"History and Stories of Nebraska"
by Addison Erwin Sheldon

Produced by Connie Snyder



The Name of Nebraska.-- Nebraska had no name for many years. To the early fur traders it was either the "Missouri country" or the "Platte country," stretching westward to the headwaters of the Platte in the Rocky Mountains. It was the land of the Omaha, Otoe, Ponca, Pawnee and Sioux Indians, for these were the tribes along the Missouri and Platte rivers whom the fur traders met and with whom they traded. The most common way of describing this region a hundred years ago was as "The Council Bluffs," by which name the fur traders meant the shores of the Missouri above the mouth of the Platte. A little later, when the first emigrants to Oregon and pioneers to the Rocky Mountains began to cross this country, it was "The Great Buffalo Plains," for the animal most seen and most sought for, by both Indians and white men, gave its name to the country. It was also called "The Great American Desert" and is so named on some of the early maps.

Fifty years were needed for the making and naming of Nebraska.

A Wild Region Called the Indian Country.-- From October 1, 1804, to July 4, 1805, it was part of the territory of Indiana and its capital the town of Vincennes. From July 4, 1805, until December 7, 1812, it was part of the territory of Louisiana with its capital at St. Louis. It then became a part of the territory of Missouri until the year 1821, when Missouri was made a state and Nebraska was cut off and left outside the control of any state or territorial government. In this wild region, under no government, a great deal of trouble was made by fur traders who sold whisky to the Indians, cheated them, and killed their game. Quarrels and wars became frequent. To end these troubles, all the land west of the Missouri River then belonging to the United States and outside of the states of Missouri and Louisiana and the territory of Arkansas was, on June 30, 1834, called "The Indian Country," and placed under strict laws. All white men were forbidden to hunt, trap, or settle in the Indian country without special permission from the government. It was made a crime to take liquor there. The Indian Superintendent at St. Louis was made the governor over the Indian country.

Nebraska and Oregon.-- In these early days the United States claimed all of the Oregon country westward across the Rocky Mountains from Nebraska to the Pacific Ocean. England claimed it, too, as did also Spain and Russia. The English Hudson's Bay Company, in order to get the Indian fur trade, had built forts in the Rocky Mountains and upon the Pacific coast. These English forts and fur traders tried to keep out American settlers. This made danger of war between England and the United States. The United States had only a very few pioneer settlers in Oregon. Between these and the Mississippi valley lay the Rocky Mountains and the great Indian country where no white people lived. To protect and help the Americans who wanted to make Oregon their home, a plan was made at Washington to open the Indian country west of the Missouri and to bring in settlers who should raise crops to feed the soldiers and the emigrants on their way to Oregon. To prepare the way, Lieutenant John C. Fremont was sent in 1842 by the United States to explore the plains and the Rocky Mountains. Now, for the first time, the name "Nebraska" appears. Fremont's account speaks of the "Nebraska River." The secretary of war, William Wilkins, in his report of November 30, 1844, says, "The Platte or Nebraska River being the central stream would very properly furnish a name to the territory. Troops and supplies from the projected Nebraska territory would be able to contend for Oregon with any force coming from the sea." "Nebrathka," meaning "flat water," was the Otoe Indian name for the Platte.

Stephen A. Douglas

The First Nebraska Bill.-- The first bill to make a land called Nebraska was introduced in Congress on December 17, 1844. This first Nebraska included the states of Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota and parts of Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. For the next ten years there was a great struggle in Congress over the making of Nebraska Territory. Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois, was the champion of the Nebraska idea. Many obstacles were in the way.

Obstacles to Nebraska Territory: Indians, Railroad Question, Slavery.-- The Indian question was one. Indian tribes east of the Mississippi were being moved west in order to make room for the white people. To open Nebraska territory for white settlement would crowd the Indians south. The southern people did not wish so many Indians on their frontier.

There was the Pacific railroad question. The South wished a railroad to be built to the Pacific Ocean through the southern country, while the North wished it to be built by way of the Platte valley in the Nebraska country. Both wished to get the Indians out of the way. The making of Nebraska would aid the northern project, therefore the South opposed it.

There was the slavery question. In the year 1820, a fierce dispute had risen between the North and the South over whether Missouri should be admitted as a slave state or a free state. It was at last agreed that Missouri might come in as a slave state, but that the rest of the country west and north of Missouri should be forever free. This was called the "Missouri Compromise." Under it Nebraska would have come in free. Now the South feared making more free states. That was another reason why it opposed the making of Nebraska.

The Nebraska-Kansas Bill.-- This first Nebraska bill failed to pass. In 1848, Senator Douglas introduced a second bill. This also failed. In 1853 a third bill was defeated. In 1854 a fourth Nebraska bill came up in Congress. It was now called the "Nebraska-Kansas Bill" and made two new territories out of the Indian country. It also provided that the settlers in each territory should say by their votes whether it should be slave or free. This made a fierce fight over the Nebraska-Kansas bill. The South said that Nebraska and Kansas belonged to the whole country, that all people should be allowed to go there and take their property with them and that the settler from the South had the same right to take his slaves there, that the settler from the North had to take his horses and cattle. The North said that Nebraska and Kansas had been made free by the Missouri Compromise, that slavery was wrong and that there should be no more slave territory, but that both South and North should keep their agreement made in 1820 and make the West a home for free men and women and not for slaves. All the country was ablaze with excitement over Nebraska and Kansas.

Nebraska-Kansas Bill.
(From original at Washington, D. C.)

The South and the North Quarrel over Nebraska.-- The old parties -- Whig and Democratic -- were broken up over this question. The churches were broken into northern and southern factions. For months nothing was talked of but the Nebraska-Kansas bill. Feeling grew more and more bitter and it began to appear that there might be war between the South and the North. Finally, after an all-night's contest in Congress the Douglas bill, creating the two new territories of Nebraska and Kansas, was passed and signed by President Pierce on May 30, 1854.

Thus was Nebraska named and made into a territory.


  1. How did the Nebraska region get its different names?
  2. Would the fur traders gain more in the long run by trading liquor to the Indians? Why?
  3. How many bills in Congress for making and naming Nebraska and what obstacles did they meet?
  4. What had Nebraska to do with bringing on the war between the South and the North?
  5. Why were the churches and political parties broken up over the Nebraska question?