By David L. Bristow, Editor
Nebraska was a newly-organized US territory in 1854. Not yet whittled down to its present boundaries, “Nebraska” was a sprawling region that included much of present-day Colorado, Wyoming, the Dakotas, and eastern Montana. The great majority of the territory’s inhabitants were Native Americans, though the US had already begun pressuring tribes to sell most of their land. White settlers–some bringing enslaved African Americans–began staking land claims and founding towns along the west bank of the Missouri River.
Although traders and overland trail emigrants had celebrated Independence Day in Nebraska in earlier years, July 4, 1854, was the first for Nebraska as a formal territory. The celebration in Bellevue shows how these early “Nebraskians” saw themselves and how they expressed their ideals in the high-flown language of their times. Here’s an “Out of Old Nebraska” newspaper column published by the Nebraska State Historical Society (History Nebraska) 100 years later, on July 4, 1954:
The first paper published in Nebraska Territory–the Nebraska Palladium for July 15, 1854–devoted almost two columns to a description of the first Fourth of July celebration held in the territory. It may be appropriate at this time to reproduce a part of that description. The editor reported:
“We never had the satisfaction of spending this interesting day more pleasantly than upon this occasion. The Star-Spangled Banner was hoisted at 12:00 o’clock; after which a salute was fired in succession for each State, and the Great Territory of Nebraska. Every countenance was animated with pleasure, and radiant with anticipation of the future glory and greatness of the beautiful place where they were assembled.
“The assemblage met near the Indian Agency under the broad canopy of heaven, and seemed to have hearts as expansive as the great scene of nature in which they were situated….
“We noticed one feature in the moral character of these ‘Nebraskians,’ which afforded us more than ordinary pleasure. This feature was not merely visible, but prominent, and unmistakable. It was the spirit of toleration–the all embracing spirit of human brotherhood–a disposition not only to live and let live, but to help live–a disposition to build on a foundation more lasting than time, and broad enough to embrace [the] very principle needed in the development of social, intellectual and responsible beings. If this continues to be the ruling spirit here, the people will be as much distinguished for moral greatness and beauty, as the country is great and beautiful.”
Following this panegyric the editor reported the proceedings of the day, consisting of the adoption of a series of resolutions and the hearing of innumerable toasts. Among the resolutions were the following:
“Resolved, That Nebraska is now open for settlement, and that we will do all in our power to promote the interest, develop the resources, and secure the early settlement of our exceeding fertile country.
“Resolved, That in the formation of our institutions and laws, we will cherish the memories of those philanthropists to whom we are indebted for the liberty, prosperity and happiness, we as a nation enjoy.”
The assembly also put in a plug for Bellevue as the territorial capital:
“Resolved, the Bellevue being the most central and commanding location on the MIssouri River, has the strongest inducement for the location of the territorial capital, and that no other place can present so many inducements for its location as Bellevue.”
All in all, it appears to have been quite a day. It’s interesting to observe that the assembled celebrants took advantage of the occasion to promote their town for the territorial capital, and that the editor, in reporting the celebration in the first issue of his paper, also used the occasion to a good advantage for that same end.
For further reading:
Bellevue, of course, did not become the territorial capital, but that’s probably only because Gov. Francis Burt died shortly after his arrival. Read more.
And for all the idealism about “the spirit of human brotherhood,” within a few years most of the “settlers” in Nebraska were land speculators hoping to cheaply acquire town lots and government land and flip them for profit. Read more.
Meanwhile, the territory’s commerce depended on barely-regulated “wildcat” banks that issued their own paper money. Read more.
It all came crashing down during a nationwide financial crisis known as the Panic of 1857. The Cass County town of Oreapolis was one of many early settlements that became ghost towns. Read more.
The panic and resulting economic depression cleared out most of the speculators; most of the people who remained were those who really wanted to try to make it in Nebraska (or were too broke to move away). Read about Nebraska City as an early freighting center, and a description of Omaha in 1860.
Read about the contentious politics of slavery in Nebraska in the 1850s (PDF).
(Posted June 2, 2023)