The cultural landscape of Nebraska is intimately linked to its geography and climate. The state is located on a segment of the Great Plains that slopes gradually from 5,400 feet above sea level in the west to 840 feet at the Missouri River, which forms the state’s eastern border. The eastern region consists of flat lands, gently rolling hills crisscrossed by streams and rivers, and a deep mantle of fertile soil laid down by glaciers. The semi-arid western portion of Nebraska lies within the High Plains. This region contains the state’s most distinctive topographical feature, the Sandhills, the largest area of grass-covered sand dunes in the Western Hemisphere. Further west, portions of the Panhandle feature rugged landscapes of picturesque natural formations. The entire state is part of the Missouri River Basin and is drained by three major rivers including the Platte, Niobrara, and Republican. The Platte River extends across the entire length of Nebraska and has figured prominently in the routes of the country’s early westward migrations and later its transportation systems, including the Trans-Continental Railroad, the Lincoln Highway, and Interstate 80.
The future state of Nebraska was part of the vast Louisiana Purchase, land acquired by the United States from France in 1803. American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark arrived in the Nebraska area the following year and their reports to President Jefferson cast a negative view of a land they regarded as barren and unproductive. In 1820 Major Stephen Long led a party up the Platte River, crossing the entire state, and proclaiming Nebraska as part of a “Great American Desert.”
Despite these negative views, the land was indeed home to indigenous peoples and archaeological investigations confirm a long-standing Native American presence. A succession of historic tribes, nomadic and sedentary, inhabited the region and adapted to the vagaries of nature. At the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Pawnee was the largest indigenous tribe of Nebraska Indians. They were a farming people who lived in permanent villages characterized by their communal earth lodge dwellings. Periodically, the entire community would temporarily abandon the village and hunt bison that roamed the prairie in massive herds.
As early as 1812, fur traders had established outposts along the Missouri River and as far west as the Panhandle. During the 1840s, Nebraska played a significant role in the country’s westward movement. The Platte River valley was a natural migration corridor accommodating the Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, California Trail during the Gold Rush, an overland wagon freighting business, and the Pony Express mail service. Along these Overland Trails, small clusters of settlers sprang up from the central Platte River valley westward to provide supplies for the migrants.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 officially created the Nebraska Territory and opened the region for the settlement of immigrants arriving from the eastern states and Europe. Initially, towns developed along the Missouri River. Created by a special act of the Nebraska Territorial Legislature in 1855, Nebraska City is the oldest incorporated city in the state. White settlement next moved into the southeast and northeast regions from the river towns. Spanning the state by 1867, the Transcontinental Railroad accelerated the wave of settlement westward along the Platte River, solidifying and supplanting some of the earlier establishments. From there settlement moved north and south along other river valleys and railroad lines. Many early European Americans were lured to Nebraska by the prospect of obtaining free or cheap land. The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed farmers to lay claim to 160 acres. The Kinkaid Act of 1904 sought to encourage ranching in the west with grants of up to 640 acres. As a result, vast amounts of land were distributed to settlers.
As soon as the pioneers established their homesteads they realized that the prairie was a formidable obstacle to settled life. The geology of the plains provided few building materials. The lack of trees and stones complicated the homesteaders’ ability to construct livable dwellings. Forced to improvise, they broke the thick prairie soil with a cast-steel plow to produce a strip which was then cut into blocks to form the thick walls of the sod house. A picture of a proud homestead family seated with its most valued possessions in front of their “soddie” is an iconic image of the early settlement period.
Nebraska has always been first and foremost an agricultural state. Beginning with the early settlement period, working the land has directly or indirectly provided support for much of the population. The state is located in an agricultural transition zone between the Midwestern Corn Belt to the east and the extensive wheat-growing and ranching areas to the west. Annual rainfall varies from more than thirty inches in the east to less than fifteen inches in the west. Due to the rich soil and abundant rainfall, the eastern portion of the state readily accommodated mixed farming which is evident in the many farmsteads that are still closely distributed across the rural landscape. The large barn and nearby silo are the defining architectural features of the typical farmstead. Further west, the Sandhills region supported a ranching economy. A single ranch could occupy several thousand acres and the headquarters complex, unlike the farmstead, was generally many miles from its nearest neighbor.
The economic development of farming and ranching was facilitated by the railroads. They were not only agents of colonization but, due to the east-west orientation of the lines, also facilitated shipping: grain and cattle moved east to cities, such as Omaha, while manufactured products, including building materials, moved west.
By 1955 Omaha had become the largest livestock market in the world, a distinction it held for more than a decade. Railroads were the main determinants of the location and configuration of many towns on the Plains. Frequently occupying a prominent site, the rail depot was both the economic and social gateway to the community. Dramatically acknowledging the existence of a town at its base, the tall, cylindrical, concrete grain elevator is also a familiar presence on the Great Plains. Situated near the tracks, it is a testament to the economic partnership between agriculture and the railroads.
Another distinctive feature of the rural landscape is the tall tower of a Christian church silhouetted against the prairie sky. In many instances, the church was part of a larger complex, often associated with a particular ethnic group, which frequently contained a rectory, school, social hall, and cemetery. Many European immigrants arriving in Nebraska during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often settled in clusters, thereby perpetuating their individual cultures, including social customs and building styles.
Change is a visible feature of the Nebraska landscape. Irrigation has been responsible for expanding farming westward. Mixed farming has given way to commodity farming and has resulted in the abandonment of many original farmstead buildings. Mechanization has greatly increased the efficiency of farming while also reducing the number of laborers. Larger and fewer farms, coupled with consolidation, have led to a significant reduction of the rural population. Towns circumvented by major highways, as well as those that have suffered from the curtailment of railroad services, have also experienced an outward migration. Since World War II, there has been a gradual movement of population from west to east and to those cities in or near the I-80 Corridor, which was begun in 1957 and completed in 1974. Having absorbed some of this migration, Lincoln and Omaha have become crucial urban centers and now account for approximately forty percent of Nebraska’s population.
Lincoln is home to the state’s capital and the University of Nebraska, a major research center and employer. Like many mid-sized American cities, its primary economy is service-based. Omaha is the state’s largest metropolitan city and major business center. It includes the headquarters of several Fortune 500 companies and three of the larger architectural firms in the United States. Although urban population and economic growth are undeniable features of twenty-first century Nebraska, agriculture remains the bedrock of its cultural landscape.
Baltensperger, Bradley H. Nebraska: A Geography.Boulder: Westview Press, 1985.
Federal Writers’ Project, Nebraska. Nebraska: A Guide to the Cornhusker State.pncoln: University of Nebraska-pncoln, 2005.
Olson, James C. History of Nebraska.pncoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.
Wishart, David J., ed. Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.pncoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.
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