Evolution & Naming of Nebraska

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 The Evolution and Naming of Nebraska
  Home  |  Evolution of York County  |  Naming of York County

Nebraska is such an unusual shaped state that most people can easily find it on a map, but it didn't always look like it does today. It hasn't always been known as Nebraska either.

Nebraska was part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The United States had paid about four cents an acre for all the land included in this treaty. Soon after the land became part of the United States, explorers started to travel through the area. They kept journals and made maps of what they found. Some of the explorers misinterpreted what they saw. When they returned and told about the area, it didn't sound like we had made a very good bargain with France.

Zebulon PikeLieutenant Zebulon Pike (left) was one of the first explorers of this new region. When he returned from his 1806 exploration, he described the area as "barren soil, parched and dryed up for eight months in the year" and that it would "become in time equally celebrated as the sandy desarts [sic] of Africa."

Stephen LongMajor Stephen H. Long did several explorations through the plains area too. After his 1819-1820 explorations he reported, " I do not hesitate in giving the opinion, that it [the plains] is almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for subsistence."

Major Long (right) helped spread and popularize Pike's myth of the plains being a barren parched desert. In 1823 he made a map, and labeled the area from Nebraska to Oklahoma as the "Great Desert." Many years later the region was still being called "The Great American Desert".

Some historians think because people thought the plains area was a desert, that it slowed the westward development of our country. Others historians think it may have actually helped develop our country, because it encouraged people to go all the way to the west coast instead of settling in the plains first.

The Naming of Nebraska

Lt. John C. Fremont, who was also an explorer, is credited with first using the word "Nebraska." He mentioned the Nebraska River in one of his reports. The word came from the Oto Indian name "Nebrathka", which was their name for the Platte River. The descriptive name meant flat water.

Congress didn't use the term "Nebraska Territory" until 1844 — over forty years after the Louisiana Purchase. William Wilkins, who was the United States' Secretary of War, suggested in his report of November 30, 1844, that "the Platte or Nebraska River being the central stream would very properly furnish a name to the territory."

There were attempts to organize the Nebraska Territory on December 17, 1844, but the bill failed to pass. The second attempt was denied too. Finally a fourth bill, called the Kansas-Nebraska Act, was passed after a very long and sometimes bitter struggle. It was signed by President Franklin Pierce on May 30, 1854. Nebraska was now open for settlement!

There were nine distinct changes to Nebraska's boundaries.

Nebraska Territory, 1854This map, drawn by Edward L. Sayre, is what the Nebraska Territory looked like in 1854. At that time there were only a handful of squatters living along the Missouri River and a few clusters of people courageous enough to establish the territory's earliest settlements.

A great many fur traders, gold seekers, missionaries, soldiers, freighters, and emmigrants were traveling through the Nebraska Territory in 1854. Some were arriving with intentions of making Nebraska their home; most were passing through; others were returning back to the east.

May 30, 1854 - May 11, 1858. (above, left) Mr. Sayre's map shows the vastness of the Nebraska Territory during this time. The territory stretched from Kansas to Canada, and from the Missouri River to a western boundary beyond the summit of the Rocky Mountains.

May 11, 1858 - February 14, 1859. The same boundaries exist, except a section of land east of the Missouri River was taken from the Nebraska Territory and left as an unorganized territory. Today it is part of Iowa.

February 14, 1859 - February 28, 1861. The next change was to the western border. The Oregon Territory disappears as our western neighbor and that part of the country was now called Washington. By 1859 the county boundaries were expanding too, as seen here.

Nebraska Territory, 1861February 28, 1861 - March 2, 1861. (right) It was only a a few days, but what a change! Colorado has been defined and now shares our southern border with Kansas. We also see two Nebraska counties established — Morton and Wilson counties.

Morton was named after J. Sterling Morton; Wilson was named after a land office official. If you look closely at the map above, you can see the outlines of these two counties in the panhandle (look for the rectangles along the river). Today these counties would be somewhere in Wyoming. Later the names, Morton and Wilson, would be used for other counties in Nebraska.

March 2, 1861 - March 3, 1863. (above, right) Dakota was now between Nebraska and Canada. Nebraska may have been squeezed in from the top, but it expanded to the west beyond Green River, Wyoming, as shown in this map by Edward L. Sayre. 

March 3, 1863 - May 26, 1864. The area west of Nebraska was named Idaho.

May 26, 1864 - July 25, 1868. Dakota was extended southward and cut off the western end of Nebraska, bringing the state nearer its present size. When Nebraska was admitted as a state in 1867, it only contained about 20% of the land defined as the original Nebraska Territory.

July 25,1868 - October 23, 1890. The Dakota Territory to the west was renamed Wyoming.

October 23, 1890. A straight line was drawn between the Keya Paha River and the Missouri River in the northeastern corner of the state, bringing what is now Boyd County into Nebraska. Since then, the size of Nebraska has been the same, with the exception of a squabble or two on land altered by the changing river beds.

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