The word “Nebraska” first began to appear in publications in 1842, when Lt. John C. Fremont explored the plains and mountains of the western United States. His report mentions the “Nebraska River,” the Oto Indian name for the Platte River. The term was taken from the Oto word “Nebrathka” meaning “flat water.” U.S. Secretary of War William Wilkins, in his report of Nov. 30, 1844, stated: “The Platte or Nebraska River being the central stream would very properly furnish a name to the (proposed) territory.”
The first bill to organize the new Nebraska Territory, introduced in Congress on Dec. 17, 1844, by Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas, failed to pass. Douglas and other Midwestern politicians wanted the territory organized so a future transcontinental railroad could be built across the Plains. Another bill, called the Kansas-Nebraska Act, was passed after a long, bitter struggle and signed by President Franklin Pierce on May 30, 1854. The struggle between the slave and free states for control in the Nebraska region gave rise to the Republican Party and caused border conflicts before the Civil War. Slaves were first bought and sold in the 1850s in Nebraska City and, at one time, the Underground Railroad may have operated in Nebraska.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act officially created the Kansas and Nebraska territories, opening the area to settlement west of the Missouri River. The Nebraska Territory’s boundaries extended from the 40th parallel to the Canadian border and from the Missouri River to the Continental Divide, including parts of present-day Montana, North and South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado, as well as Nebraska. By 1863, Congress created several more new territories from this region, reducing the Nebraska Territory to about the state’s present size.
President Pierce appointed Francis Burt of South Carolina as the first governor of the Nebraska Territory. When Burt died two days after taking the oath of office on Oct. 16, 1854, the territory’s secretar...