873, the state's growth and development were slowed by a combination of problems. Between 1874 and 1877, swarms of grasshoppers severely damaged farmers' oat, barley, corn and wheat crops. Discouraged, many settlers left their land and returned to the East. However, another wave of settlers took their place in the 1880s.

Nebraska settlers were tested by falling land prices in the 1890s. Land prices, which had soared during the 1880s, collapsed in 1890 due to drought, overuse of credit, and low prices for farmers' products.

The farmers blamed the railroads, banks and other business interests for their problems. Many farmers joined the new Grange organization, which opposed high freight costs imposed by the railroads.

Nebraska farmers also swelled the ranks of the Populist Party, which advocated agricultural reforms. The Populists nearly carried the state in the presidential election of 1892, and from 1895 through 1901, they held the governor's office.

Nebraska also supplied national leadership for the Populist movement. In 1896, Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan unsuccessfully ran for president as a Democrat on an essentially Populist platform. Although he was nominated twice more as the Democratic presidential candidate, he was not elected. He did, however, win election to Congress and served as U.S. secretary of state.

African-Americans in Nebraska after the Civil War

Following the Civil War, African-Americans began to establish themselves in Nebraska. In 1860, there were an estimated 82 African-Americans living in the state. By 1900 that number had risen to 6,269. Most African-Americans moved to Omaha, where chances were greater of finding work. Most opportunities for employment were found with the railroads, packing houses or other labor fields. The 1910 census, however, states that one physician and surgeon, 25 musicians and teachers of music and 14 clergymen of African-American descent lived in Nebraska.

History books indicate that African-Americans contributed to the settlement of Nebraska. In 1870, Robert Anderson was the first African-American to homestead in Box Butte County. Other homesteaders included L.B. Mattingly who resided near David City, and David Patrick, who lived in Hamilton County.

African-American organizations began to crop up in Omaha such as the Women's Club in 1895 and newspapers such as the Progress, the Afro-American Sentinel, and The Enterprise in the 1880s and 1890s. Early African-American churches in Omaha included St. John AME Church, St. Phillip the Deacon, and the Zion Baptist Church.

Many African-Americans from this area distinquished themselves in public life: Dr. Matthew O. Ricketts was the first African- American to serve in the Nebraska Legislature in 1892; Silas Robbins was the first African-American to be admitted to the Nebraska State Bar Association in 1895; and Clarence W. Wigington was the first African-American to design a home in Nebraska.

Settlement of Western Nebraska

The development of irrigation and new dry land farming methods during the 1890s and early 1900s greatly contributed to the settlement of western Nebraska. Congress passed the Reclamation Act of 1902, which earmarked federal aid for irrigation projects. New crops, such as winter wheat, alfalfa and sugar beets, also helped make farming a viable venture in this part of the state.

Settlers wishing to farm in western Nebraska were frequently opposed, often with armed violence, by ranchers who had preceded them. The farmers rejoiced when Congress passed the Kinkaid Act, which provided for 640-acre homesteads in western Nebraska. The act triggered a new population boom in the Sandhills area. But when the new settlers found much of the land unsuitable for farming, they sold their homesteads to cattle ranchers.

World War I and the Great Depression

World War I made a notable impact on life in Nebraska. The state furnished 47,801 men for the war, with about 1,000 soldiers killed in the line of duty. The state also gave about $300 million to war causes. Nebraska also contributed food to the war effort. Demand for the state's farm products brought new economic prosperity.

But when the war was over, the economic boom collapsed. The 1929 stock market crash caused farm prices to fall even further. The Great Depression which followed, together with a severe drought which hit the Midwest, created economic disaster for farmers. Many faced bankruptcy and loss of their land to banks and insurance companies.

However, some farmers refused to give up their land. By 1932, conditions had become so desperate that groups of farmers began preventing foreclosures by threatening physical violence at public land sales. Sympathetic sheriffs often refused to carry out court orders for the public sale of land marked for foreclosure. In 1933, Gov. Charles Bryan imposed a moratorium on farm foreclosures. Federal aid came to Nebraska farmers through New Deal long-term, low-interest loans and other relief programs.

Progressive Legislation

Many progressive laws were enacted in Nebraska between 1890 and 1940. Among the measures adopted were provisions for the Australian ballot, direct primary election, and initiative and referendum. The state's educational system was greatly expanded. High school education was made available to all students, and a public-ownership-of-textbooks law was passed. A state highway system was built from money raised by a new gasoline tax and federal aid. During the 1930s, the state enacted Social Security legislation and imposed new liquor and head taxes, along with other gasoline taxes, to furnish funds for state aid. Another significant development during this period was the creation of a unicameral (one-house) legislature, the first of its kind in the nation.

World War II

With the advent of World War II, which created new demand for farm products, Nebraska's economy began to improve significantly. Farmers produced millions of tons of corn, potatoes, oats and wheat to help meet food shortages and increase beef cattle production. Besides food, the state sent some 128,000 soldiers to the war, 3,655 of whom died in the service. Nebraskans bought more than $1 billion worth of war supplies and contributed more than $8 million to the Red Cross and National War Funds. Manufacturing plants in the state produced more than $1.2 billion worth of war supplies.

Developments Since World War II

The end of World War II ushered in prosperity which has, for the most part, continued to the present day. In 1944, Congress passed the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Project, which authorized the creation of flood control dams, reservoirs and hydraulic plants in states drained by the Missouri River, including Nebraska. Spectacular growth in irrigation has occurred across the state, and with the invention of the pivot system, thousands of acres of dry land have been made productive. However, intensive irrigation and water pollution have caused concern over the future of the state's water supply, generating controversy between land developers and environmentalists.

Since the 1950s, Nebraska farms have become larger in size and fewer in number. The average farm size has grown from 444 acres in 1950 to 760 acres in 1990, while the total number of farms has dropped from 109,000 to 63,000. Machinery and modern farming methods have made agriculture more efficient, thereby decreasing the need for farm workers. This trend has caused many rural Nebraska residents have moved to larger communities in search of jobs.

This shift in population has generated new efforts to increase industry in Nebraska. During the 1960s, manufacturing employment increased 44 percent, partly as a result of campaigns to attract new businesses to the state. Service industries also have experienced rapid growth in recent years. Expanding and diversifying Nebraska's economy remains a top priority in state government today.

Nebraskans experienced some of the racial unrest more commonly association with the country's larger urban areas. Civil rights for blacks demonstrations in Omaha in 1963 led to the creation of the Omaha Human Rights Commission. And in 1968 and 1969, race riots required intervention by the military and the National Guard. Malcolm X, a prominent civil rights crusader, lived in Omaha.

Many changes in education have occurred in Nebraska since World War II. The University of Nebraska was reorganized to include campuses at Lincoln, Omaha and Curtis, with central administration at Lincoln. Kearney State College was added to the university system in 1991. A state-supported system of community colleges was also created. Following passage of the Nebraska Educational Television Act in 1963, Nebraska became one of the first states to broadcast educational programming to the entire state. At the elementary and secondary level, many school districts have been consolidated, reflecting the decline in rural Nebraska's population.

In the mid-1970s, many Nebraska farmers borrowed heavily to expand their operations. But with the nationwide recession of the early 1980s, land values collapsed, and many farmers have been unable to repay their loans in full. A sizable number have left farming altogether, thereby weakening rural communities economic base. As a result, these communities have stepped up their efforts to attract new industries and expand existing ones. To stimulate economic growth, the 1987 Legislature adopted two measures which authorized tax incentives for businesses intending to create new jobs in Nebraska.

Select Bibliography

Hickey, Donald R., and David Wishart, "Nebraska," World Book Encyclopedia (Chicago: World Book Inc.), 1988.

Johnson, J. R., Representative Nebraskans (Lincoln, Neb.: Johnsen Publishing Co.), 1954.

League of Nebraska Municipalities, 1988 Nebraska Directory of Municipal Officials, 1988.

Nebraska Department of Economic Development, "Nebraska Information," 1988; "1988-89 Statistical Handbook," 1989.

Nebraska Press Association, Nebraska Newspaper Directory and Rate Book, 1990.

Nebraska State Historical Society, "Nebraska State Symbols" (Educational Leaflet No. 4), date unknown.

NEBRASKAland Foundation Inc., "What You Always Wanted to Know About Nebraska and Should Have Asked," 1988.

Olson, James C., "Nebraska," Encyclopedia Americana (Danbury, Conn.: Grolier Inc.), 1988.

Nebraska Broadcasters Association 1990/1991 Directory, 1990.

Prokop, Arlie (ed.), Nebraska Blue Book 1988-89 (Lincoln, Neb.: Nebraska Legislative Council), 1989.

Other sources: University of Nebraska-Lincoln Bureau of Business Research; U.S. Bureau of Census information; various economic data; miscellaneous information from various agencies; African-American Blue Book Committee.