Nebraska Moments

By Donald R. Hickey; Susan A. Wunder et al. | Go to book overview

4. The Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 formally organized Nebraska into a territory and opened it to settlement. The official title of the law, “An Act to Organize the Territories of Nebraska and Kansas,” might have been shortened to the “Nebraska-Kansas Act,” but that did not happen. Although this bill, called an organic act because the law authorized the creation of an official territory, was introduced in Congress primarily to promote development of the upper Great Plains and to facilitate the construction of a transcontinental railroad, it instead became inseparably linked to the issue of slavery. As a result, it generated a firestorm of controversy that rocked the nation to its very foundations, created a new political party, and helped bring on the Civil War.

The United States acquired the Great Plains from France in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. This acquisition obtained the heartland of the continent for the price of approximately three cents per square mile. It has been called one of the greatest real estate bargains in world history. The northern portion of the Plains termed “Nebraska” included all or parts of the present-day states of North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and, of course, Nebraska. Because trees were scarce and rainfall limited, non-Indians considered the area unfit for habitation. In fact, the region was designated as the “Great American Desert” in many geography textbooks published before the Civil War and immediately thereafter because of an inaccurate government report filed by the Stephen Long Expedition of 1819–20 to the Great Plains.

Beginning in the 1820s federal officials foresaw the Plains as one large Indian reservation and as a dumping ground for Native Americans who were removed from their lands in the East. Many tribes were forced to leave their homelands to journey under great hardship to lands west

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