Nebraska is the 37th State Admitted to the Union

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 secretary, Thomas Cuming, became acting governor. Cuming organized the territorial government and took a census so that legislative elections
could be held.

A struggle between the new town of Omaha and the old town of Bellevue to be the territorial capital was decided in favor of Omaha by Cuming, who called the first session of the Legislature to meet there. However, the issue was not settled until Nebraska achieved statehood in 1867, when the capital was moved to Lancaster, now known as Lincoln.

During Nebraska’s early territorial days, settling the countryside, land and currency laws, the proposed transcontinental railroad, the capital’s location, the rivalry between regions north and south of the Platte River, the Republican Party formation, and the defeat of the first efforts to make Nebraska a state were the prevalent issues of the time. The territory’s population grew from 2,732 in November 1854 to 28,841 in 1860.

The election of Abraham Lincoln as president and the Civil War that followed had a significant effect on Nebraska. The First Nebraska Infantry, led by Col. John M. Thayer, was raised for service in the Union Army. Nebraska’s entry into the Union was delayed until after the Civil War ended. In 1865, the Union Pacific Railroad began building a line extending westward from Omaha. This line stretched across Nebraska two years later. By the mid-1880s, the Burlington Railroad lines crisscrossed the state. Many railroads received land grants from state and federal governments to offset construction costs. These lands were sold to new settlers through extensive advertising campaigns. The railroads sent company representatives and pamphlets, which included glowing descriptions of Nebraska’s farmland, to people in the eastern United States and even Europe. These campaigns, plus an influx of Civil War veterans seeking land, swelled Nebraska’s population to 122,993 by 1870.

In early 1867, Congress passed an act admitting Nebraska to the Union, provided that the Nebraska Legislature remove a clause in its proposed state constitution that limited the right to vote to free white males. President Andrew Johnson, convinced that the imposition of this condition on the state constitution was a violation of the U.S. Constitution, vetoed the act, but Congress overrode his veto. Johnson, a Democrat, also did not want Nebraska admitted to the Union because the territory had a Republican majority. Nebraska joined the Union as the 37th state on March 1, 1867. The people elected David Butler as the first governor, and Lincoln was selected as the site of the state capital on July 29. A state university and agriculture college were established on Feb. 15, 1869.

As new states entered the Union, Congress made land grants to provide support for public education. On April 19, 1864 the U.S. Congress passed, and President Abraham Lincoln signed, the enabling act for Nebraska statehood. Upon its admission to the Union on March 1, 1867, Nebraska received 2,797,520 acres of land for the “support of the common school.” This original endowment represented nearly one eighteenth of the entire state of Nebraska, or 4,371 square miles of land. That is an area larger than the states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined.

This original grant represented sections sixteen and thirty-six in each township “or lands in lieu thereof.” This “in lieu land” provision was necessary because settlers living on sections sixteen and thirty-six before statehood were allowed to remain where they had settled. Thus, other lands in other sections had to be selected for the School Trust.