On March 1, 1867, Nebraska was admitted to the United States as its 37th state. The state is bordered by South Dakota to the north, Iowa to the east and Missouri to the southeast, both across the Missouri River, Kansas to the south, Colorado to the southwest and Wyoming to the west. Its area is just over 77,220 square miles (200,000 km²) with almost 1.9 million people. Its state capital is Lincoln. Its largest city is Omaha, which is on the Missouri River. Nebraska is split into two time zones, with the state’s eastern half observing Central Time and the western half observing Mountain Time. Three rivers cross the state from west to east. The Platte River, formed by the confluence of the North Platte and the South Platte, runs through the state’s central portion, the Niobrara River flows through the northern part, and the Republican River runs across the southern part.
Nebraska is composed of two major land regions: the Dissected Till Plains and the Great Plains. The easternmost portion of the state was scoured by Ice Age glaciers; the Dissected Till Plains were left after the glaciers retreated. The Dissected Till Plains is a region of gently rolling hills; Omaha and Lincoln are in this region. The Great Plains occupy most of western Nebraska, with the region consisting of several smaller, diverse land regions, including the Sandhills, the Pine Ridge, the Rainwater Basin, the High Plains and the Wildcat Hills. Panorama Point, at 5,424 feet (1,653 meters), is Nebraska’s highest point; though despite its name and elevation, it is a relatively low rise near the Colorado and Wyoming borders. A past Nebraska tourism slogan was “Where the West Begins”; locations given for the beginning of the “West” include the Missouri River, the intersection of 13th and O Streets in Lincoln (where it is marked by a red brick star), the 100th meridian, and Chimney Rock.
Indigenous peoples including Omaha, Missouria, Ponca, Pawnee, Otoe, and various branches of the Lakota (Sioux) tribes lived in the region of present-day Nebraska for thousands of years before European exploration. The state is crossed by many historic trails and was explored by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. It is the only state in the United States whose legislature is unicameral and officially nonpartisan. The state has 93 counties; it occupies the central portion of the Frontier Strip.
The state has a large agriculture sector and is a major producer of beef, pork, corn, and soybeans. Two major climatic zones are represented in Nebraska: the eastern half of the state has a humid continental climate and the western half has a semi-arid climate. The entire state has wide variations between winter and summer temperatures, and violent thunderstorms and tornadoes happen primarily during the spring and summer, though these storms can also occur in the autumn.
Nebraska’s name is derived from transliteration of the archaic Otoe words Ñí Brásge, pronounced (contemporary Otoe Ñí Bráhge), or the Omaha Ní Btháska, meaning “flat water”, after the Platte River that flows through the state.
Indigenous peoples lived in the region of present-day Nebraska for thousands of years before European exploration. The historic tribes in the state included the Omaha, Missouria, Ponca, Pawnee, Otoe, and various branches of the Lakota (Sioux), some of which migrated from eastern areas into this region.
Several explorers from across Europe explored the lands that became Nebraska. In 1682, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle claimed the area first when he named all the territory drained by the Mississippi River and its tributaries for France, naming it the Louisiana Territory. In 1714, Etienne de Bourgmont traveled from the mouth of the Missouri River in Missouri to the mouth of the Platte River, which he called the Nebraskier River, becoming the first person to approximate the state’s name.
In 1720, Spaniard Pedro de Villasur led an overland expedition that followed an Indian trail from Santa Fe to Nebraska. In a battle with the Pawnee, Villasur and 34 members of his party were killed near the juncture of the Loup and Platte Rivers just south of present-day Columbus, Nebraska. Marking a major defeat for Spanish control of the region, a monk was the only survivor from the party, apparently left alive as a warning to the colony of New Spain. With the goal of reaching Santa Fe by water, the pair of French-Canadian explorers named Pierre and Paul Mallet reached the mouth of what they named the Platte River in 1739. They ended up following the south fork of the Platte into Colorado.
In 1762, by the Treaty of Fontainebleau after France’s defeat by Great Britain in the Seven Years’ War, France ceded its lands west of the Mississippi River to Spain, causing the future Nebraska to fall under the rule of New Spain, based in Mexico and the Southwest. In 1795, Jacques D’Eglise traveled the Missouri River Valley on behalf of the Spanish crown. Searching for the elusive Northwest Passage, D’Eglise did not go any further than central North Dakota.
A group of St. Louis merchants, collectively known as the Missouri Company, funded a series of trading expeditions along the Missouri river. In 1794, Jean-Baptiste Truteau established a trading post 30 miles up the Niobrara River. A Scotsman named John McKay established a trading post on the west bank of the Missouri River in 1795. The post called Fort Charles was located south of present-day Dakota City, Nebraska.
In 1803, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France for $15,000,000. What became Nebraska was under the “rule” of the United States for the first time. In 1812, President James Madison signed a bill creating the Missouri Territory, including the present-day state of Nebraska. Manuel Lisa, a Spanish fur trader from New Orleans, built a trading post called Fort Lisa in the Ponca Hills in 1812. His effort befriending local tribes is credited with thwarting British influence in the area during the War of 1812.
The U.S. Army established Fort Atkinson near today’s Fort Calhoun in 1820 in order to protect the area’s burgeoning fur trade industry. In 1822, the Missouri Fur Company built a headquarters and trading post about nine miles north of the mouth of the Platte River and called it Bellevue, establishing the first town in Nebraska. In 1824, Jean-Pierre Cabanné established Cabanne’s Trading Post for John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company near Fort Lisa at the confluence of Ponca Creek and the Missouri River. It became a well-known post in the region.
In 1833, Moses P. Merill established a mission among the Otoe Indians. The Moses Merill Mission was sponsored by the Baptist Missionary Union. In 1842, John C. Frémont completed his exploration of the Platte River country with Kit Carson in Bellevue. He sold his mules and government wagons at auction in there. On this mapping trip, Frémont used the Otoe word Nebrathka to designate the Platte River. Platte is from the French word for “flat”, the translation of Ne-brath-ka, meaning “land of flat waters.”
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 established the 40th parallel north as the dividing line between the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. As such, the original territorial boundaries of Nebraska were much larger than today; the territory was bounded on the west by the Continental Divide between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans; on the north by the 49th parallel north (the boundary between the United States and Canada), and on the east by the White Earth and Missouri rivers. However, the creation of new territories by acts of Congress progressively reduced the size of Nebraska.
The capital of the Nebraska Territory was at Omaha. During the 1850s there were numerous unsuccessful attempts to move the capital to other locations, including Florence and Plattsmouth. In the Scriptown corruption scheme, ruled illegal by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Baker v. Morton, local businessmen tried to secure land in the Omaha area to give away to legislators. The capital remained at Omaha until 1867 when Nebraska gained statehood, at which time the capital was moved to Lincoln, which was called Lancaster at that point.
Most settlers were farmers, but another major economic activity involved support for travelers using the Platte River trails. After gold was discovered in Wyoming in 1859, a rush of speculators followed overland trails through the interior of Nebraska. The Missouri River towns became important terminals of an overland freighting business that carried goods brought up the river in steamboats over the plains to trading posts and Army forts in the mountains. Stagecoaches provided passenger, mail, and express service, and for a few months in 1860–1861 the famous Pony Express provided mail service.
Many wagon trains trekked through Nebraska on the way west. They were assisted by soldiers at Ft. Kearny and other Army forts guarding the Platte River Road between 1846 and 1869. Fort commanders assisted destitute civilians by providing them with food and other supplies while those who could afford it purchased supplies from post sutlers. Travelers also received medical care, had access to blacksmithing and carpentry services for a fee, and could rely on fort commanders to act as law enforcement officials. Fort Kearny also provided mail services and, by 1861, telegraph services. Moreover, soldiers facilitated travel by making improvements on roads, bridges, and ferries. The forts additionally gave rise to towns along the Platte River route.
On February 28, 1861, Colorado Territory took portions of the territory south of 41° N and west of 102°03′ W (25° W of Washington, DC). On March 2, 1861, Dakota Territory took all of the portions of Nebraska Territory north of 43° N (the present-day Nebraska-South Dakota border), along with the portion of present-day Nebraska between the 43rd parallel north and the Keya Paha and Niobrara rivers (this land would be returned to Nebraska in 1882). The act creating the Dakota Territory also included provisions granting Nebraska small portions of Utah Territory and Washington Territory—present-day southwestern Wyoming, bounded by the 41st parallel north, the 43rd parallel north, and the Continental Divide. On March 3, 1863, Idaho Territory took everything west of 104°03′ W (27° W of Washington, DC).
Governor Alvin Saunders guided the territory during the American Civil War (1861–1865), as well as the first two years of the postbellum era. He worked with the territorial legislature to help define the borders of Nebraska, as well as to raise troops to serve in the Union Army. No battles were fought in the territory, but Nebraska raised three regiments of cavalry to help the war effort, and more than 3,000 men served in the military.
The wagon trains gave way to railroad traffic as the Union Pacific Railroad — the eastern half of the first transcontinental railroad — was constructed west from Omaha through the Platte Valley. It opened service to California in 1869.
A constitution for Nebraska was drawn up in 1866. There was some controversy over Nebraska’s admission as a state, in view of a provision in the 1866 constitution restricting suffrage to White voters; eventually, on February 8, 1867, the United States Congress voted to admit Nebraska as a state provided that suffrage was not denied to non-white voters. The bill admitting Nebraska as a state was vetoed by President Andrew Johnson, but the veto was overridden by a supermajority in both Houses of Congress. Nebraska became the first–and to this day the only–state to be admitted to the Union by means of a veto override.
Railroads played a central role in the settlement of Nebraska. The land was good for farms and ranches, but without transportation would be impossible to raise commercial crops. The railroad companies had been given large land grants that were used to back the borrowings from New York and London that financed construction. They were anxious to locate settlers upon the land as soon as possible, so there would be a steady outflow of farm products, and a steady inflow of manufactured items purchased by the farmers. The also built towns that were needed to service the railroad itself, with dining halls for passengers, construction crews, repair shops and housing for train crews. The towns attracted cattle drives and cowboys.
In the 1870s and 1880s, Civil War veterans and immigrants from Europe came by the thousands to take up land in Nebraska, with the result that despite severe droughts, grasshopper plagues, economic distress, and other harsh conditions the frontier line of settlement pushed steadily westward. Most of the great cattle ranches that had grown up near the ends of the trails from Texas gave way to farms, although the Sand Hills remained essentially a ranching country.
The Union Pacific (UP) land grant gave it ownership of 12,800 acres per mile of finished track. The federal government kept every other section of land, so it also had 12,800 acres to sell or give away to homesteaders. The UP’s goal was not to make a profit, but rather to build up a permanent clientele of farmers and townspeople who would form a solid basis for routine sales and purchases. The UP, like other major lines, opened sales offices in the East and in Europe, advertised heavily, and offered attractive package rates for farmer to sell out and moved his entire family, and his tools, to the new destination.
In 1870, the UP sold rich Nebraska farmland at five dollars an acre, with one fourth down and the remainder in three annual installments. It gave a 10 percent discount for cash. Farmers could also homestead land, getting it free from the federal government after five years, or even sooner by paying $1.50 an acre. Sales were improved by offering large blocks to ethnic colonies of European immigrants. Germans and Scandinavians, for example, could sell out their small farm back home and buy much larger farms for the same money. European ethnics comprised half of the population of Nebraska in the late 19th century. Married couples were usually the homesteaders, but single women were also eligible on their own.
A typical development program was that undertaken by the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad to promote settlement in southeastern Nebraska during 1870–80. The company participated enthusiastically in the boosterism campaigns that drew optimistic settlers to the state. The railroad offered farmers the opportunity to purchase land grant parcels on easy credit terms. Soil quality, topography, and distance from the railroad line generally determined railroad land prices. Immigrants and native-born migrants sometimes clustered in ethnic-based communities, but mostly the settlement of railroad land was by diverse mixtures of migrants. By deliberate campaigns, land sales, and a vast transportation network, the railroads facilitated and accelerated the peopling and development of the Great Plains, with railroads and water key to the potential for success in the Plains environment.
Populism was a farmers’ movement of the early 1890s that emerged in a period of simultaneous crises in agriculture and politics. Farmers who attempted to raise corn and hogs in the dry regions of Nebraska faced economic disaster when drought unexpectedly occurred. When they sought relief through political means, they found the Republican Party complacent, resting on its past achievement of prosperity. The Democratic Party, meanwhile, was preoccupied with the prohibition issue. The farmers turn to radical politicians leading the Populist party, but it became so enmeshed in vehement battles that it accomplished little for the farmers. Omaha was the location of the 1892 convention that formed the Populist Party, with its aptly titled Omaha Platform written by “radical farmers” from throughout the Midwest.
In 1900, Populism faded and the Republicans regained power in the state. In 1907, they enacted a number of progressive reform measures, including a direct primary law and a child labor act, in what was one of the most significant legislative sessions in Nebraska’s history. Prohibition was of central importance in progressive politics before World War I. Many British-stock and Scandinavian Protestants advocated prohibition as a solution to social problems, while Catholics and German Lutherans attacked prohibition as a menace to their social customs and personal liberty. Prohibitionists supported direct democracy to enable voters to bypass the state legislature in lawmaking. The Republican Party championed the interests of the prohibitionists, while the Democratic Party represented ethnic group interests. After 1914, the issue shifted to the Germans’ opposition to Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy. Then both Republicans and Democrats joined in reducing direct democracy in order to reduce German influence in state politics.
The political leader of the state’s progressive movement was George W. Norris. He served five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican from 1903 until 1913 and five terms in the U.S. Senate from 1913 until 1943, four terms as a Republican and the final term as an independent. In the 1930s, he supported President Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, and the New Deal. Norris was defeated for reelection in 1942.
Since 1870, the average size of farms has steadily increased, whereas number of farms rapidly increased until about 1900, remained stable until about 1930, then rapidly decreased, as farmers buyout their neighbors and consolidate the holdings. Total area of cropland in Nebraska increased until the 1930s, but then showed long-term stability with large short-term fluctuations. Crop diversity was highest during 1955–1965, then slowly decreased; corn was always a dominant crop, but sorghum and oats were increasingly replaced by soybeans after the 1960s. Land-use changes were affected by farm policies and programs attempting to stabilize commodity supply and demand, reduce erosion, and reduce impacts to wildlife and ecological systems; technological advances (e.g., mechanization, seeds, pesticides, fertilizers); and population growth and redistribution.
The 450 miles of the Lincoln Highway in Nebraska followed the route of the Platte River Valley, along the narrow corridor where pioneer trails, the Pony Express, and the main line of the Union Pacific Railroad ran. Construction began in 1913, as the road was promoted by a network of state and local boosters until it became U.S. Highway 30 and part of the nation’s numbered highway system, with federal highway standards and subsidies. Before 1929, only sixty of its miles were hard surface in Nebraska. Its route was altered repeatedly, most importantly when Omaha was bypassed in 1930. The final section of the roadway was paved west of North Platte, Nebraska, in November 1935. The Lincoln Highway was planned as the most direct route across the country, but that did not happen until the 1970s, when Interstate 80 was built parallel to US 30, giving the Lincoln Highway over to local traffic.
In the rural areas farmers and ranchers depended on general stores that had a limited stock and slow turnover; they made enough profit to stay in operation by selling at high prices. Prices were not marked on each item; instead the customer negotiated a price. Men did most of the shopping, since the main criteria was credit rather than quality of goods. Indeed, most customers shopped on credit, paying off the bill when crops or cattle were later sold; the owner’s ability to judge credit worthiness was vital to his success.
In the cities consumers had much more choice, and bought their dry goods and supplies at locally owned department stores. They had a much wider selection of goods than in the country general stores; price tags that gave the actual selling price. The department stores provided a very limited credit, and set up attractive displays and, after 1900, window displays as well. Their clerks —usually men before the 1940s — were experienced salesmen whose knowledge of the products appealed to the better educated middle-class housewives who did most of the shopping. The keys to success were a large variety of high-quality brand-name merchandise, high turnover, reasonable prices, and frequent special sales. The larger stores sent their buyers to Denver, Minneapolis, and Chicago once or twice a year to evaluate the newest trends in merchandising and stock up on the latest fashions. By the 1920s and 1930s, large mail-order houses such as Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Montgomery Ward provided serious competition, so the department stores relied even more on salesmanship, and close integration with the community.
Many entrepreneurs built stores, shops, and offices along Main Street. The most handsome ones used pre-formed, sheet iron facades, especially those manufactured by the Mesker Brothers of St. Louis. These neoclassical, stylized facades added sophistication to brick or woodframe buildings throughout the state.
Senator Norris campaigned for the abolition of the bicameral system in the state legislature, arguing it was outdated, inefficient and unnecessarily expensive, and was based on the “inherently undemocratic” British House of Lords. In 1934, a state constitutional amendment was passed mandating a single-house legislature, and also introducing non-partisan elections (where members do not stand as members of political parties).
Government was heavily dominated by men, but there were a few niche roles for women. For example, Nellie Newmark (1888–1978) was the clerk of the District Court at Lincoln for a half-century, 1907–56. She gained a reputation for assisting judges and new attorneys assigned to the court.
There were few jobs available for young women awaiting marriage. Prairie schoolwomen, or teachers, played a vital role in modernizing the state. Some were from local families, perhaps with their father on the school board, and they took a job that kept money in the community. Others were well educated and more cosmopolitan, and looked at teaching as a career. They believed in universal education and social reform and were generally accepted as members of the community and as extended members of local families.
Teachers were deeply involved in social and community activities. In the rural one-room schools, qualifications of the teachers were minimal and salaries were low: male teachers were paid about as much as a hired hand; women were paid less, about the same as those of a domestic servant. In the towns and especially in the cities, the teachers had some college experience, and were better paid. Those farm families that value the education of their children highly, often moved to town or bought a farm close to town, so their children could attend schools. Those few farm youth who attended high school often boarded in town.
The Great Depression hit Nebraska hard, as grain and livestock prices fell in half, and unemployment was widespread in the cities. The collapse of the stock market in October 1929 did not result in great personal fortunes being lost. The greatest effect the crash had on Nebraska was the fall of farm prices because the state’s economy was greatly dependent on their crop. Crop prices began to drop in the final quarter of the year and continued until December 1932 where they reached their lowest in state history.
Governor Charles W. Bryan, a Democrat, was at first unwilling to request aid from the national government, but when the Federal Emergency Relief Act became law in 1933 Nebraska took part. Rowland Haynes, the state’s emergency relief director, was the major force in implementing such national New Deal relief programs as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and the Civil Works Administration. Robert L. Cochran, a Democrat who became governor in 1935, sought federal assistance and placed Nebraska among the first American states to adopt a social security law. The enduring impact of FERA and social security in Nebraska was to shift responsibility for social welfare from counties to the state, which henceforth accepted federal funding and guidelines. The change in state and national relations may have been the most important legacy of these New Deal programs in Nebraska.
Nebraska was fully mobilized for World War II. Besides sending its young men to war, food production was expanded, and munitions plants, such as the Nebraska Ordnance Plant were built. The Cornhusker Ordnance Plant (COP) in Grand Island, produced its first bombs in November 1942. At its peak it employed 4,200 workers, over 40% of whom were “Women Ordnance Workers” or “WOW’s.” The WOW’s were a major reason that the Quaker Oats Company, which managed the plant, started one of the nation’s earliest child care programs. For Grand Island, the plant meant high wages, high retail sales, severe housing shortages, and an end to unemployment. The plant became a major social force with activities that ranged from sponsoring sporting teams to encouraging the local Boy Scouts. The city adjusted to the plant’s closing in August 1945 with surprising ease. During the Korean and Vietnam wars COP resumed production, finally shutting down in 1973.
During the Second World War Nebraska was home to several prisoner of war camps. Scottsbluff, Fort Robinson, and Camp Atlanta (outside Holdrege) were the main camps. There were many smaller satellite camps at Alma, Bayard, Bertrand, Bridgeport, Elwood, Fort Crook, Franklin, Grand Island, Hastings, Hebron, Indianola, Kearney, Lexington, Lyman, Mitchell, Morrill, Ogallala, Palisade, Sidney, and Weeping Water. Fort Omaha housed Italian POWs. Altogether there were 23 large and small camps scattered across the state. In addition, several U.S. Army Airfields were constructed at various locations across the state.
After the war, conservative Republicans held most of the state major offices. A breakthrough came during the administration of Republican Governor Norbert Tiemann who successfully pushed for a number of progressive changes. A new revenue act included a sales tax and an income tax, replacing the state property tax and other taxes. The Municipal University of Omaha joined the University of Nebraska system as the University of Nebraska, Omaha. A new department of economic development was created as well as a state personnel office. The way was open for bonded indebtedness for the construction of highways and sewage treatment plants. Improvement of state mental health facilities and fair housing practices were also enacted, along with the first minimum wage law and new of open-housing legislation.
The nationwide farm crisis of the 1980s hit the state hard with a wave of farm foreclosures. On the positive side, the interstates and other good highways, together with a large well-educated workforce, allowed many small factories to emerge. By the early 1990s, Omaha had become a major center of the telecommunications industry, which surpassed meat-packing in terms of employment. After 2000, however, Omaha’s call centers face stiff competition from India.
Scott #1328 was released on July 29, 1967, in Lincoln to commemorate the centennial of Nebraska statehood. July 29 was the anniversary of the date that Lincoln was selected as the state capitol. Julian K. Billings of Omaha, Nebraska, designed the 5-cent stamp. An ear of yellow corn with its green husk is the background against which the artist placed a reddish-brown Hereford cow. Yellow and green were printed offset; brown was applied by the Giori press. It was issued in panes of fifty and was authorized for an initial printing of 120 million.