HISTORY & FACTS
Nebraska's early history is rich and fascinating. Several key individuals, peoples and events from long ago helped to advance Nebraska toward statehood.
Native American Tribes
For centuries before white explorers arrived, Native American tribes lived in Nebraska. The Missouri, Omaha, Oto and Ponca Indians were peaceful tribes, and prospered by farming and hunting along the region's plentiful rivers. Although the Pawnees fought with other Indian tribes, they were friendly with white settlers. Western Nebraska was the home of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Comanche Indians. These intriguing tribes, which built no villages and lived in tepees, lived by hunting buffalo.
Spanish and French Explorers
In 1662, French explorer Rene Robert Cavalier traveled down the mighty Mississippi River to its mouth. He claimed large tracts of land surrounding the river for France. The fertile land, which included Nebraska, was named "Louisiana," in honor of French King Louis XIV. During the 1690s and early 1700s, French traders and trappers enthusiastically made the Louisiana region their home.
Spain objected to France's presence in the regions, which Spain also claimed. In 1720, a Spanish expedition of 45 soldiers bravely marched into Nebraska, intending to remove the French. But in a battle near the Platte River, well-prepared Pawnee Indians attacked and killed most of the Spaniards.
In 1763, at the close of the Seven Years' War in Europe, France gave up all claims east of the Mississippi River to England and west of the Mississippi to Spain. However, French fur traders continued to flourish 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 known as the Louisiana Purchase.
The first American expedition to visit Nebraska, in 1804, was led by the distinguished Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. They traveled up the picturesque Missouri River and explored the state's eastern edge. In 1819, the U.S. Army established Nebraska's first military post, Fort Atkinson, to protect the frontier. The fort, with more than 1,000 pioneers, also became the site of Nebraska's first school, library, grist mill and brickyard, but the fort was temporary. The village of Bellevue, founded on the Missouri River in 1823, became Nebraska's first permanent white settlement.
The "Great Migration"
In the early 1830s, Nebraska's Platte River valley began to play a crucial role in the "Great Migration," the westward movement of thousands of pioneers. These courageous souls followed several renowned trails crossing Nebraska, including:
These rugged trails were traveled extensively until railroad construction reached the Pacific Coast.
The word "Nebraska" first appeared in publications in 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. This term was taken from the Oto word "Nebrathka," meaning "flat water."
The first bill to organize the new Nebraska Territory, introduced in Congress on Dec. 17, 1844, failed to pass. However, a bill called the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed after a long struggle and was signed by President Franklin Pierce on May 30, 1854. The bitter dispute between the slave states 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. By 1863, Congress created several new territories from this region, bringing the Nebraska Territory to about the state's present size.
Impact of the Civil War and Railroad Construction
The election of Abraham Lincoln as president and the Civil War that followed had a profound 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 the noble task of building a line spanning westward from Omaha, and it stretched across Nebraska two years later. By the mid-1880s, the Burlington Railroad lines criss-crossed the state. Many railroads received land grants from state and federal governments to offset construction costs. These lands were sold to hopeful settlers through extensive advertising campaigns. These campaigns, plus an influx of discharged Civil War veterans seeking land, helped swell Nebraska's population.
Finally, in early 1867, Congress passed an act admitting Nebraska to the Union! 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.
Many, many facts set Nebraska apart. Here are only some:
Nebraska's capitol building was declared one of the modern architectural wonders of the world by the American Institute of Architects.
Arbor Day -- celebrated by millions of people -- was founded by Nebraska's J. Sterling Morton, former U.S. secretary of agriculture. The National Arbor Day Foundation's headquarters are located near his home in Nebraska City.
Boys Town, a world-famous community for disadvantaged youth, is located near Omaha.
Charles Lindbergh learned to fly in Lincoln when the city was a major center for airplane manufacturing.
America's first rodeo was held by the famous Buffalo Bill in Nebraska in 1882.
Nebraska has the largest area of sandhill grasslands in the U.S., one of the nation's most productive cattle raising areas.
Nebraska was the home or birthplace of wonderful entertainers such as Henry Fonda, Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Marlon Brando and Fred Astaire.
The University of Nebraska's excellent football team has finished in the national AP or UPI top 20 ratings every year since 1970.
Lincoln is the home of the U.S. Amateur Confederation of Roller Skating and frequently hosts national championship competition in that exciting sport.