March 1, 1867 – Nebraska Joins the Union as the 37th State

In 1682, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle claimed 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 1803 the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France for $15,000,000. What became Nebraska was under the control of the United States Government for the first time. In 1812 President James Madison signed a bill creating the Missouri Territory, which included the present-day state of Nebraska.

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 1842 John C. Frémont completed his exploration of the Platte River country with Kit Carson in Bellevue. 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. 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 ongoing creation of new territories by acts of Congress progressively reduced the size of Nebraska.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 had encouraged a flood of European-American settlers, and the United States government pressured the Nebraska tribes to sell their land. Numbers of Native Americans had already been greatly reduced by smallpox epidemics brought by previous settlers.

What became the state of Nebraska was originally home to many tribes, and the names of many places in the state come from Native American names.

After gold was discovered in Wyoming in 1859, a rush of speculators followed overland trails through the interior of Nebraska. Many wagon trains passed through Nebraska on their way west. The travelers were assisted by soldiers at Fort Kearny and other Army forts guarding the Platte River Road between 1846 and 1869. Soldiers also facilitated travel by making improvements on roads, bridges, and ferries. Eventually other towns grew along the Platte River route.

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. In 1867 Colorado was split off and Nebraska, reduced in size to its modern boundaries, was admitted to the Union on this day in history.

The Nebraska Government history site notes that beginning in 1874, General John O’Neill, a native of Ireland and veteran of the American Civil War, encouraged Irish immigration to Nebraska:

The “general,” a rank bestowed on him by admirers because he commanded three Fenian incursions into British-governed Canada, was the founder of O’Neill in Holt County, Nebraska.”

Many Irish coming to O’Neill had emigrated to America earlier, but had settled in eastern cities. O’Neill’s 1876 pamphlet, “Northern Nebraska As a Home for Immigrants,” encouraged immigration to Nebraska, especially for displaced Irish. The history site discloses:

He described the geography and climate of the state; procedures for acquiring land under the Homestead Act; and the economic opportunities available in farming and other occupations. He reported that even servant girls were ‘in good demand all over the state, and receive from $2.50 to $4.50 per week.’”

O’Neill added that people who came should bring money – “$500 or more” for a family, with which to set oneself up.  Single men could get away with less.

Nebraska’s legislature is unique among all state legislatures in the nation because it has a single-house system. It wasn’t always a unicameral, however. The very interesting liberal politician George Norris (July 11, 1861 – September 2, 1944) was responsible for the change. Norris served in both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate as a representative from Nebraska. Norris is best known for his intense crusades against what he characterized as “wrong and evil,” his liberalism, his insurgency against party leaders, his isolationist foreign policy, his support for labor unions, and especially for creating the Tennessee Valley Authority. A 1957 advisory panel of 160 scholars named Norris as the top choice for the five best Senators in U.S. history.

Portrait of George W. Norris

Norris, according to the Nebraska Legislature site, wore out two sets of tires while he drove throughout Nebraska campaigning for a unicameral system. He said the bicameral system was modeled after the British Parliament, which was intended to accommodate not only representatives elected by the people, but members of the aristocracy appointed by the king. Obviously America did not share this need.

The site explains that “Norris’s influence, the Depression and the other ballot issues summoned enough supporters for an overwhelming decision to make Nebraska’s the only one-house legislature in the country. The vote was 286,086 for and 193,152 against a unicameral system.” The new system was implemented in 1937. The website approvingly reports:

The last bicameral session in 1935 ran 110 days, passed 192 bills and cost $202,593. The first unicameral session two years later ran 98 days, passed 214 bills and cost $103,445.”

At Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, you can explore America’s largest indoor rainforest, the Lied Jungle. You can also find the world’s largest indoor desert, the Desert Dome, located under the world’s largest glazed geodesic dome. The aquarium at the Zoo has a 70-foot shark tunnel.

But many people who think of Nebraska think of the storied Nebraska Cornhuskers football team. The team, representing the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, is one of ten football programs to win 800 or more games. Nebraska has more victories against Power Five opponents than any other program, as well as the third most victories all-time, behind only Michigan and Texas. Two of Nebraska’s national championship-winning teams, the 1971 and 1995 teams, are considered to be among the best college football has ever seen.

The Cornhuskers stadium in Lincoln holds more than 90,000 people. Mental Floss remarks that on game day when the stadium is filled, it is the third most populated place in the state, second only to Omaha (434,000) and Lincoln (268,000).

Something else interesting you can learn from Mental Floss is that the Cornhuskers had a series of names previously:

Before their distinctive nickname stuck, the University of Nebraska’s football team was known as the Old Gold Knights, the Antelopes, the Rattlesnake Boys, and the Bugeaters. Apparently tired of referring to his team as ‘the Bugeaters,’ a Nebraska sportswriter borrowed ‘Cornhusker,’ a term used by a team in the neighboring state of Iowa. But no hard feelings—Iowa seemed to prefer ‘the Hawkeyes’ anyway.”

If you are in Nebraska but it’s not football season, you might want to go see “Carhenge” in Alliance, Nebraska. As a Nebraska public library website explains:

Carhenge, which replicates Stonehenge, consists of the circle of cars, 3 standing trilithons within the circle, the heel stone, slaughter stone, and 2 station stones and includes a ‘Car Art Preserve’ with sculptures made from cars and parts of cars. . . . . Built by Jim Reinders as a memorial to his father, it was dedicated at the June 1987 summer solstice.”

Mental Floss claims Reinders said, “It took a lot of blood, sweat, and beers.”

For food, you might (or might not) want to try the “Runza.” Runza is a yeast dough bread pocket with a filling consisting of beef, cabbage or sauerkraut, onions, and seasonings. In Nebraska, the Runza is usually baked in a rectangular shape. (In Kansas, on the other hand, you can find a Runza but most likely in a bun-shaped bread container.) You can access Runza nutritional [sic] information, if you dare, here.

And what to drink with your Runza? You may want to have some of the official state drink: Kool-Aid. According to a Nebraska Studies website, Kool-Aid got its start in Hastings, Nebraska thanks to Edwin Perkins, who was always fascinated by chemistry and enjoyed inventing things. One of his inventions was called Fruit Smack, a name he later changed, first to Kool-Ade, and then to Kool-Aid.

Kool-Ade ad
Courtesy Nebraska’s Hastings Museum

Perkins sent out a mail-order catalogue so people could order Kool-Aid as well as other products he invented. By 1931, the demand for Kool-Aid was so strong, he dropped the rest of the items. By 1950, he had a factory with 300 workers producing nearly a million packets of Kool-Aid a day. In 1953, he sold Kool-Aid to General Foods. But Hastings still holds Kool-Aid Days every August, in honor of its claim to fame.

Kool-Aid Days Parade in Hastings, Nebraska

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