Nebraska recently celebrated its 156th anniversary of statehood. To say the state’s years as a territory were exciting is an understatement. Saturday historical author Jeff Barnes of Omaha was the guest speaker at the Dawson County Historical Society annual meeting in Lexington. His topic was “The Mad Queen of the Prairies: The Frenzied First Years of the Nebraska Territory from 1854-1859.”
A former newspaper reporter and editor, Barnes is also a former trustee of the Nebraska State Historical Society and a popular speaker on the Nebraska Humanities circuit. He has given more than 700 presentations in eight Great Plains States and has written seven books on various historical topics.
Nebraska’s name stems from a word in the Otoe language meaning “flat water,” referring to the Platte River. The first known use of Nebraska that Barnes has found is in an 1836 book written by Washington Irving, followed by a reference to Nebraska in explorer John C. Fremont’s papers.
From 1844 to 1853 there were five different versions of a bill to create the Nebraska territory. Finally, in 1854 Stephen Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which proposed popular sovereignty where a state could decide whether it wanted to be free or allow slaves. Passage of the bill created a huge battle in Congress that would lead directly to the Civil War, noted Barnes.
The first thing that then President Franklin Pierce needed to do was appoint a Governor for the Nebraska Territory. This was easier said than done.
Before the Kansas-Nebraska Act had passed Missouri residents had selected William Walker, Chief of the Wyandot Indian tribe as a provisional Governor of the Nebraska Territory. Because it was considered Indian Territory no settlement could be allowed, but the Missourians wanted to be ready.
President Pierce first asked William O. Butler from Kentucky to serve as Governor of the new territory but he declined. He then appointed Francis Burt of South Carolina, who accepted and began the long journey to Nebraska, arriving on Oct. 4, 1854, in Table Creek, which is now Nebraska City. He then traveled on to Bellevue, the oldest community in Nebraska Territory having been founded in 1836 as a fur trading post. But a chronic intestinal ailment proved too much for Burt, and two days after taking the oath of office he died.
Thomas B. Cuming, who was the Territorial Secretary, was sworn in as acting governor. He wasted no time in ordering the territory’s first census. Because of the census divisions between those living north and south of the Platte River arose, not only along political lines, but also in where to locate the new territorial capitol.
In 1855 the first meeting of the territorial legislature took place in Omaha City (now Omaha) in a brick building built by a Council Bluffs, Iowa, steam ferry company and donated to the territorial government. As always there was an ulterior motive as Council Bluffs wanted the transcontinental railroad to come through their community and having the Nebraska territorial capitol right across the river only made sense.
That year Mark Izard became the second territorial governor, but he was never a popular choice and controversy spotted his term as governor.
Napoleon B. Giddings served as the territory’s first representative to the U.S. Congress, but in a sign of the times, he was actually from Missouri as the only qualification in the 1850s was a territorial representative had to be a U.S. citizen.
The battle for the Capitol would go on until statehood in 1867 with Plattsmouth, Douglas and Neapolis among the contenders. In 1858, just as it appeared a location would be decided, a filibuster blocked the vote.
In the meantime, the governor’s office became a revolving door with three more men assuming the post by 1859. Barnes notes he is working on another territorial history segment that will cover 1860-67, including the midnight move of the state seal from Omaha to the village of Lancaster, which would eventually become Lincoln and home of Nebraska’s State Capitol.