"History and Stories of Nebraska"
by Addison Erwin Sheldon

Produced by Connie Snyder


A Short History of Nebraska



A Land under Water.-- Earliest Nebraska was a land under water in the bottom of a great inland sea. Great fishes swam in the water. Shell fish lived in the shallows and died and left their skeletons in the soft mud. Corals grew and lily-like sea plants lifted their heads above the waves and died. Slowly the sea filled up. The skeletons of millions of dead animals and plants hardened into rock and became the limestone whose edges now appear on the sides of ravines and along the streams of eastern Nebraska. The sea bottom slowly rose and land appeared, a land of marshes and forests in which grew great ferns and trees which are now found only far south. In this swampy land lived great lizards, some of them taller than elephants and much longer, with many other strange animals. After many thousand years there was more dry land, and trees of all kinds grew in Nebraska, splendid oaks, maples, beeches and willows among them. We find their leaves today pressed and printed in the red sandstone rocks.

A Land of Camels, Tigers and Little Horses.-- Then the sea came again and covered the land. New kinds of shells and fish lived in the sea and left their skeletons on the bottom. Again the land rose, was covered with grass and trees and Nebraska became the home of camels, tapirs, monkeys, tigers and little horses, some of them no larger than dogs. The rhinoceros, elephant and other large animals lived here. The bones of all these are found to-day beneath our soil.

A Land of Ice. Then came moving fields of ice from the north plowing across eastern Nebraska and leaving, when they melted, deep beds of clay and the large pink boulders seen on the hillsides. Two or three times these ice fields covered the land. The climate of Nebraska became so cold that the warm country plants and animals died. Other plants and animals came in. The grassy plains appeared. The climate became drier. The rivers began to cut out their present valleys. Nebraska as we know it to-day came into being.

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Ancient Nebraska Tools.
(Courtesy R. F. Gilder, Omaha, Nebraska.)
a, b, c, d, fish hooks; f, buckle; g, h, j, needles; i, shuttle; k, bone implement.

The First Nebraska People.-- A long time before the white men came, men and women and children lived in Nebraska. They lived in earth houses built upon the rounded tops of the hills not more than half a mile from the springs and streams where there was water. They lived upon the tops of the hills because they were afraid to live in the valleys for there were enemies all about seeking to kill and to rob them. From the hill tops they could see the enemies before they arrived.

How They Lived.-- These men and women had a very hard life, although their home was in a land that was beautiful and rich. Their life was hard because they had to make out of trees, bone or stone all the tools they used. Arrows and spears to kill game, knives to cut it into meat, axes to chop trees and hammers to drive stakes and to fight their enemies,-- all these tools and many more were made from stone. They made also out of bone curious little needles, gimlets and pinchers with which to sew their clothing and to aid them in doing their other work. It took a great deal of time to make these tools, so the men and women who dwelt in Nebraska in these prehistoric days were kept busy from one year's end to the other trying to get a living of the very simplest kind. They lived so much in fear of enemies that every family made a hiding place for its food and tools in the earth floor of its house. These hiding places were holes shaped like a bottle and were six or eight feet long, with a narrow neck coming up to the dirt floor. They covered this narrow neck with sticks and with clay and sometimes built fires on top of it so that strangers would never suspect that it was there.

Their Graves.-- These people buried their dead in mounds. They sometimes covered the bodies with piles of rock, placing alongside the bodies stone axes, arrows, spears and many other useful things which the living would gladly have kept but which they laid in the grave because they believed the spirit of the dead would some day need these things and be able to use them.

How We Know about Them.-- All that we know of these early people we have learned from their graves and from the floors and fireplaces of their houses, deeply covered now with several feet of Nebraska soil, and from the curious bottle-shaped holes beneath their houses in which they hid their food and tools. Yet from these we know what they ate, what kinds of animals they killed, how they sewes their clothing together and how they cut down large trees and used them for posts in building their houses. We also know some things which they believed about a spirit world and about the life beyond the grave.

They made pottery, moulding the clay, when they found some that was plastic and strong, into cups, jugs, pitchers and wide-mouthed vessels which they could use in cooking their food. There were several kinds of pottery made by these people, some yellow, some red, some black, some with pounded clam shells mixed with the clay to make it tough and strong, some with sand and pounded rocks for the same purpose.

Ancient Nebraska House.
(Courtesy R. F. Gilder, Omaha, Nebraska.)

Their Homes.-- Most of the homes of these people were in the eastern part of Nebraska along the bluffs of the Missouri River and on the hills near the small streams flowing into the Missouri. Their buried fireplaces have also been found in the Bad Lands of northwestern Nebraska and South Dakota. They never lived far from wood and water. They had no horses and could not easily cross the great plains. They were different from any of the Indian tribes found in Nebraska by the first white people who came. Faces found upon stone and clay images in their houses resemble some of those found in Mexico and Central America, but we do not know where these earliest people of Nebraska came from or what became of them.

How We Know Their Story.-- Their houses have long since disappeared. Several feet of soil cover the sites. In many cases trees two or three hundred years old stand above them. You could hardly tell to-day that houses had ever been there or that the children had ever played upon their earth floors and gathered about the fireplaces in the center, eager for the evening meal and for the stories of hunting and long journeys made on foot which the older people told. But just as if your house should be destroyed and the toys and tools within it should be buried beneath several feet of soil for hundreds of years, until some future man, digging with a spade, should find these things, which you now use in your daily life, and from them know how you lived and what you thought; so to-day from these relics and from these gifts laid away in the mound-covered graves upon the hills, we know the story of these earliest people in Nebraska.


  1. How do we know that earliest Nebraska was under water, later the home of camels, monkeys and elephants, later covered with ice?
  2. What difference, if any, in the house sites of the prehistoric people and of the first white settlers? Why?
  3. What became of the little horses no larger than dogs which lived in Nebraska in early ages?
  4. What was the belief of the prehistoric Nebraska people regarding another life and how do we know?
  5. How much land did a prehistoric family need to get its living? Why?
  6. How far from a stream or lake could these people live? Why?
  7. What schools had the children of these people and what did they study?
  8. Is there anything in your locality which tells about earliest Nebraska and, if so, what does it tell?