Nebraska (nəbrăs´kə), Great Plains state of the central United States. It is bordered by Iowa and Missouri, across the Missouri River (E), Kansas (S), Colorado (SW), Wyoming (NW), and South Dakota (N).
Facts and Figures
Area, 77,227 sq mi (200,018 sq km). Pop. (2010) 1,826,341, a 6.7% increase since the 2000 census. Capital, Lincoln. Largest city, Omaha. Statehood, Mar. 1, 1867 (37th state). Highest pt., 5,426 ft (1,655 m), Kimball Co.; lowest pt., 840 ft (256 m), SE corner of state. Nickname, Cornhusker State. Motto, Equality before the Law. State bird, Western meadowlark. State flower, goldenrod. State tree, cottonwood. Abbr., Nebr.; NE
Nebraska is roughly rectangular, except in the northeast and the east where the border is formed by the irregular course of the Missouri River and in the southwest where the state of Colorado cuts out a squared corner. The land rises more or less gradually from 840 ft (256 m) in the east to 5,300 ft (1,615 m) in the west. The great but shallow Platte River, formed in W Nebraska by the junction of the North Platte and the South Platte, flows across the state from west to east to join the Missouri S of Omaha. The Platte and the Missouri, together with their tributaries, give Nebraska all-important water sources that are essential to farming in this agrarian state. Underground water sources are also widely used for irrigation. The river valleys have long provided routes westward, and today the transcontinental railroads and highways follow the valleys.
From the Missouri westward over about half the state stretch undulating farm lands, where the fertile silt is underlaid by deep loess soil. Nebraska's population is concentrated there; many are farmers who produce grains for the consumer market or for feeding hogs and dairy cattle. In this region also lie Nebraska's two major cities—Lincoln, the capital and an important insurance center, and Omaha, the state's largest city and an important meat and grain distribution center—as well as many of the state's larger towns.
To the west and northwest the Sand Hills of Nebraska fan out, their wind-eroded contours now more or less stabilized by grass coverage. Cattle graze on the slopes and tablelands, protected in the severe winters by the sand bluffs and the valleys. The climate is severely continental throughout Nebraska; a low of -40°F (-40°C) in the winter is not unusual, and during the short intense summers temperatures may easily reach 110°F (43°C). Rainfall is almost twice as heavy in the east as in the west. Yet in the west along the river valleys the mixture of silt and sand is watered enough to yield abundantly to cultivation, even under semiarid conditions. In the far west the land rises to the foothills of the Rocky Mts. and displays spectacular bedrock foundations.
Hundreds of fresh and alkali lakes in the state attract sportsmen and campers. The pioneers' migration west over the Oregon Trail is commemorated by the Scotts Bluff National Monument and the Chimney Rock National Historic Site. Other points of interest to the traveler include Father Flanagan's Boys Town, near Omaha; the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, near Valentine; and the Homestead National Monument, near Beatrice.
Agriculture is Nebraska's dominant occupational pursuit. The state's chief farm products are cattle, corn, hogs, soybeans, and wheat. Nebraska ranked second among the states in cattle production in 1997. Wheat farming flourishes on the southwest plateaus, while irrigation along the Platte and its tributaries has increased the sugar-beet crop. The Univ. of Nebraska maintains agricultural experiment stations throughout the state. A program of soil conservation includes a shelter belt running across the state to check the effect of wind erosion, and dryland-farming techniques have been encouraged. Forest conservation is stressed, and the state (the birthplace of Arbor Day) has been very active in planting forests.
Nebraska's largest industry is food processing, notably including beef production. The state has diversified its industries since World War II, and the manufacture of electrical machinery, primary metals, and transportation equipment is also important. Deposits of oil (discovered in Cheyenne co. in 1949–50) contribute to the state's economy. Omaha and Lincoln are centers for insurance and telecommunications industries, and Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, was the cold-war center of the Strategic Air Command.
Government and Higher Education
Nebraska's constitution was adopted in 1875. It was amended in 1982 to ensure that rangeland and farmland could be sold only to a Nebraska family-farm corporation. The executive branch is headed by a governor elected for a four-year term. By constitutional amendment in 1934 the legislature was made unicameral (it is unique in the United States), with 49 members elected on a nonpartisan basis for terms of four years. The state elects three representatives and two senators to the U.S. Congress and has five electoral votes in presidential elections. In 1986, Nebraska's Kay A. Orr became the first Republican woman to be elected governor of a state. E. Benjamin Nelson, a Democrat elected governor in 1990 and 1994, was succeeded by Mike Johanns, a Republican elected in 1998 and 2002. Johanns resigned in 2005 to become U.S. secretary of education, and was succeeded by fellow Republican Dave Heineman, who won election to the governorship in 2006 and reelection in 2010. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, won in 2014.
The state's leading institution of higher education is the Univ. of Nebraska, at Lincoln, Omaha, and Kearney. Creighton Univ. is at Omaha.
Hunters, Explorers, and Fur Traders
Nebraska's soil has been farmed since prehistoric times, but the Native Americans of the plains—notably the Pawnee—devoted themselves more to hunting the buffalo than to farming, since buffalo, as well as the pronghorn antelope and smaller animals, were then abundant in the area. The Spanish explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and his men were the first Europeans to visit the region. They probably passed through Nebraska in 1541.
The French also came and in the 18th cent. engaged in fur trading, but development began only after the area passed from France to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The Lewis and Clark expedition (1804) and the explorations of Zebulon M. Pike (1806) increased knowledge of the country, but the activities of the fur traders were more immediately valuable in terms of settlement. Manuel Lisa, a fur trader, probably established the first trading post in the Nebraska area in 1813. Bellevue, the first permanent settlement in Nebraska, first developed as a trading post.
Steamboats and Wagon Trains
Steamboating on the Missouri River, initiated in 1819, brought business to the river ports of Omaha and Brownville. The natural highway formed by the Platte valley was used extensively by pioneers going west over the Oregon Trail and also the California Trail and the Mormon Trail. Nebraska settlers made money supplying the wagon trains with fresh mounts and pack animals as well as food.
Nebraska became a territory after passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. The territory, which initially extended from lat. 40°N to the Canadian border, was firmly Northern and Republican in sympathy during the Civil War. In 1863 the territory was reduced to its present-day size by the creation of the territories of Dakota and Colorado. Congress passed an enabling act for statehood in 1864, but the original provision in the state constitution limiting the franchise to whites delayed statehood until 1867.
Railroads, Ranches, and the Growth of Populism
In 1867 the Union Pacific RR was built across the state, and the land boom, already vigorous, became a rush. Farmers settled on free land obtained under the Homestead Act of 1862, and E Nebraska took on a settled look. The population rose from 28,841 in 1860 to 122,993 in 1870. The Pawnee were defeated in 1859, and by 1880 war with the Sioux and other Native American resistance was over. With the coming of the railroads, cow towns, such as Ogallala and Schuyler, were built up as shipping points on overland cattle trails. Buffalo Bill's Wild West Shows opened in Nebraska in 1882.
Farmers had long been staking out homestead claims across the Sand Hills to the high plains, but ranches also prospered in the state. The ranchers, trying to preserve the open range, ruthlessly opposed the encroachment of the farmers, but the persistent farmers won. Many conservationists believe that much of the land that was plowed under should have been left with grass cover to prevent erosion in later dust storms.
Nature was seldom kind to the people of Nebraska. Ranching was especially hard hit by the ruinous cold of the winter of 1880–81, and farmers were plagued by insect hordes from 1856 to 1875, by prairie fires, and by the recurrent droughts of the 1890s. Many farmers joined the Granger movement in the lean 1870s and the Farmers' Alliances of the 1880s. In the 1890s many beleaguered farmers, faced with ruin and angry at the monopolistic practices of the railroads and the financiers, formed marketing and stock cooperatives and showed their discontent by joining the Populist party. The first national convention of the Populist party was held at Omaha in 1892, and Nebraska's most famous son, William Jennings Bryan, headed the Populist and Democratic tickets in the presidential election of 1896. Populists held the governorship of the state from 1895 to 1901.
Improved conditions in the early 1900s caused Populism to decline in the state, and the return of prosperous days was marked by progressive legislation, the building of highways, and conservation measures. The flush of prosperity, largely caused by the demand for foodstuffs during World War I, was almost feverish. Overexpansion of credits and overconfidence made the depression of the 1920s and 30s all the more disastrous (see Great Depression). Many farmers were left destitute, and many others were able to survive only because of the moratorium on farm debts in 1932. They received federal aid in the desperate years of drought in the 1930s.
Better weather and the huge food demands of World War II renewed prosperity in Nebraska. After the war, efforts continued to make the best use of the water supply, notably in such federal plans as the Missouri River basin project, a vast dam and water-diversion scheme.
Recent attempts to diversify Nebraska's economic base to reduce dependence on meat processing and agriculture have made Lincoln, where state government and the Univ. of Nebraska generate many jobs, a business center, along with Omaha. Among noted Nebraskans have been the pioneer and historian Julius Sterling Morton, who originated Arbor Day, and authors Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, John G. Neihardt, Loren Eisley, and Wright Morris, all of whom have vividly described the state.
See J. C. Olson, History of Nebraska (2d ed. 1966, repr. 1974); M. P. Lawson and R. E. Lonsdale, Economic Atlas of Nebraska (1977); D. W. Creigh, Nebraska: A History (1977); Nebraska (1985), "Geographies of the United States" series.