First Territorial Legislature

The convening of the Unicameral this week brings to mind the first territorial legislature, which met at Omaha from January 16 to March 16, 1855. The territory had been organized only a few months before, and the members of that pioneer law-making body were confronted with the problem of establishing representative government in an area which hitherto had been only unorganized territory.

They met in a two story brick building, dimensions 33 x 75 feet–a far cry from the world-famous structure in which the legislature is now sitting. The building had been erected by the Council Bluffs and Nebraska Ferry Company as an inducement for the location of the territorial capitol at Omaha, and, it was declared by the Omaha Arrow (still printed across the river in Council Bluffs, Iowa,) “without cost of one single dollar to the government.”

The House of Representatives met on the first floor, and the Council, or upper house, on the second. Both chambers were fitted out with school desks, and each desk was shared by two members. The windows were curtained with red and green calico. Despite all this, however, that first capitol was in a sense as distinct in the landscape of that day as the present one is today–it was the only brick building in Omaha.

Whatever the platforms on which the members of that first legislature ran for election, they couldn’t have included as one of their planks the claim of long residence in Nebraska. In one instance at least, the same issue of the paper which announced the arrival of a man in the territory also carried a notice that he was a candidate for the legislature. During the first session, members often were referred to as “from Iowa,” “from Michigan,” or from some other place outside the territory.

Many of those early lawmakers couldn’t have campaigned on the basis of long experience, either. A number were in their early twenties, and one member or the House of Representatives–Lafayette Nuckolls of Cass County–was only 19 when elected.

The problem of laws for the territory was solved by the adoption of the civil and criminal codes of Iowa. In addition, the first legislature enacted laws of a general nature, located and established territorial roads, defined county boundaries, designated county seats, and incorporated industrial, town, bridge, and ferry companies.

Most of the time and energy of the early lawmakers was expended on the location of the capitol. In the minds of virtually all of the territorial pioneers, the town which became the territorial capital would be the one most likely to become the great city of the territory. Consequently, every community wanted the capitol for itself, and if not for itself, at least for its own section.

There had been a great deal of opposition to the location of the capitol at Omaha by Acting Governor Thomas B. Cuming. Charges of fraud resounded in the legislative halls, and the first legislature occupied itself with investigations of the circumstances which had resulted in this favoring of Omaha.

Almost until the time the residents of the territory began to think about statehood, the capitol question remained disputed, and in most of the early territorial legislatures there were determined attempts to remove the capitol from Omaha. None of there were successful, and Omaha retained its position as the seat of government throughout territorial days.

By James C. Olson

Superintendent, State Historical Society

January, 1947

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