Nebraska Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Nebraska has always been primarily an agricultural state. During the nineteenth century, its chief attraction to immigrants was its cheap farm land. By the end of the century, fully one-half of the state’s farmers were foreign born. Throughout the twentieth century, the state’s population growth was relatively slow, but toward the end of the century the state began receiving an influx of Latin American immigrants, primarily from Mexico.

Early European settlement of the Nebraska region was spurred by the [a]Homestead Act of 1862;and Nebraska[Nebraska]Homestead Act of 1862, a federal land law that made public lands in the West almost free to immigrant families. It gave settlers 160-acre plots of land in return for minimal registration fees and the promise to improve the land and live on it for at least five years. The [a]Timber Culture Act of 1873Timber Culture Act of March 3, 1873, introduced by Nebraska’s Senator Hitchcock, Phineas W.Phineas W. Hitchcock, added to the allure of Nebraska land. Under this law, homesteaders could get additional land by planting trees and caring for them for a period of ten years.NebraskaNebraska[cat]STATES;Nebraska[03800]

Nineteenth Century Immigration and Railroads

Wagon trains carried the first settlers into Nebraska, but by the 1850’s, railroads were becoming the primary means of transportation. The railroad companies were aggressive in campaigning and used a variety of promotional campaigns. They placed standing advertisements in East Coast papers and offered trips to editors and their wives on their lines. Pamphlets were often published in vast quantities and distributed in various foreign languages to attract more settlers. Immigration agents were sent to European countries to conduct lectures and public forums about the availability of free land on the western plains. The railroads occasionally even reduced fares for large family groups. In 1864, the federal government granted the railroad companies twenty-mile-wide blocks of land on both sides of their tracks west of the Missouri River that the railroads were entitled to sell to settlers. Settlers naturally preferred to farm as near the tracks as possible, but the railroads generally sold the land to speculators.

To attract new settlers to Nebraska, the state government aggressively promoted Nebraska’s agricultural potential. Under the leadership of Governor Furnas, Robert W.Robert W. Furnas, the state agricultural board sent native-born plants and crops to exhibitions in the East to counter the belief that the regions west of the Mississippi River were unsuitable for agriculture.

Because they owned 17 percent of Nebraska’s land, the railroad companies had a vested interest in attracting settlers. As the railroads extended their lines and built bridges, they also developed new towns in rural areas. Built on local agricultural economies, these towns tended to follow a common pattern: Grain elevators were erected next to railroad tracks, followed by schools, churches, post offices, and business districts within walking distances of the railroads that developed into the classic American “Main Streets.” Grocery stores and post offices frequently became centers where local immigrants gathered and bonded with other members of the communities. The towns’ clubs, lodges, and churches helped to cement social ties.

Large numbers of Swedish immigrants;NebraskaSwedish immigrants settled in Nebraska’s Saunders and Polk counties, but German immigrants;NebraskaGermans constituted the largest immigrant group. They settled primarily in the northeastern section of the state. Eventually, Nebraska became home to more Swedes, Danes, and Czechs than any other state in the region.

Twentieth Century Developments

Nebraska’s population growth throughout most of the twentieth century was slow compared to that of the United States as a whole. The 1900 census recorded 1,066,910 residents of Nebraska. By the year 2004, the state had 1,711,000 residents. The Great Depression of the 1930’s devastated Nebraska’s economy. Many farmers went west to find agricultural work in California, Oregon, and Washington. The latter half of the century saw an influx of Hispanics, many of whom took jobs in the meatpacking and construction industries. By the early twenty-first century, illegal immigration was a major issue, and many native-born Nebraskans were complaining that undocumented workers were taking jobs away from American citizens. In 2009, Nebraska’s unicameral legislature took up the subject of implementing a new system to verify the legal status of foreign-born applicants for jobs.Nebraska

Further Reading
  • Blouet, Brian W., and Frederick C. Luebke. The Great Plains: Environment and Culture. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.
  • Gjerde, Jon. The Minds of the West: The Ethnocultural Evolution of the Rural Middle West, 1830-1917. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.
  • Olson, James C., and Ronald Nagle. The History of Nebraska. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
  • Wishart, David J., ed. Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

Czech and Slovakian immigrants

Flanagan, Edward J.

German immigrants

Iowa

Kansas

Literature

Missouri

My Ántonia

Westward expansion

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