Nebraska, state in the West North Central United States. Nebraska is bounded by South Dakota on the north, Kansas on the south, the Missouri River and the states of Iowa and Missouri on the east, and Wyoming and Colorado on the west. From the eastern boundary of Nebraska many explorers, fur traders, and adventurers started their trek across the plains and the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast. Later, settlers moved into the area, seeking inexpensive or free farmland or better opportunities in a growing region. The first land claim under the Homestead Act of 1862 was made in Nebraska (see Homestead Laws), and the eastern terminus of the first transcontinental railroad was Omaha. Nebraska entered the Union on March 1, 1867, as the 37th state. Lincoln is the state capital. Omaha is the largest city.
Midway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Nebraska is a land of transition. Climate, soils, vegetation, and landforms change considerably across the state. The large urban centers of the eastern part of the state give way to small rural communities farther west, where there are large wheat fields and vast expanses of grazing land. Gently rolling hills and forested valleys in the east contrast sharply with the treeless plains and intermittent streams farther west. The Platte River and its tributaries drain most of the state, and the Platte’s broad valley serves as a transportation corridor linking cities with farms and west with east. The river has also indirectly given the state its name, because Nebrathka, meaning flat water, was the Oto name for the Platte River. Nebraska is called the Cornhusker State in reference to its primary agricultural crop.
Nebraska ranks 16th among the states in area, covering 200,346 sq km (77,354 sq mi), including 1,246 sq km (481 sq mi) of inland waters. From east to west, in a line extending from Omaha to the western boundary of its Panhandle, Nebraska measures 687 km (426 mi). The distance from north to south is 333 km (207 mi).
With the exception of the Panhandle to the west, the state is rectangular. It slopes gently to the southeast and elevation increases at an average rate of 2 meters per kilometer (10 feet per mile) from the Missouri River to Nebraska’s western boundary. The lowest elevation, 256 m (840 ft), is along the Missouri River in the southeast, and the highest point, 1,653 m (5,424 ft), is in the Panhandle in southwestern Kimball County. The mean elevation is about 790 m (2,600 ft). Although Nebraska is considered a plains state, there is considerable local relief.
Two major physiographic divisions, or natural regions, of the United States are represented in Nebraska. They are the Central Lowland and the Great Plains, both of which are subdivisions of the Interior Plains. The eastern fifth of Nebraska is in the Central Lowland, and the remainder of the state forms part of the Great Plains. The Dissected Till Plains of the Central Lowland, which average about 110 to 130 km (about 70 to 80 mi) in width, parallel the Missouri River. This area was blanketed by ice during the early ice ages several hundred thousand years ago. Later it was covered by various thicknesses of loess, or wind-deposited material, and roughened by erosion. The hills of loess-covered glacial deposits are severely dissected, or eroded, by rivers enlarging their valleys near the Missouri River. This dissection has created bluffs that are visible along much of the river.
The Great Plains natural region covers about four-fifths of the state. This region is composed of four distinct areas: the High Plains, the Sand Hills, the Loess Hills and Canyons, and the Loess Plains.
The High Plains in western Nebraska consist of a large expanse of high flat tableland with some rough broken areas. In many areas the soil and mantle are thin and the bedrock is exposed. A rather prominent feature of the landscape in this region is the Pine Ridge Escarpment, a cliff of 300 m (1,000 ft) in elevation. The Sand Hills in central and north central Nebraska consist of grass-covered sand dunes. This region makes up about one-quarter of the state. The sand dunes have been completely grassed over, except for occasional blowouts, which are areas of exposed sand that may cover more than a hectare. Throughout the region there is little variation in composition or in texture of the soil. The Sand Hills are extremely porous, and there is little surface runoff. Most streams in the Sand Hills are fed by springs or artesian wells and have little seasonal fluctuation. The underlying rock strata hold large amounts of usable water, and wells may be dug successfully anywhere within the Sand Hills.
The central and southwestern parts of the Great Plains in Nebraska are made up of loess hills and canyons. Most of south central Nebraska is composed of a slightly dissected loess plain. Most of the southeastern half of the state is capped by loess, ranging in depth from about 1 to more than 90 m (about 3 to more than 300 ft). The thickest deposits are found in central Nebraska, from 60 to 160 km (40 to 100 mi) north of the Kansas border. The loess is windblown unstratified material that often stands nearly vertical in cliffs or road cuts. Soils develop rapidly on loess and are among the most productive in the world.
|B||Rivers, Lakes, and Irrigation|
Nebraska has one of the best supplies of surface and underground water in the nation. All of its rivers and streams eventually drain into the Missouri River, flowing in an easterly and southeasterly direction. The state’s principal river, the Platte, is formed by the confluence of the North Platte and South Platte rivers, both of which rise in the Rocky Mountains. The Platte River flows through central Nebraska to the Missouri River. The Sand Hills are drained by the Niobrara, Elkhorn, and Loup rivers. The Republican and Big Blue rivers drain the southern part of the state, flowing south into Kansas, where they enter the Kansas River. While there are no large natural lakes in the state, hundreds of small natural lakes are found in the Sand Hills.
Nebraska depends on irrigation for a substantial part of its crop production, and 26 percent of all cropland is irrigated. Much of the irrigated land is in the broad valley of the Platte. Because of the abundant surface and underground water supplies, the valley has been given the nickname “Irrigation Way.”
One of the first United States Bureau of Reclamation projects, the North Platte Project, was built in Nebraska and Wyoming. Water impounded and stored in Wyoming is used for irrigation in southeastern Wyoming and Scotts Bluff and Morrill counties in Nebraska.
A large privately financed irrigation project, the Tri-County Project, uses Platte River water. The state’s largest dam, Kingsley Dam, and largest reservoir, Lake McConaughy, are parts of the Tri-County Project. Three other reservoirs, Lewis and Clark Lake, Harlan County Lake, and Swanson Lake, each have an immense storage capacity. Other major reservoirs in Nebraska include Harry Strunk Lake, Hugh Butler Lake, Enders Reservoir, and Sherman Reservoir.
Nearly four-fifths of the irrigated land in Nebraska, however, uses groundwater pumped from deep wells, rather than surface water supplied from reservoirs. Nebraska possesses enormous groundwater reserves. The Ogallala aquifer, an underground-water bearing layer stretching south as far as Texas, lies under much of central Nebraska. Well irrigation first became important in the late 1930s, but the number of wells increased sharply in the 1950s and 1970s. In the mid-1990s there were more than 60,000 irrigation wells in the state, with the greatest concentrations found in the central and lower Platte valleys, in south central and southwestern Nebraska, and in much of the north central part of the state. The growth in irrigation has put pressure on groundwater supplies and has led to declining water tables in some areas, particularly in the Big Blue River basin and in the southwestern counties. When water tables decline quite rapidly, various restrictions may be put into place by natural resource districts to limit the rate of pumping for irrigation.
Nebraska has a typical continental climate with wide seasonal variations in temperature.
Winter temperatures below -20°C (0° F) and summer temperatures in the upper 30°s C (lower 100°s F) are common.
The average January temperature varies from about -7° C (about 20° F) in the northeast to about -2° C (about 29° F) in the southwest. The average for July, the hottest month, ranges from about 26° C (about 78° F) in the south central section to about 20° C (about 68° F) along the western tip of Nebraska.
Nebraska is fortunate in that approximately three-fourths of its precipitation falls during the April through September growing season. Normally, May and June are the wettest months and December and January are the driest. Average snowfall normally ranges from about 500 to 1,000 mm (about 20 to 40 in) with the heaviest snows in late winter. Blizzards are common. The blizzard in 1888 claimed thousands of livestock and many lives, and the blizzard in 1949 required the aid of United States armed forces. Precipitation in the northwest averages about 360 mm (about 14 in) annually, increasing to more than 860 mm (34 in) in the southeast. Along the 100th meridian, which bisects the state, annual precipitation averages about 500 mm (about 20 in).
Severe storms, with damaging winds, hail, and torrential rains of 100 mm (4 in) or more, are common. Tornadoes occur every year, but their number and intensity vary. Hailstorms are very severe in western Nebraska, which probably has the highest hail frequency in the country. During dry years, dust storms occasionally develop in the Panhandle and in the southwestern part of Nebraska.
|C3||The Growing Season|
The growing season ranges from 130 days in the west to more than 170 days in the east. The last killing frost is usually in late April or early May, and the first killing frost generally occurs in late September or early October.
Light precipitation, rich parent material, and grasses have been the major ingredients in providing Nebraska with some of the most fertile and productive soils in the world. The rich parent material, particularly the soil-like loess, has accelerated soil formation. The grass cover has increased fertility by providing large amounts of humus in the topsoil. Light precipitation has limited leaching, or the washing away of valuable organic matter. The high degree of productivity of the land is a major reason why nearly 95 percent of the land area of the state is in agricultural use.
The soils of Nebraska can be divided into five major groups: the prairie soils in the southeast, chernozem in the central and northeastern areas, chestnut in the west, the Sand Hills soils in north central Nebraska, and rich alluvial soils along the floodplains of the major rivers. With the exception of the Sand Hills soils, all the soils are intensively cultivated.
Originally, grasslands covered about 98 percent of the state and forests only 2 percent. Bluestem and switch grass were the major grasses in the east. Blue grama, side oats grama, and a shorter variety of bluestem were common in central Nebraska, with shorter gramas and buffalo grasses prevailing in the west. Bluestem and sand dropseed were found principally in the Sand Hills. Cultivation and grazing have to a large extent changed their composition and stands. Many invaders, such as thistle, cactus, and yucca, can be found in the grasslands of the Sand Hills where grazing has outrun the growing capacity of the grasses. In central and eastern Nebraska overgrazed pastures are experiencing an increase in cool-season grasses, such as bluegrass and bromegrass, to the detriment of the native grasses. Serious invasions of noxious weeds such as leafy spurge and spotted knapweed are occurring across the state.
Currently forests cover just 2 percent of Nebraska’s land area. Trees are found along the river valleys and on some of the higher tablelands in the west. These are primarily deciduous trees. The cottonwood, elm, ash, maple, oak, and willow are the most common species. On the rougher and higher lands in the west large stands of coniferous trees are found. The predominant species are ponderosa pines and redcedars. Since the late 1800s the Eastern redcedar has been expanding throughout the state. Along the bluffs of the Missouri River and in the eastern third of Nebraska oak, black walnut, and hickories are occasionally found.
Bison (American buffalo), mule deer, white-tailed deer, pronghorn, coyote, beaver, prairie dog, jackrabbit, skunk, and squirrel were found in large numbers by the first settlers. Bison, in particular, were hunted indiscriminately and were eliminated by the 1880s. Other species have survived and prospered. Pheasant, quail, sharp-tailed grouse, prairie chicken, and wild turkey are also abundant. Wildlife has increased considerably in recent years as conservation practices have been applied to the land and as farmland has been converted to grassland. Many migratory waterfowl, varieties of shorebirds, and the nearly extinct whooping crane use Nebraska waters during the fall and spring migrations. Thousands of sandhill cranes stop along the central Platte River every year during their migration. Crappie, perch, pike, catfish, bullhead, bass, bluegill, and trout abound in Nebraska’s lakes and streams. Fish hatcheries may be found near Benkelman, North Platte, Valentine, and Burwell.
Nebraska has implemented numerous programs to protect its natural resources, especially soil and water. Contour farming, whereby crops are planted to follow the contour of hills; strip-cropping, or alternating close-growing forage crops that retain and rebuild the soil with cash crops; and grazing controls are commonly used to prevent soil erosion. During the 1930s many shelterbelts were planted across the state to reduce wind erosion and protect crops. Many watershed projects have been developed to minimize flooding, especially in southeastern Nebraska. The largest project is the Salt-Wahoo, which provides protection for Lincoln and for other parts of Lancaster County. Upstream dams in the Dakotas and Montana have reduced large-scale flooding along the Missouri River. Flooding on the Republican River is largely controlled by five reservoirs in Nebraska, as well as by others in Colorado and Kansas.
The use of underground water is regulated through a system of natural resources districts. The 23 natural resources districts conduct water quality planning programs. The Department of Environmental Quality, established in 1971, is responsible for air and water pollution control, solid and hazardous waste management. Laws concerning drinking water standards and radiation control are administered by the Department of Health.
In 2006 Nebraska had 12 hazardous waste sites on a national priority list for cleanup due to their severity or proximity to people. Between 1995 and 2000, the amount of toxic chemicals discharged into the environment increased by 52 percent.
Since its early settlement in the mid-19th century, Nebraska has had an economy based on agriculture, specifically the raising of livestock and the growing of corn (for feed) and wheat. During the 1930s the economy suffered from the effects of the Great Depression and an extended drought. Widespread use of irrigation wells in the second half of the 20th century has been responsible for the increased area of farmland under irrigation. Although farming is still extremely important, services and manufacturing have expanded rapidly in recent decades. Nebraska, the home to many national insurance companies, receives an unusually large share of its gross state product from the finance, insurance, and real estate sector.
In the early and mid-1980s Nebraska suffered through its worst agricultural crisis since the Great Depression. As in other farm depressions, many farmers had taken large loans to purchase land and modernize operations and were driven into bankruptcy when crop prices dropped and land values fell. Many farmers lost their land, and some banks with extensive farm loans followed them into insolvency. The metropolitan economies of Omaha and Lincoln escaped the worst effects of the farm crisis, but rural areas, heavily dependent on farming and farm-related business, suffered. By the late 1980s the economy began to recover. To further promote growth and recovery, the state in the late 1980s adopted a package of tax incentives to provide new and expanding businesses with income tax credits, sales tax refunds and credits, and in some instances personal property tax exemptions.
Although large, older Omaha-based companies continued to influence the state’s economy, new smaller companies scattered across the state in the telecommunications, insurance, health care, and tourist industries became increasingly important in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The proliferation of these businesses fueled the state’s economic revival. As a result Nebraska’s economy grew steadily in the 1990s, enabling the state to avoid most of the effects of a national recession in the early years of the decade. In the late 1990s most sectors of Nebraska’s economy continued to grow at a steady rate.
Nebraska’s unemployment rate fell below 3 percent in the early 1990s and remained one of the lowest in the nation for the rest of the decade. A long-term labor shortage forced companies and civic groups to launch campaigns to recruit workers from out of state. Nebraska has become attractive to workers because wages and income have risen steadily while the cost of living and crime rate have remained well below national averages. In 2006 there were 974,000 jobs in Nebraska. Of those, 36 percent were in services; 20 percent in wholesale or retail trade; 17 percent in federal, state, or local government, including positions in the military; 11 percent in manufacturing; 7 percent in farming, including agricultural services; 18 percent in finance, insurance, or real estate; 21 percent in transportation or public utilities; 5 percent in construction; and just 0.1 percent in mining. In 2005, 8 percent of Nebraska’s workers were members of labor unions.
In 2005 there were 48,000 farms in Nebraska, 74 percent of which had annual sales of $10,000 or more. One-third of the farms had annual sales of over $100,000. In the eastern third of the state farms are much smaller than the state average, while those in the Sand Hills and the Panhandle are substantially larger. Farmland occupied 18.5 million hectares (45.7 million acres), of which 49 percent was cropland. The rest was mostly pasture and range. Some 26 percent of the cropland (mostly used to grow corn) was irrigated each year.
Most of the people working on farms in the 1990s were the farm operators or members of their families. Although some Nebraska farms are quite large, most are owned and operated by individuals and only a very few are owned by non-farm corporations. In 1982 Nebraska adopted Initiative 300, commonly called the Family Farm Preservation Act, a constitutional amendment that protects family farmers from the economic pressure of large agricultural corporations by prohibiting individual farmers from selling their land to nonfamily-farm corporations.
The sale of livestock and livestock products accounted for 62 percent of Nebraska’s farm income in 2004. Sales of cattle and calves make up four-fifths of farm income from livestock, although hogs are also important. One-fourth of total farm receipts are from the sale of corn, although much corn is fed to livestock on farms where it is raised. In 1997 it was the state’s leading crop, raised on 3.4 million hectares (8.3 million acres) of land. Other important crops included soybeans, wheat, hay, grain sorghum, dry beans, and sugar beets. In 1997, Nebraska ranked fourth in the nation in total farm sales, second in livestock sales, and seventh in crop sales. The state ranked third in the value of cattle and calf production, third in corn and grain sorghum, seventh in hogs, and seventh in soybeans.
|A1||Patterns of Farming|
There are considerable regional differences in farming activities in Nebraska. In the northwestern and north central parts of the state, cattle grazing dominates. In the northeast and in the central Platte Valley, farmers grow corn and raise feeder cattle and hogs. Large-scale wheat production is concentrated in the southern Panhandle and the southwest, while in the North Platte Valley farmers specialize in irrigated sugar beets and dry beans. Irrigated corn production is most concentrated south of the Platte River. In some of these counties, more than three-fourths of the cropland is planted in corn. Sorghum is raised in the southern part of the state on unirrigated lands.
Clearly, irrigation plays an important role in the agricultural production of Nebraska. The Platte Valley, much of the south central and southwestern parts of the state, and the eastern fringe of the Sand Hills are the leading areas under irrigation. In many of these areas center pivot irrigation systems are the most common means of delivering water to fields. This device typically consists of a water pipe 400 m (one-quarter mi) long and lined with sprinklers. Elevated on wheels above the field, the pipe is anchored at one end at a center pivot, and the entire assembly turns on this pivot as the pipe slowly rotates around a field, sprinkling the crop below. Because they can be used to irrigate porous sandy soils and land that is not level, center pivots have greatly increased the amount of farmland that can be irrigated. Nebraska has more center pivot irrigation systems than any other state.
|B||Mining and Forestry|
The greatest share of mining activities in the state is focused on crushed stone, sand and gravel, and portland cement. Limestone, which is used for liming soils and in several cement plants, is produced in a number of eastern counties. Petroleum accounted for one-quarter of the state’s income from mineral production in 1997, but the state does not rank high nationally in oil production. Red Willow, Kimball, Cheyenne, and Banner counties in western Nebraska produce most of the state’s petroleum.
Nebraska has very little lumber production, mostly from small operations in the northwest.
Food processing is by far Nebraska’s most important industry, accounting for one-fourth of the state’s industrial income annually. The leading food-processing industry is meat-packing. Other food products include canned and frozen fruits and vegetables, flour, cereal, beverages, dairy products, livestock feeds, vegetable oils, and pasta. Corn processing yields a variety of products.
Other leading industries produce instruments, chemicals and drugs, machinery, and electrical equipment. Many of these industries are associated with agriculture; the state is an important producer of irrigation equipment and farm machinery. Printing and publishing are significant. Nebraska also produces transportation equipment, rubber and plastic goods, fabricated metals, and primary metals. Omaha is the chief manufacturing center. The second most important center is Lincoln.
Nebraska’s entire electrical power system is publicly owned. Most of the farms were electrified with the assistance of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Thermal power plants burning fossil fuels, primarily coal, generate 69 percent of Nebraska’s electricity. Another 28 percent of Nebraska’s electricity is generated by nuclear power plants at Brownville and Fort Calhoun. The state’s small share of hydroelectric power comes from the Bureau of Reclamation’s dams on the Missouri River, in addition to hydroelectric plants in Colorado and Wyoming. The largest hydroelectric power plant in the state is located at Gavins Point.
The Platte River valley has served as the major route across the Great Plains since the establishment of the Oregon Trail and Mormon Trail. The Union Pacific Railroad, U.S. Highway 30, and National Interstate Highway 80 all parallel the Platte. Several major railroads cross the state, and in 2004 trackage totaled 5,597 km (3,478 mi). Farm products account for 65 percent of the freight originating in the state. Much of the freight passing through the state by rail is coal, being hauled from mines in Montana and Wyoming to Midwest power plants.
By 2005 Nebraska had 150,169 km (93,311 mi) of public roads and highways. There were 776 km (482 mi) of national interstate highways. By 2007 there were 8 airports in the state. The majority of them were privately owned. Nearly 1.7 million passengers passed through the airport in Omaha in 1996.
|IV||THE PEOPLE OF NEBRASKA|
Nebraska’s population in 2000 was 1,711,263, ranking it 38th among the states. From 1990 to 2000 the population increased by 8.4 percent. Nebraska has a population density of 9 persons per sq km (23 per sq mi). Most of the population is concentrated in the eastern one-quarter of the state and in a belt along the Platte and North Platte rivers.
The population of Nebraska is 89.6 percent white. Blacks, most of whom live in the Omaha metropolitan area, constitute 4 percent of the population, Asians 1.3 percent, Native Americans 0.9 percent, and those of mixed heritage or not reporting race 4.2 percent. Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders numbered 836. Hispanics, who may be of any race, are 5.5 percent of the people. Much of the state’s population is descended from European immigrants who came to Nebraska in the late 19th century. Germans, Czechs, Swedes, Danes, Irish, and Italians were especially numerous and often remain concentrated in close-knit communities today. The black population is found primarily in Omaha and Lincoln; Hispanics are mostly in the Platte River Valley and Omaha. Native Americans are concentrated in Omaha, and in Knox and Thurston counties.
In 1920 Nebraska was almost 70 percent rural, but by 1960 the majority had shifted. Currently 70 percent of Nebraskans are urban dwellers. People have been leaving rural areas because of the growing employment opportunities in towns and cities and due to economic pressures favoring larger, but fewer, farms.
Only two cities, Omaha and Lincoln, have been designated metropolitan areas in Nebraska. Together these areas contain more than one-half of the state’s population. The largest city, Omaha, with a 2006 population of 419,545 in the city proper, is Nebraska’s principal manufacturing center, and it also dominates the state’s retail and wholesale trade. The Omaha metropolitan area had a population of 822,549 in 2006, including people living around Council Bluffs in Iowa. Omaha contains a number of home and branch offices of the nation’s large insurance companies. Within a few miles of the city, at Offutt Air Force Base, is the center of operations of the United States Strategic Command.
Second in size is Lincoln, which had a population of 241,167 in 2006. Lincoln is the state capital and contains the University of Nebraska’s major campus and two other major colleges. Many insurance companies have home offices in the city, and for this reason, Lincoln has sometimes been called the Hartford of the Midwest. Grand Island, with 44,632 residents, is a railroad and distribution center for the surrounding agricultural area. Nebraska’s other principal cities and their 2006 populations are Bellevue, with 47,594 inhabitants; Kearney, with 29,385; Fremont, with 25,417; North Platte, with 24,386; and Hastings, with 25,144.
Roman Catholics form the largest single religious group, representing nearly one-third of those attending a church. Of the Protestant denominations, the largest are the Lutherans and the Methodists.
|V||EDUCATION AND CULTURAL INSTITUTIONS|
Nebraska’s first schools were conducted by missionaries for Native Americans. By 1820, Fort Atkinson had a school, and in 1849, Bellevue opened its first school. In 1855 the territorial legislature passed a free-school law, and it later chartered numerous colleges, of which only the one at Peru is still in operation. Secondary education was largely confined to private schools in the eastern towns of Nebraska until 1875. In 1869 the first state legislature created the University of Nebraska, which opened in 1871. In 1872 the first church-supported college, Doane College, was established at Crete (Kríti). School attendance in Nebraska is compulsory for all children between ages 6 and 18.
The present school system is supervised by the state Department of Education, which consists of an elected eight-member board and a commissioner appointed by the board. Nebraska’s total of 681 districts in 1997 was the fifth highest in the nation, behind only Texas, California, Illinois, and New York. Many of these are rural districts, some still with one-room schools. Private schools enroll 15 percent of the state’s children.
In the 2002–2003 school year Nebraska spent $9,371 on each student’s education, compared to a national average of $9,299. There were 13.6 students for every teacher (the national average was 15.9 students). Of those older than 25 years of age in 2006, 89.5 percent had a high school diploma, while the country as a whole averaged 84.1 percent.
Nebraska had 15 public and 24 private institutions of higher learning in 2004–2005. Among the most notable of these schools were the University of Nebraska with campuses in Lincoln, Omaha, and Kearney; Peru State College, in Peru; Creighton University, in Omaha; Hastings College, in Hastings; Nebraska Wesleyan University, in Lincoln; and Wayne State College, in Wayne.
Most of Nebraska’s population is served by one of 275 tax-supported public library systems. The statewide extension services of the Nebraska Library Commission supplement the activities of the local libraries. The state’s public libraries annually circulate an average of 8.7 books for each resident. The oldest library is the Nebraska State Library, which is chiefly a law library. The largest library belongs to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. Other large collections are in the Omaha Public Library, Lincoln City Libraries, and the libraries of Creighton University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Joslyn Art Museum is one of the nation’s outstanding visual arts centers. It has a noted collection of western art and artifacts, which are housed in a striking marble structure in Omaha. Another noted art museum is the University of Nebraska Art Galleries in Lincoln, which specializes in American art. Also located on this campus is the University of Nebraska State Museum, which has natural history displays, including one of the world’s largest mammoth fossils. The Museum of Nebraska History in Lincoln has exhibits covering the history of the state.
Fossil collections may also be seen at the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Harrison. Outstanding pioneer history and natural history collections are displayed in the Oregon Trail Museum at the Scotts Bluff National Monument and in the Hastings Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Hastings. In Minden is a fine private museum, Pioneer Village. History collections may also be seen at the headquarters of the various county historical societies, in the Museum of the Fur Trade near Chadron, in the Durham Western Heritage Museum in Omaha, and in the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island.
The first newspaper printed in Nebraska was the Nebraska Palladium and Platte Valley Advocate, printed in Bellevue in 1854. The Evening Herald, established in 1885 by Gilbert M. Hitchcock, became the World-Herald four years later. In 1894 its editor in chief was William Jennings Bryan, three times a candidate for the United States presidency. In 1901 Bryan started his own weekly newspaper, the Commoner, in Lincoln.
There are 16 daily newspapers published in the state. The leading daily is the Omaha World-Herald, followed by the Lincoln Journal Star. The Nebraska Farmer is a widely circulated agricultural paper that has been published since 1859.
The first commercial radio station in Nebraska, WOW in Omaha, was licensed in 1923. KMTV and WOW-TV in Omaha, the state’s first commercial television stations, began operations in 1949. In 2002 Nebraska had 43 AM and 70 FM radio stations and 26 television stations.
|E||Music, Theater, and Literature|
The Nebraska Arts Council, a state agency, has stimulated a wide range of cultural activities, as have the state’s higher education institutions. The Lied Center for Performing Arts, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, presents groups of national and international renown. Lincoln is also the home to the Lincoln Community Playhouse, the Lincoln Friends of Chamber Music, and Abendmusik: Lincoln. Omaha is a major center for the arts in Nebraska. In the city are the Omaha Symphony Orchestra and Opera Omaha, a well-respected regional opera company. Also in the city are the Omaha Theater Company for Young People and the Nebraska Wind Symphony, a community concert band. The Omaha Community Playhouse is the largest community theater in the United States, and has a professional touring company, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan. Many smaller cities and towns present multidiscipline arts series. Excellent music and theater programs are found at many universities and colleges, in particular the Nebraska Wesleyan University, Creighton University, and the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
Many Nebraskans have contributed significantly to the literary life of the nation. One of the greatest American novelists, Willa Cather, grew up on a farm near Red Cloud and later attended the University of Nebraska. Her earliest novels, especially O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918), were inspired by life on the prairies. Nebraska poet John Gneisenau Neihardt wrote the acclaimed Black Elk Speaks (1932) and a cycle of epic poems about the West. Other important regional novelists include Mari Sandoz, Wright Morris, and Bess Streeter Aldrich.
|VI||RECREATION AND PLACES OF INTEREST|
Nebraska has a wide range of scenic attractions. Its recreational assets are its numerous reservoirs, lakes, and rivers, including the Republican River and the Platte River system. All parts of the state offer hunting and fishing as well as opportunities to observe wildlife.
|A||National Monuments and Forests|
Although Nebraska has no national parks, there are historic sites and monuments, two national forests, a national grassland, and five wildlife refuges administered by the federal government. Chimney Rock is a national historic site. This rock formation, near Bayard, is a lofty spire and was a prominent landmark for those who traveled the Oregon Trail. Another symbol of the trail is Scotts Bluff National Monument, near Gering. The wheel ruts of wagon trains that passed through this area may still be seen. Mitchell Pass, providing access through the bluff, was the route used by wagons and stagecoaches after 1852 and by the Pony Express. Homestead National Monument of America, near Beatrice, is the site of the first land claimed under the Homestead Act of 1862. Another national park unit is Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, in Sioux County. This area, along the Niobrara River, is rich in fossils of prehistoric animals and has been studied by the Carnegie Museum and the University of Nebraska since the early 1900s. Fort McPherson, south of Maxwell, is the smallest national cemetery in the nation.
Some of the state’s most impressive scenery is in the Nebraska and Samuel R. McKelvie national forests. The section of Nebraska National Forest in Thomas and Blaine counties was entirely hand-planted. Oglala National Grassland is located in Dawes and Sioux counties. Lakes in eastern Cherry County and in central Garden County are national wildlife refuges.
Nebraska has 95 state parks and recreation areas. Among the most important state historical parks are Fort Robinson, near Crawford; Fort Kearny, the outpost that protected travelers on the Oregon Trail; Buffalo Bill’s Ranch, the home of William F. Cody for 30 years, in North Platte; and Arbor Lodge, the stately mansion of J. Sterling Morton, a territorial governor and originator of Arbor Day, in Nebraska City.
|C||Other Places to Visit|
Among the points of interest near Omaha are Fontenelle Forest; Mormon Cemetery, the burial place of those who perished in the winter of 1846 to 1847; Fort Omaha, established in 1868; and Girls and Boys Town, a famous community established by Father Edward J. Flanagan for homeless or neglected girls and boys. The restored home of William Jennings Bryan, the U.S. political figure and three-time candidate for the U.S. presidency, is located in Lincoln. Red Cloud, the small town setting for many novels by the Pulitzer Prize winner Willa Cather, has 26 sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Other historic sites in the state include Fort Atkinson, the first military post in Nebraska; the Gothenburg Pony Express station; and the historic town of Brownville, on the Missouri River.
Ever since Buffalo Bill started his famous Wild West Show in the 1880s, rodeos have been a popular spectator sport. From the Nebraskaland Days and Buffalo Bill Rodeo in North Platte to Nebraska’s Big Rodeo in Burwell, the tradition has been kept alive. A summer season of county fairs and horse races culminates in early September at the Nebraska State Fair in Lincoln. Many festivals are linked to the countries of origin of Nebraska’s early residents. A Czech festival in Wilber in August, Swedish festivals in Oakland and Stromsburg in June, an Italian festival in Omaha in July, Cinco de Mayo in May in Scottsbluff, and a Danish Christmas in Dannebrog are all part of Nebraska’s diverse character. Native American powwows include the Santee Sioux in June, Winnebago in July, and Omaha (at Macy) in August.
In Omaha the Rodeo and Stock Show in September is sponsored by the civic organization Ak-Sar-Ben, which is “Nebraska” spelled backward. One of the state’s liveliest events is the Ak-Sar-Ben Festival in October. Included in this festival are an elaborate parade and coronation ball.
Nebraska is governed under a constitution that was adopted in 1875. It has been amended many times. One amendment adopted in 1912 provides for amendments to the constitution through initiative and referendum. The constitution limits the state’s power of taxation and forbids the state to incur bonded indebtedness, except for the purpose of highway construction.
The executive branch is headed by a governor and a lieutenant governor, who are jointly elected for four-year terms. Both officials may serve any number of terms, but no more than two terms in succession. Other elected officers are the secretary of state, the attorney general, the treasurer, the auditor, and the members of the board of education, the board of regents of the University of Nebraska, and the public utilities commission.
By an amendment adopted in 1934, Nebraska became the first and only state with a unicameral, or one-chamber, legislature. The single house has 49 members. They are elected without designation of political party for four-year terms. Legislators may not serve more than two terms in succession. Regular sessions are held in January of each year, and special sessions may be called by the governor or at the request of two-thirds of the members of the legislature. A three-fifths majority can override the governor’s veto.
The judicial branch consists of a supreme court, with seven justices who serve six-year terms, and district courts, with judges serving six-year terms. The 93 county courts function as parts of the district court system. Omaha and Lincoln each have a municipal court and separate juvenile courts.
Nebraska has adopted a nonpartisan system for the election of all judges. Whenever a vacancy occurs on the supreme court, district court, or some of the juvenile and municipal courts, a nonpartisan nominating commission submits a list to the governor, who makes an appointment from the list. At the first general election taking place three years after the appointment, the judge stands unopposed for election on the basis of the record. If the voters do not approve the judge, the vacancy is filled again by the governor. If elected, the judge may seek reelection.
The state has 93 counties. The most populous counties have an assessor, a clerk of the district court, and a register of deeds. All the counties have a clerk, a sheriff, a treasurer, an attorney, a surveyor, and a superintendent of schools. These officials are elected to four-year terms.
Other units of local government are cities, villages, and townships. Any city with a population of 5,000 or more may adopt a home-rule charter. Most of the cities, including Omaha and Lincoln, are governed by a mayor and council. Some cities use the city manager plan, and one is governed by commission. Each of the villages is administered by a board of trustees, elected by popular vote for two-year terms.
In addition to two senators, Nebraska elects three Representatives to the Congress of the United States, giving the state a total of five electoral votes in presidential elections.
The first humans in what is now Nebraska appeared at least 10,000 years ago. These first people were apparently related to those of the Folsom culture first identified near Folsom, New Mexico, but very little is known about them. Sometime between ad 400 and 600 a people who hunted and did simple farming lived in Nebraska, and were replaced between 1200 and 1500 by a more sedentary people who practiced intensive agriculture in addition to hunting and fishing. It is not known what happened to these people.
When Europeans first arrived, the Pawnee lived in central Nebraska and occupied the valleys of the Republican, Platte, and Loup rivers. Mainly farmers, the Pawnee lived in semipermanent earth lodges and grew corn, pumpkins, beans, and squash. They were also hunters, however, and twice a year they left their villages to hunt buffalo and other large game. The Pawnee owned many horses, as did most of the other Plains people.
A number of semisedentary people speaking Sioux languages lived near the Missouri River, including the Oto, Iowa, Missouria, Omaha, and Ponca. The Teton Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, and possibly the Kiowa roamed in western Nebraska. They depended entirely on hunting for their livelihood, and vigorously defended their hunting grounds against both the Pawnee and whites.
|B||European Discovery and Exploration|
The Spanish explorer and conqueror Francisco Vásquez de Coronado entered present-day Kansas in 1541 and claimed the entire territory for Spain, including Nebraska, although the Spaniards built no settlements. In 1682 the French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, finished a journey down the Mississippi River by claiming all the land drained by the river for France, which included the Nebraska area. The French then built an extensive fur-trading network along the Mississippi and its tributaries, and as part of that effort sent traders and explorers into the lower Missouri River Valley to win the friendship of the people there.
The first recorded European exploration of part of Nebraska itself took place in 1714 by the French adventurer Étienne Veniard de Bourgmont. He explored the Missouri River Valley as far north as the Platte River and built a trading post among the Native Americans there. In 1720 the Spaniards, now concerned about French activity in land claimed by Spain, dispatched a small force under Pedro de Villasur from Santa Fe in Spanish New Mexico to drive out the French. After the Pawnee attacked and killed Villasur’s men near the Platte River, the French took undisputed possession of the Missouri Valley region, and continued to explore and to trade with the native inhabitants. In 1739 Pierre Mallet and Paul Mallet crossed Nebraska while exploring the country between the Missouri River and Santa Fe.
In 1763 France lost nearly all its North American possessions, following its defeat by Great Britain in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the last in a series of wars between the two countries for domination in North America. But in 1762 France had secretly ceded all its lands west of the Mississippi (called the Louisiana Territory) to Spain, France’s ally in the war. France then regained the land in 1800 under an agreement with Spain, and in 1803 the United States bought the area of Nebraska from France as part of the Louisiana Purchase. During the period of Spanish control, French and Spanish traders, operating under the authority of Spanish officials in St. Louis, traded merchandise among the peoples of the Missouri River Valley as far north as what is now North Dakota.
|C||Early 19th Century|
In 1804 U.S. President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to map the vast new territory west of the Mississippi River, catalog its plant and animal life, establish relations with the native inhabitants, and collect information about their cultures. The first part of their journey in 1804 took them up the Missouri River along Nebraska’s eastern border. In 1806 Zebulon Montgomery Pike crossed south central Nebraska while exploring the newly acquired territory. In 1820 Stephen H. Long followed the Platte River through much of Nebraska. Long later reported that the Great Plains consisted of a huge desert and predicted that white settlement would be confined to the area east of the Mississippi River.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition greatly stimulated interest in the fur trade of the Far West. The American trader Manuel Lisa launched his first expedition on the Missouri River in 1807, and in 1812 he established Fort Lisa north of present-day Omaha, Nebraska. The American Fur Company established in 1810 a temporary post in the region at Bellevue. The U.S. Army built Fort Atkinson on what is now the site of Fort Calhoun to protect the fur trade from hostile Native Americans.
In 1823 the first permanent settlement in Nebraska was built at Bellevue, which soon became the center for the fur trade along the Missouri and Platte rivers. It was also a center of missionary activity and later for the administration of affairs with Native Americans. Peter Sarpy, an agent for the American Fur Company, was the dominant figure at Bellevue from the 1830s until the creation of the Nebraska Territory in 1854.
Stephen Long’s pessimistic reports about the possibilities for white settlement of the Great Plains, including Nebraska, solved a problem for the federal government: what to do about Native Americans who blocked white settlement east of the Mississippi River. The U.S. government decided to remove them to what whites came to call Indian Territory, land on the western side of the Mississippi including most of present-day Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, although few eastern peoples were resettled in what is now Nebraska. In 1830 the Indian Removal Act allowed the federal government to force Native Americans to live west of the Mississippi; in 1834 the Trade and Intercourse Act prohibited whites from trespassing on the land reserved for Native Americans and created a series of federal agents to oversee relations between Native Americans and whites.
But Nebraska rapidly became more important to whites as part of the trade and immigrant routes leading to the Far West, and settlers and traders began staying in the Nebraska area, obtaining permits or remaining illegally. The Oregon Trail system (which included the Mormon Trail) followed the Platte River and in the 1820s and 1830s was used by fur traders. Reports from the exploration of John Charles Frémont in 1842 popularized the route for white settlers heading west. Each year after 1843 thousands of emigrants went through the Platte River Valley and on to present-day Oregon, California, and Utah, and later to Colorado and Montana. Passing through lands near the semisedentary tribes in eastern Nebraska was not terribly dangerous for whites, but settlers passing through western Nebraska risked attacks by the Cheyenne and Sioux, who strongly resented the intrusion. To protect the travelers, the U.S. government built Fort Kearny on the Missouri River in 1846. In 1848 the fort was moved 300 km (187 mi) west, to the southernmost point of the big bend of the Platte River. Further protection was provided by Fort Laramie (now in Wyoming), built in 1849.
The semisedentary people negotiated treaties with the United States exchanging their land for new land in Kansas or Oklahoma largely without violent resistance, and most of eastern Nebraska had been ceded to the government by 1854. The nomadic peoples in western Nebraska, however, particularly the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and the Brulé and Oglala Sioux, strongly resisted white encroachment on their hunting grounds, and when whites began to kill the bison herds on which the nomadic people depended, these native people became more hostile. In 1851 at Fort Laramie several of these Native American groups signed a treaty with the United States that permitted the U.S. government to build forts and roads along the settler trails, but that, too, failed to end hostilities.
As migration to the Pacific Coast increased, politicians began to realize the importance of crossing Nebraska. In 1844 U.S. Representative Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois began a campaign to organize the Nebraska Territory to encourage the construction of a railroad to the Pacific Coast. By allowing white settlement on what had been Native American land, Douglas and other Northern leaders hoped to build a transcontinental railroad through their states rather than through the South. He was supported by politicians from Iowa and Missouri, whose people were already moving into Nebraska and who also realized the possibilities for regional growth a transcontinental railroad might bring.
In 1854, after prolonged debate, the Congress of the United States passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and opened much of the land to legal white settlement. The act also provided that the residents of each territory could decide if they would permit slavery, a provision that repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had prohibited slavery in the area north of 36°30′.
In 1854 U.S. President Franklin Pierce appointed Francis Burt of South Carolina as the first governor of the Nebraska Territory. Burt died eleven days after arriving at Bellevue, however, and Territorial Secretary Thomas B. Cuming of Iowa became acting governor. Cuming chose Omaha, which had been laid out during the summer of 1854, as the territorial capital. The Nebraska Territory comprised a vast region bordered on the north by the 49th parallel (the Canadian frontier) and on the south by the 40th parallel (just north of Kansas) and extended from the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains.
Most of the early settlements were located along the Missouri River in the east and along the Platte River. Early immigrants were much more interested in reaping quick profits from land speculation than in farming. Land speculation was encouraged by the debate over which town along the Missouri River would become the eastern terminus of a transcontinental railroad. Until the construction of a railroad connecting Council Bluffs to the East, however, the territory depended on Missouri River steamboats for contact with the rest of the country, and Omaha and Nebraska City prospered from the trade in goods brought up the Missouri on steamboats and shipped in wagons to military posts and mining camps in the West.
Although violence quickly broke out in Kansas over whether or not slavery should be permitted in the Territory, there was little interest in establishing slavery in Nebraska. The census of 1860 showed only 82 blacks in the Nebraska Territory, two-thirds of whom were free. Nebraskans concentrated on settling the land, later encouraged by the Homestead Act of 1862, which promised 65 hectares (160 acres) to families that resided on the land for five years. The first Homestead Act farm was near Beatrice, Nebraska. In 1862 President Abraham Lincoln also signed the Pacific Railroad Act, which authorized the building of a transcontinental railroad that would pass through Nebraska. The act gave to the Union Pacific Railroad huge tracts of land along the proposed railway. The railroad then sold this land to settlers, thereby encouraging immigration and providing money to build the railroad at the same time. Under these two laws and subsequent acts about half of Nebraska’s public lands were transferred to white settlers (see Homestead Laws).
During the Civil War (1861-1865), U.S. President Abraham Lincoln realized Nebraska’s voters would be a political asset in the struggle with the Confederacy, and in 1864 the U.S. Congress passed an act enabling the people of Nebraska to draw up a constitution and seek admission to the Union. Nebraskans were divided on the desirability of statehood, with opponents (mostly Democrats) arguing that the expense of state government would offset any benefits. Voters rejected statehood in 1864, but in 1866 they narrowly approved a constitution that had been drafted by the territorial legislature. They also elected people to fill posts in the new state, including two U.S. senators. Because Democratic opposition to the Civil War and to the homestead laws had alienated many Nebraskans, all but one of these officials were Republicans. However, President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat who had become president after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, vetoed the act admitting Nebraska to the Union, arguing that the admission process violated the Constitution of the United States. But Congress granted statehood over Johnson’s veto, and on March 1, 1867, Nebraska became the 37th state of the Union. In 1867 a special commission selected the village of Lancaster, located on the banks of Salt Creek, as the new state capital and renamed it Lincoln. The principal state offices were moved to Lincoln at the end of 1868.
|D||Late 19th Century|
|D1||Native American Warfare|
Although almost all eastern lands in Nebraska had been ceded to whites by 1854, the Sioux and the Cheyenne remained the owners of the western lands. In the early 1860s an Oglala Sioux chief, Red Cloud, fought to keep the U.S. Army from opening the Bozeman Trail, which led to the Montana goldfields and crossed an important Oglala hunting area in Nebraska and South Dakota. In 1866 Red Cloud assumed leadership of a group of Sioux and Cheyenne that opposed the construction that year of three army forts to protect travelers on the Bozeman Trail. For two years Red Cloud and his allies besieged these forts, and after long negotiations, in 1869 Red Cloud and the U.S. government signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie, under which the United States agreed to abandon the Bozeman Trail. The U.S. government, however, deceived Red Cloud; the treaty also included a provision that relocated the Sioux from Nebraska to a reservation in what is now South Dakota. Many Sioux, who opposed the agreement, refused to move to the reservation and continued fighting.
In 1874 Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer led mining experts on an expedition into the Black Hills of South Dakota and discovered gold; whites poured into the area. To keep their land free of occupation by white settlers, Crazy Horse, an Oglala Sioux leader, and Sitting Bull, a Hunkpapa Sioux leader, joined forces. On June 25, 1876, Custer and the Seventh Cavalry attacked the camps of Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull on the banks of the Little Bighorn River in what is now Montana. In the ensuing Battle of the Little Bighorn, Crazy Horse and his warriors killed Custer and most of his cavalry. The U.S. Army then pursued Crazy Horse, who finally surrendered in northwestern Nebraska on May 6, 1877.
Ultimately almost all the Native Americans remaining in Nebraska were removed to reservations outside the state, most in what is now Oklahoma. The exceptions were the Santee Sioux in Knox County, the Omaha in Thurston County, and the Winnebago in Cuming County.
Nebraska’s population grew rapidly after the Civil War, especially as the threat of attacks from Native Americans decreased. In 1860 the population had been less than 30,000; in 1890 it was close to 1 million. Union veterans of the Civil War constituted a large part of the new population, which also included immigrants from Germany, Sweden, and other countries of northern and central Europe. The two most important factors in the growth of population and in the settlement of the state were the railroads and the land policies of the federal government.
The Union Pacific Railroad, so closely associated with the organization of Nebraska Territory, was completed in 1869, with its eastern terminus at Omaha. The Burlington, the state’s second major railroad, began building west from the Missouri River at Plattsmouth in 1869, and by 1881 it had reached Benkelman, near the state’s southwest border. The federal government granted nearly 17 percent of Nebraska’s land to various railroad companies; the Union Pacific and Burlington received more than seven-eighths of the total amount. These two railroads advertised their lands in the eastern United States and sold them to settlers at low prices in order to promote population growth and agriculture, and thereby generate more traffic for the railroads.
|D3||Post-Civil War Economy|
In the eastern and south central parts of the state most of the settlers raised livestock, corn, wheat, and other grains. In the west, particularly in the Sand Hills, which constitute about one-quarter of the state’s area, ranching became the dominant economic activity. Nebraska’s ranches originally were stocked with cattle driven up from Texas in the years following the Civil War, and Ogallala, for a time the northern terminus of the trail from Texas, later gained some fame as one of a number of so-called cow towns.
Nebraska settlers found life difficult. Wood and water were scarce in most of the state; as a result, settlers often had to cut bricks of sod out of the ground to build houses. These sod houses ranged from simple dugouts built into the side of a hill to elaborate two-story buildings. On the High Plains, away from the streams, it was frequently necessary to drill wells more than 100 m (330 ft) into the ground to find water.
The lack of water made agriculture, which had quickly become the state’s principal economic activity, especially difficult. Periodic droughts, particularly in the 1870s and 1890s, drastically reduced crop yields. In 1874 and 1875, crops in many areas were destroyed by huge swarms of grasshoppers. In addition, the expansion of farm production around the world had lowered crop prices after the Civil War, often making it impossible for Nebraska’s farmers to make ends meet even when harvests were good. These problems were worsened by the fact that most farmers had little money and often found it necessary to mortgage their land to purchase the machinery needed to cultivate it. Low crop prices often made it impossible for farmers to repay the loans, and many lost their land.
The importance of agriculture meant that problems of farmers dominated the politics of the new state. The program of the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry, a fraternal society established in 1867 to advance the social, economic, and political interests of farmers and commonly called the National Grange, sought to help farmers by encouraging the cooperative manufacture and distribution of farm machinery and other goods and by urging state regulation of railroad rates, which farmers felt were excessive. The cooperative manufacturing and distribution enterprises did not succeed, but the state constitution of 1875, adopted under Granger influence, authorized the state to regulate railroad fares, severely restricted state taxing and spending powers, and restricted the legal amount of state government debt.
When economic conditions improved somewhat in the late 1870s, the Granger movement declined, but in the late 1880s farmers faced the same problems once again. Low crop prices, high operating costs, and high interest rates made it difficult for farmers to operate at a profit. Farmers’ Alliances, farmers’ organizations founded to advance their social, educational, financial, and political interests, were organized in Nebraska in 1880. The state legislature, despite constitutional authorization, had failed to take any effective regulatory action against the railroads. The Farmers’ Alliance, which was convinced that high freight rates and other railroad pricing practices were the primary causes of agricultural distress, began a campaign against the railroad companies that soon widened into an attack on grain-elevator operators, bankers (for refusal to reduce interest rates), and other businessmen who were perceived as greedy.
Dissatisfied with the Republican Party, which had dominated state government since 1867, and having no confidence in the Democrats, the Farmers' Alliance created a new political organization, the Populist, or People’s Party. Populists achieved notable victories in Nebraska and in other Great Plains states, and in 1892 the party held its first national convention at Omaha, nominating James B. Weaver of Iowa for president.
Although the Populists continued to be a force in Nebraska politics throughout the 1890s, their lack of national success led them in 1896 to support the Democratic presidential nominee, William Jennings Bryan, a Lincoln lawyer and from 1891 to 1895 a representative in the U.S. Congress from Nebraska. Bryan was defeated by the Republican candidate, Ohio Governor William McKinley. The Democrats again nominated Bryan for president in 1900 and 1908, but on both occasions he was defeated. In 1901 Bryan founded the Commoner, an influential weekly paper, in Lincoln, and later as secretary of state for President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), Bryan negotiated 30 treaties of arbitration with foreign countries before resigning in 1915 to protest what he considered was the administration’s bias against Germany.
If unsuccessful as a nationwide party, however, the Populist Party was largely responsible for the adoption in Nebraska of the secret ballot; the initiative, which allowed citizens to enact laws through the ballot box; the referendum, which allowed citizens to vote on laws the legislature had passed; laws regulating public utilities; and other reforms. Agrarian reformers, however, failed to override Democratic Governor James Boyd’s veto of a bill to lower railroad rates in 1892.
By the beginning of the 20th century, agricultural conditions had improved slightly and the Populists generally drifted back into either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. From 1900 to the beginning of World War I in 1914, however, both political parties in Nebraska were characterized by a growing belief that more government action was required to meet individual needs. Nebraska enacted a direct primary for the nomination of political candidates, and in 1912, George W. Norris, a Republican who also believed in an active government, was elected to the first of his five successive terms in the U.S. Senate.
|E1||World War I and the Depression|
World War I had a profound effect on Nebraska. The state’s farmers, aided by bountiful rains and high prices for crops, reached new heights of prosperity and additional land was brought under cultivation. Nebraskans took pride in the fact that U.S. generals John J. Pershing and Charles G. Dawes were both from Lincoln. But many Nebraskans also doubted the loyalty of the state’s large German American population, many of whom spoke German in everyday conversation and read local German-language newspapers. Nebraska’s State Council of Defense was given broad powers of investigation to ensure uniform support for the war and created an atmosphere of persecution for German Americans and those who opposed the war or expressed radical political views.
In the 1920s Nebraska saw some degree of prosperity, but farmers suffered. Wartime demand had increased the amount of land under cultivation. When demand disappeared after the war ended, crop prices dropped sharply. In addition, operating costs steadily increased. As a result, in the 1920s farmers did not prosper to the degree that other segments of the population did.
The depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929 hit Nebraska particularly hard. Few Nebraskans lost much money in the stock market, but crop prices, which had been relatively low in the 1920s, fell even lower after the crash, and in December 1932 crop prices reached the lowest point in Nebraska history. Droughts then aggravated the distress of farmers, causing low yields and severe dust storms. In response, desperate farmers began vigilante activities, trying to keep products off the market to increase prices. Produce trucks were halted on the roads to Sioux City, Iowa, and milk trucks were overturned along roads leading into Omaha. Farmers also organized penny auctions to allow farmers to rebuy farms that banks had taken over. After foreclosing on a farm, a bank would try to recover its costs by selling the farm at auction. At a penny auction, farmers offered ridiculously low bids and intimidated other would-be buyers so that the farmer could buy back the farm at an extremely low price. Finally, in February 1933 farmers marched on the capitol in Lincoln to demand that the government place a moratorium, or a temporary freeze, on foreclosures; three weeks later, a foreclosure moratorium bill was enacted. Crop prices improved somewhat in the late 1930s, but drought hampered farm production throughout the decade. The number of people in Nebraska on some form of government relief reached more than 15 percent of the population and did not diminish substantially until after World War II began in 1939.
The depression demonstrated the need to solve some of the recurring problems faced by agriculture in Nebraska. Federal government programs provided additional sources of credit for farmers and helped to stabilize prices for the state’s basic commodities by paying farmers to take land out of production. Irrigation had been practiced since the 1880s and more extensively after the National Reclamation Act of 1902 had set aside proceeds from federal land sales in certain states to pay for irrigation projects. The construction of large reservoirs and dams in the late 1930s, however, dramatically expanded the use of irrigation. Complementing irrigation was the development of hydroelectric power plants, which used the same water that later filled the irrigation ditches. In 1933 the legislature authorized the creation of public power and irrigation districts as political subdivisions. The federal government also began an extensive program to encourage soil conservation in the 1930s, and by 1950 all Nebraska farms and ranches belonged to soil-conservation districts.
|E3||World War II|
During World War II, as during World War I, Nebraska’s principal contribution was the production of food. However, many of the state’s small industries produced a wide variety of war equipment, and heavy bombers were assembled in Omaha. Three ordnance plants and a large naval ammunition depot were built in the state, and 11 large air bases provided training facilities for the army. After the war the worldwide headquarters of the Strategic Air Command (now called the U.S. Strategic Command) were located at Offutt Air Force Base.
World War II brought unprecedented prosperity to Nebraska’s agriculture. Federally-assisted construction of dams helped farmers in Nebraska and other states drained by the Missouri River by controlling floods and providing water for irrigation. Thereafter the farmers remained generally healthy and prosperous as a result of adequate rainfall, improved farming methods, irrigation, conservation, and relatively stable prices for farm products. Center-pivot irrigation, in which a long pipe with sprinklers moves around a circular field like the large hand of a clock, spread rapidly after the 1970s. By the mid-1990s some 80,000 wells had been sunk to pump water from the huge system of aquifers below the state to the thirsty fields above. Agriculture became increasingly mechanized and the size of farms increased while their number decreased, reducing the need for farm workers, many of whom moved to the cities. The rural unemployment was partly offset by the development of oil fields (most of which are now closed), and Nebraska remains primarily an agricultural state.
Although normally a Republican state, in difficult times Nebraska voters have occasionally abandoned the Republican Party. From 1901 to World War I, Democrats and Republicans rather evenly divided control of the state, and William Jennings Bryan played a major role in the state’s political affairs. In the 1920s state officers were generally Republican, although the Democrats did continue to elect some U.S. representatives. In the 1930s the Democrats controlled the state’s political offices.
In the 1920s and the 1930s the single most influential politician in Nebraska was U.S. Senator George Norris. Nominally a Republican, his support of an active government role in alleviating social and economic problems attracted votes from Republicans and Democrats alike. In 1924 Norris publicly supported Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, the Progressive Party presidential candidate, against Republican President Calvin Coolidge (Coolidge won), and subsequently fought Coolidge’s policies in the Senate. His support for Democratic presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt of New York greatly irritated the national Republican Party. By 1936 neither Norris nor the Republican Party wanted each other; in his last two campaigns that year and in 1942 he ran as an independent.
Nebraskans also experimented with their form of government. In 1934 the state constitution was amended to provide for a unicameral legislature of 43 members elected on ballots that did not list party affiliation. The first session of the unicameral legislature convened in 1937. In 1963 the membership was increased to 49.
From 1940 until 1959 Nebraska elected only Republican governors. A period of Democratic control began in 1959 and lasted until 1967, when a Republican became governor after the first election for a four-year term. The state elected a Democrat in 1970 and reelected him in 1974. A Republican was elected in 1978 and a Democrat in 1982.
In 1986 Republican Kay Orr, a former state treasurer, and Democrat Helen Boosalis, a former Lincoln mayor, competed for the governorship—the first time in the nation’s history that both major parties had nominated women for the highest office in any state. Orr won, becoming the first female Republican governor in U.S. history. In 1990, however, Orr was defeated by Democrat Benjamin Nelson, an insurance executive who attacked Orr for raising taxes and supporting a proposed low-level nuclear waste dump. Nelson was reelected in 1994. In 1998 Republican Mike Johanns was elected governor.
Nebraska continued its traditional dependence on agriculture in the late 20th century, sustained by underground water sources and heavy government subsidies. Between 1945 and 1990, the amount of irrigated land in the state increased from 364,230 hectares (900,000 acres) to almost 3,237,600 hectares (8,000,000 acres). Federal farm subsidies are an important part of Nebraska agriculture. From 1985 to 1989 Nebraska farmers received almost $4.3 billion in federal subsidies, 45 percent of net agricultural income (compared to 33 percent for farmers nationally).
In the early and middle 1980s Nebraska suffered through its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. As in other farm depressions, many farmers had taken large loans to purchase land and modernize operations and were driven into bankruptcy when crop prices dropped and land values fell. Many farmers lost their land, and some banks with extensive farm loans followed them into insolvency.
The metropolitan economies of Omaha and Lincoln escaped the worst effects of the farm crisis, but rural areas, heavily dependent on farming and farm-related business, suffered. Unable to find jobs, young people fled the state in large numbers—83 of 93 counties lost population in the 1980s.
In 1982 Nebraska adopted Initiative 300, a constitutional amendment that seeks to protect family farms by prohibiting individual farmers from selling their land to corporations. Initiative 300 does not appear to have significantly slowed the continued consolidation of Nebraska farms, but it has withstood all constitutional and political challenges.
In 1987 land prices began to recover. To further promote growth and recovery, the state that year adopted a package of tax incentives. Pressured by the agriculture corporation ConAgra, which threatened to move its headquarters out of Omaha if the state did not modify its tax laws, the legislature lowered its highest individual income tax rate from 9.5 percent to 7 percent, exempted certain kinds of business equipment from property taxes, and gave tax breaks to companies that created jobs.
Although the large, older Omaha-based companies—such as ConAgra, the Union Pacific Railroad, and Mutual of Omaha—continued to influence the state’s economy, new smaller companies scattered across the state in the telecommunications, insurance, health care, and tourist industries became increasingly important in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Businesses with fewer than 100 employees accounted for three-quarters of Nebraska’s nonfarm employment and the proliferation of these businesses fueled the state’s economic revival. As a result Nebraska’s economy has grown steadily in the 1990s, enabling the state to avoid most of the effects of a national recession in early years of the decade. In addition, all but 20 of the state’s counties halted their population losses in the early 1990s.
Despite the economic expansion, Nebraska retains its heavy reliance on agriculture. Education and medical costs have increased in the 1990s, property taxes remain high, and the population in some rural areas continues to decline. But the effects of these problems have been greatly eased by the state’s buoyant economy.
The history section of this article was contributed by Donald R. Hickey. The remainder of the article was contributed by Bradley H. Baltensperger.