Nebraska’s eastern and northeastern borders are defined by the Missouri River, across which lie Iowa to the east and South Dakota to the north. It is 462 miles across Iowa to its extreme western border at the Wyoming state line. West and south of the state is Colorado. From the northern border at the South Dakota line to the southern border at the Kansas line is 210 miles.
Nebraska’s eastern and northeastern borders are defined by the Missouri River, across which lie Iowa to the east and South Dakota to the north. It is 462 miles across Iowa to its extreme western border at the Wyoming state line. West and south of the state is Colorado. From the northern border at the South Dakota line to the southern border at the Kansas line is 210 miles. With a land mass of 77,358 square miles, Nebraska ranks sixteenth in size of the states, although, with 1,656,870 residents in 1997, it ranked thirty-eighth in population. In 1990, it had a population density of about twenty people per square mile.
Nebraska is considered one of the midwestern states, although it is at the western extreme of the Midwest. Its climate is semiarid, with hot, dry summers and very cold winters. Because glaciers pushed topsoil into the area as they advanced south more than two million years ago, the soil, called till, is fertile. However, droughts sometimes lead to dust storms that blow away some of the richest topsoil from thousands of acres.
Human habitation of the Nebraska area is estimated to have begun more than ten thousand years ago. Ancestors of the bison roamed the plains, supplying settlers with food and fur, from which they fashioned clothing and shelters in the form of tepees. They used animal bones to make buttons and such instruments as knives.
The largest mammoth skeleton ever recovered was found near North Platte. This animal, resembling an elephant, was nearly fourteen feet tall. When the Ice Age arrived more than two million years ago, many of these animals disappeared and eventually became extinct. At the end of the Ice Age, however, some animals, including bison and mammoths, survived, and the ancient people who lived in the area hunted them with spears. These people also farmed and made pottery.
By the 1500’s, Native Americans, notably the Omaha, Oto, Pawnee, and Ponca, occupied the area, living in villages and raising crops of beans, corn, and squash. The Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Sioux were more hunters than farmers. Living in tepees, they roved the plains hunting for animals, mostly bison. The largest Native American group at this time was the Pawnee.
Even before Europeans reached what is now Nebraska, Spanish explorers who had traveled to Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri had claimed for Spain all of the land they had visited and a great deal of land north and west of it that they had not seen. By 1541 both Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and Hernando de Soto had laid claim to much of this land for Spain.
In 1682 René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, had claimed much of the same land for France, naming the whole vast area between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains Louisiana, in honor of King Louis XIV of France. It was not until 1803 that the United States, through the Louisiana Purchase, bought all of this land from France for fifteen million dollars.
Meanwhile, in 1714 Etienne Veniard de Bourgmont, a French explorer, made his way into the Missouri River Valley of Nebraska. Spanish forces were known to have been in the state in 1720, when they clashed with some of the natives, who soundly defeated them. Almost two decades later, in 1739, brothers Paul and Pierre Mallet crossed Nebraska, following the course of the Platte River.
The area was so sparsely populated that its development was slow. It was not until 1823 that the first white settlement was established at Bellevue on the Missouri River in the eastern part of the region. The United States Army had built Fort Atkinson on the Missouri’s west bank four years earlier.
The Oregon Trail passed through Nebraska, so a steady stream of people who set out during the 1840’s to seek their fortunes in the West passed through the area. These early travelers, however, had to keep moving because the government had designated Nebraska as an Indian territory and, at that time, would not permit further white settlement there.
By 1854 the federal government, in enacting the Kansas-Nebraska Act, made Kansas and Nebraska territories. Nebraska was now opened to anyone, mostly Europeans, who wished to settle there. In the same year, Omaha was founded.
The Homestead Act of 1862 gave families or any male over age twenty-one 160 acres of land that would become theirs after five years if they settled on it and improved it. This bonanza attracted so many people that by 1867 Nebraska had sufficient population numbers to justify statehood. With many of its residents still living on the prairie in sod houses, Nebraska became the thirty-seventh state in 1867. Lincoln became its capital. In 1871 the University of Nebraska was founded at Lincoln.
Life was not easy for most of the homesteaders who were given land in Nebraska. The winters were long and harsh. Driving winds howled outside as residents huddled in drafty homes, many of which had been fashioned from squares of sod cut from the prairie. Wood for stoves was scarce.
During the long winters, hungry animals, particularly wolves, roved the prairie looking for food and putting the settlers, particularly small children, at risk. Until the late 1870’s, there was the added threat of attacks by hostile American Indians, which subsided somewhat after the Sioux chief Crazy Horse surrendered at Fort Robinson, where he was murdered in 1877. These were difficult times for people living on the prairie.
The eastern part of Nebraska always received more precipitation than the west, but droughts were common throughout the state, ruining agriculture. Permanent damage was done to the land as dust storms blew valuable topsoil away. A particularly devastating blizzard in 1888 resulted in the deaths of more than two hundred people in Nebraska. Floods in springtime plagued the areas along the Missouri and Platte Rivers.
It was not until late in the nineteenth century that Nebraska farmers began to irrigate their fields with water obtained from great reservoirs that had been constructed along the Platte. In 1895, largely at the instigation of the Populist Party that had been established three years earlier, the state set up a Board of Irrigation. In 1902 the U.S. government passed the Reclamation Act, which provided money for the development of irrigation projects.
Modern Nebraska faces significant water problems: On their way to Nebraska the state’s rivers are siphoned by other states, depriving Nebraska of much-needed water. So great has been the problem that Nebraska has had to tap its aquifer, the subterranean water in porous rocks and gravel, that is not renewable. The use of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals has polluted much of Nebraska’s water, including its aquifer.
Nebraska is known for having the lowest unemployment rate of any state in the United States for many years. During World War I, Nebraska farms supplied much of the food that the armed forces required, and forty-eight thousand Nebraskans went off to serve their country in the war. Wheat and corn production was strong, as was the production of sorghum and soybeans. The state was prosperous until the late 1920’s, when two coincident factors ruined the economy.
The stock market crash late in 1929 changed the economic picture all over the United States. Banks and businesses failed. People lost their life savings and their homes. Factories closed and armies of people were unemployed nationwide. Despite this economic chaos, farmers, who were usually self-sufficient, might have been expected to survive economically.
During the early 1930’s, however, severe droughts plagued the Midwest, reducing farm production to all-time lows. Nebraska, like many other midwestern states, found itself hit hard by the Great Depression. In 1934 Nebraskans voted to establish a one-house legislature to speed up legislation and to cut costs. This unicameral system persisted.
More than sixty thousand desperate Nebraskans were forced by the economic meltdown to leave the state and find work elsewhere. By the end of the 1930’s, Nebraska’s weather had improved measurably, so farming again became profitable. War industries came into the state during World War II, bringing factory jobs. As rainfall increased substantially during the 1940’s, farmers were again producing record crops.
After World War II, Nebraska’s farms were bigger, but there were fewer of them. Many independent farmers sold their land and moved into cities and towns. Large agricultural corporations moved into the state, swallowing up small farms and turning agriculture into a much more specialized and scientific pursuit than it had once been. Omaha became a center for food processing. In 1953 the first frozen dinners in America were produced there.
By 1960 Nebraska had more city dwellers than rural inhabitants. By 1994 Omaha and Lincoln had only about a 2 percent unemployment rate. In the 1990’s about half of Nebraska’s workforce of 800,000 were employed in sales or service occupations. Some 200,000 people were employed in sales and telemarketing, centered in Omaha. Another 200,000 worked as doctors, nurses, lawyers, bankers, insurance agents, automotive repair people, and other service personnel. The local, state, and federal governments offered employment to another 150,000. The state had one public school teacher for every fourteen students enrolled, which is much higher than the national average.
Despite the move to urban areas, Nebraska still has more than fifty thousand farms; farms and ranches occupy 90 percent of the state’s land. In the western part of Nebraska, which is not suited to farming, the great grasslands provide excellent grazing for cattle, which are produced there in large numbers.