Nebraska History

The history of the U.S. state of Nebraska dates back to its formation as a territory by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed by the United States Congress on May 30, 1854. The Nebraska Territory was settled extensively under the Homestead Act during the 1860s, and in 1867 was admitted to the Union as the 37th U.S. state.



During the Late Cretaceous, between 65 million to 99 million years ago, three-quarters of Nebraska was covered by the Western Interior Seaway, a large body of water that covered one-third of the United States. The sea was occupied by mosasaurs, ichthyosaur, and plesiosaurs. Additionally, sharks such as Squalicorax, and fish such as Pachyrhizodus, Enchodus, and the Xiphactinus, a fish larger than any modern bony fish, occupied the sea. Other sea life included invertebrates such as mollusks, ammonites, squid-like belemnites, and plankton. Fossil skeletons of these animals and period plants were embedded in mud that hardened into rock and became the limestone that appears today on the sides of ravines and along the streams of Nebraska.



As the sea bottom slowly rose, marshes and forests appeared. After thousands of years the land became drier, and trees of all kinds grew, including oak, maple, beech and willow. Fossil leaves from ancient trees are found today in the state’s red sandstone rocks. Animals occupying the state during this period included camels, tapirs, monkeys, tigers and rhinos. The state also had a variety of horses native to its lands.


During the last ice age, continental ice sheets repeatedly covered eastern Nebraska. The exact timing that these glaciations occurred remain uncertain. Likely, they occurred between two million to 600,000 years ago. During the last two million years, the climate alternated between cold and warm phases, respectively called “glacial” and “interglacial” periods instead of a continuous ice age. Clayey tills and large boulders, called “glacial erratics”, were left on the hillsides during the period when ice sheets covered eastern Nebraska two or three times. During various periods of the remainder of the Pleistocene and into the Holocene, the glacial drift was buried by silty, wind-blown sediment called “loess”.

Holocene (present-day)

As the climate became drier grassy plains appeared, rivers began to cut their present valleys, and present Nebraska topography was formed. Animals appearing during this period remain in the state to this day.

European exploration: 1682-1853

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 name 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 Montana 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 Pawnees 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 Sante Fe by water a 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 the Treaty of Fontainebleau led France to cede lands west of the Mississippi River to Spain, causing the future Nebraska to become part of New Spain. 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.

Early settlements

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 so-called Fort Charles was located south of Dakota City, Nebraska.

The United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France for $15,000,000 in 1803. What became Nebraska was the property 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, 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.

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 the 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.”


Territorial period

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.

Land changes

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).

Civil War

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 state, but Nebraska raised three regiments of cavalry to help the war effort, and more than 3,000 men served in the military.

Capital changes

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.

1867 – 1950


A constitution for Nebraska was drawn up in 1866. There was some controversy over Nebraska’s admission as a state, with some controversy over a provision in the 1866 constitution that restricted 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.

Political change

Under the original constitution, the Nebraska Legislature was bicameral. However, following a 1931 visit to Australia, Nebraska legislator George Norris campaigned for the abolition of the bicameral system, following the example of the Australian state of Queensland which had adopted a unicameral system ten years previously; he also argued that the bicameral system was based on the “inherently undemocratic” British House of Lords. In 1934, a state constitutional amendment was passed introducing a single-house legislature, and also introducing non-partisan elections (where members do not stand as members of political parties).

World War II

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.