The country welcomed Nebraska to the union as the 37th state on March 1, 1867. We celebrate the Cornhusker State’s milestone with a survey of its Western heritage.

Before Nebraska was Nebraska, the region we now think of as a flat rectangle that sits on top of Kansas and below South Dakota (part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase made by President Thomas Jefferson) was merely a way to get to the great American West. When you imagine Nebraska on a map, it makes sense. It was right in the middle of the country. Nebraska’s flat, wide openness made it relatively easy to navigate. The Platte River, which stretches across the state from west to east, was a natural water source for early settlers to follow along; the river valley made for a passable wagon corridor going almost due west and provided access not just to water, but to grass, bison, and buffalo chips for fuel.

Gold rush prospectors and Oregon Trail settlers streamed across it during the pioneer era. The Oregon Trail gave way to the Pony Express, then to the Union Pacific Railroad. By the turn of the century, dozens of cities and towns had sprung up along the way. Today’s explorers drive Toyotas along Interstate 80 instead of covered wagons, but the route is the same — right through the Platte River valley.

“We’ve often been called the world’s highway, and a lot of people thought we were a good place to pass through but then figured out that it was a good place to stay,” says Sara Crook, professor of political science and history at Peru State College in Peru, Nebraska, and a third-generation Nebraskan who grew up in the Platte River valley.

Nebraska’s impact on transportation and westward expansion is only part of the story. The state most people today associate with corn — there’s a reason the college team is called the Cornhuskers — is largely fueled by farming (wheat, soybeans, and sorghum are other dominant crops) and cattle ranching. But it’s as rich in history as it is in corn and beef.

And it’s as Old West as anywhere left of the Mississippi. The Pony Express, the Overland Stage, Boot Hill, the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail — this is Nebraska ground. Here, early Western history unfolded with protagonists like Lewis and Clark, Crazy Horse and Chief Red Cloud, and homesteaders in sod houses. Here, place names of counties and towns evoke the historic Native American tribes — Omaha, Ponca, Pawnee, Otoe, Sioux — who had previously inhabited the land.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Nebraska’s statehood. The yearlong celebration kicks off in January and continues throughout 2017, with special events happening across the state on the statehood date of March 1, including a daylong itinerary at the state capitol in Lincoln. We’re celebrating with a primer on the 37th state, which might win our vote for the most Western state in the Midwest.

Row, Row, Row — Or Not

As the story goes, when the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804 – 06) made it to Nebraska, along the Missouri River, they came to a fork where the Platte met the Missouri. “Every time they came to a fork in the river, they had to decide where to go,” Crook says. “They had no map; they were making the map. When they came to the Platte, they sent a small contingent upriver to decide which route to take. The Platte was more narrowly channeled than the Missouri River, which roamed in various channels from bluff to bluff in those days, and Lewis and Clark didn’t see it as the route to the Pacific that Jefferson was looking for — they dismissed the Platte as too shallow. But they missed the boat, because it wouldn’t be the boat that would take people west; it would be the Platte River Valley.”

Even so, the team pushed their keelboat upstream with long wooden poles because the current was so weak. Both Lewis and Clark celebrated their birthdays in Nebraska in August 1804 (Clark turned 34 and Lewis 30), the same month they gave peace medals to Otoe and Missouri chiefs at Council Bluff.

Sioux Encampment Near Chimney Rock by Todd A. Williams

Getting Settled

Not long after Lewis and Clark traversed Nebraska, the United States established a military camp in 1819 that eventually was named Fort Atkinson. It was the first U.S. Army post west of the Missouri River.

The first travelers plodded through in their loaded-down covered wagons in the early 1840s and didn’t stay in any one location more than a night or two along the way. “People weren’t allowed to acquire [a] title until 1854, and, even then, it was along the Missouri and Platte rivers,” Crook says. “It wasn’t until well into the 1800s that the Sandhills in the north-central part of the state and buttes in the west were settled. It was kind of a southeast to northwest pattern of settlement from 1854 into the 1880s.”

The Gold Rush of 1848 had brought floods of people heading west; some put down roots. With the promise of free land via the Homestead Act of 1862 came pioneers who would try out Nebraska for five years, farming, making improvements on the land, and building structures, as was required to get their 160 acres. On the treeless plains, many resorted to making sod shelters. (The Dowse Sod House in Custer County, built in 1900 and occupied till 1959 — now a museum and on the National Register of Historic Places — is a good example of one of Nebraska’s surviving sod houses.)

“Living on the plains was not for the faint of heart. Some people did sell and go back East,” Crook says. “A lot of those people didn’t see their neighbors for weeks, and there were probably a few instances where they were scared by the local tribes. In 1874 there was a grasshopper invasion, and by all accounts it was horrific. But you owned your own land and you were your own boss, and if you had that pioneer spirit, you’d be willing to weather the good times with the bad.”

Making Tracks

“The route was made by the buffalo, next used by the Indians, then by the fur traders, next by the Mormons, and then by the overland immigration to California and Oregon. It was known as the Great Platte Valley Route. On this trail, or close to it, was built the Union and Central Pacific railroads to California, and the Oregon Short Line branch of the Union Pacific to Oregon.” So reads the 1921 report The Railroads of Nebraska.

Eventually, there would be a main line through the state, the Union Pacific line, with numerous spurs off of it, like tiny branches of the tree, moving up and down and in every which way in order to connect Nebraska’s people and its bounty with the rest of the country.

“Railroads were huge,” Crook says. “In Nebraska, there’s a pattern that if a town was founded before the railroad, you’d find a town square. But if it sprang up because the railroad came through, you’d find a main street that would parallel or T with the railroads. The railroads actually influenced the layout of towns.”

On The Trail

Nebraska’s not just expansive cornfields. There are the prairies of the Great Plains, the dunes of the Sandhills, and western-worthy rock formations of the panhandle. It was Nebraska’s drastic scenery changes along the Platte River Valley that functioned as highway signs for westward-bound settlers, letting people know where they were and how much farther they had to go to get to their destination.

“Chimney Rock in western Nebraska had the look of a lone chimney, that although significantly shorter today, still looks like a chimney,” Crook says. “It was the most noted physical feature on the Oregon Trail because of its unique shape; at some point they called it ‘seeing the elephant,’ which meant that if they thought the trip was tough up to that point, crossing Nebraska was the easy part. It meant that if you couldn’t hack it by the time you got there, you weren’t going to make it — it was the point of no return.”

Although the Platte River Valley was part of the permanent Indian frontier — home to Pawnee, Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and others — there were few accounts of Indians attacking wagon trains. According to Crook, “The Indians saw them as a curiosity more than anything.”

Mitchell Pass—Oregon Trail by Todd A. Williams

No Reservations

Chief Standing Bear was a Ponca who lived with his tribe where the Niobrara and Missouri rivers came together in the northeast part of the state. In 1879, the government forced the Ponca to uproot and move to Oklahoma, and Standing Bear, after going to Oklahoma for a look-see, said he’d rather stay where he was. That set the stage for one of the most famous cases and one of the most moving courtroom speeches in U.S. history.

Standing Bear stood his ground, and with the help of two powerful Omaha attorneys who agreed to take on his case pro bono, he went to court. When the judge allowed him to speak on his own behalf, his words were historic as soon as they were uttered: “That hand is not the color of yours. But if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man. The same God made us both.”

“[Nebraska was] the first state where an Indian had his day in court, and he won,” Crook says. “But it was a win with a cost. What they said was the only way Standing Bear could return to his homeland — for him to be considered a human being — [was for him] to deny his tribal allegiance. He could only be considered human if he wasn’t an Indian. He had to denounce his tribal allegiance to be a human being, but a human being without citizenship. The more you learn about it, the more bizarre it is. That’s why you have southern Ponca, who stayed in Oklahoma, and northern Ponca, who came back with Standing Bear.”

It was 111 years later, on October 31, 1990, that the northern Ponca were given formal recognition by the U.S. government.

Home On The Range

Beef has been big in Nebraska for almost as along as it’s been a state. Sometimes called the Beef State, it’s second in cattle and calves in the country after Texas. Today, the cattle industry is largely concentrated in the Sandhills region, which is where the historic Spade Ranch was developed, in Sheridan and Cherry counties, by cattle baron Bartlett Richards in the early 1890s. At its peak in the early 1900s, the Spade encompassed more than 500,000 acres and had a herd of 60,000.

“The disastrous summer and winter climatic extremes of the late 1880s had led many of the smaller ranchers to abandon hope for ranching in the Sandhills,” Crook says. “But several big ranches adapted to modern ranching with such changes as blooded stock (like shorthorns, Herefords, and Angus replacing Texas longhorns), branding, fenced land replacing open range (although some public domain was still exploited by the big ranches), and supplemental feed (alfalfa/hay) added to grass.”

Eventually homesteaders, like Old Jules Sandoz (father of renowned Nebraska author Mari Sandoz), moved into the area and demanded that ranchers restrain their cattle from wandering at will. “It was during President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration that the government began to actually enforce some of the herd laws that had been on the books. By World War I, the open range had disappeared,” Crook says. “Ranching, however, is still a key industry in the Sandhills. Much of the folklore of ranching still resonates in our history as the independent spirit that pervades Nebraskans.”

Ride ’Em, Cowboy

Likewise, the cowboy spirit endures. First held in 1921 as a way to put Burwell on the map and to honor the region’s Western heritage, the popular Burwell Rodeo — “Nebraska’s Big Rodeo” and one of the country’s oldest — still draws talented men and women to display their skills in PRCA events and special attractions like chuck wagon and wild-horse races. “It also draws the more urban element of Nebraskans, who come to watch and admire talent that likely was present in their own earlier generations,” Crook says. Like all good cowboys, “Nebraskans are fiercely proud of their past and those who ‘shoulder through’ some isolated locations and times.”

Although every July the Burwell Rodeo — as well as other less well-known rodeos across the state — still offers a venue to display skills that hark back to nearly a century ago, cowboys working on Nebraska ranches today are riding the plains on both horses and three-wheelers. Driving their cattle from summer to winter pastures, they cowboy much as they did generations ago — but with some significant differences.

“Most big ranchers in Nebraska today have the latest in technology, including satellite technology, to monitor their stock and manage their feed,” Crook says. “Those living on the ranch may indeed be 30 to 50 miles away from the nearest town, but also have cell phones and internet connections that rival the largest urban area. Nevertheless, they are still a hardy stock of people who are not easily defeated — or they would have given up and left generations ago.”

Find out about sesquicentennial programs and events at the official Nebraska Statehood 150 site. See more paintings by Nebraska artist Todd Williams.

From the February/March 2017 issue.