Housing Problems

Do you have a housing problem? If you do-and who hasn’t?-chances are it’s still not as bad as that faced by Nebraska’s territorial pioneers.

People were pouring into the Nebraska territory in the late 1850s, and living quarters were at a premium everywhere, especially in the booming river towns. Nebraska was a new country which, of course, had to be built from the ground up. Then, too, the situation was complicated by the lack of building materials and a shortage of labor. House hunting was even a more dreary experience than it is today.

Witness this excerpt from the diary of a young girl who came to Nebraska City with her parents in 1857: “This morning after breakfast we started house hunting. After a vigorous search of three hours we were compelled to take a small, dilapidated log house with one small room and a three cornered kitchen directly across the street, which we had supposed was used for a stable, at the very modest rent of $15.00 a month. We were congratulated on securing that, as there is not a vacant habitation in town. I suppose the next poor emigrants will have to live out-of-doors. I shall never forget the looks of dismay when or new home was pointed out to the family.”

Others, perhaps more resourceful, took the situation into their own hands and built houses for themselves. The Reverend George W. Barnes, pioneer Omaha preacher, for example, had to build a house for his family with his own hands before he could start holding services. Except for raising, which was a community affair, all the help he had was a carpenter to lay out the sills. When finished, he had a structure 15′ x 25′, two stories high in front, and the back part lean-to.

Houses were built rapidly in those days, too. The Brownville Advertiser for June 14, 1856, reported that in the past week four good sized, comfortable dwellings had been completely built except plastering. The editor remarked, “This is putting up buildings tolerably rapid, yet it is only in keeping with this Express-Railroad-Telegraph Age.”

They even used pre-fabricated houses to alleviate the situation-the idea apparently is not so new. In 1855, a Cincinnati, Ohio, firm was reported to be manufacturing portable cottages for Kansas and Nebraska in large numbers. They generally had two rooms. No nails were used in their construction, and they could be put up or taken down in a few hours. They could be shipped on the river steamers at small expense, and were hailed as, “the cheapest of houses the emigrants to those new prairie regions can provide themselves with.”

Even with pre-fabrication and pioneer ingenuity, however, the demand still lagged far behind the supply, and there is hardly an issue of the early territorial papers but what contains an editorial on the subject. The following from the Brownville Advertiser for June 10, 1864, is illustrative: “During the past two weeks there have been quite a number of emigrants desiring to stop in this place and could not find houses to live in. Our capitalists should learn from this, and learn from it that as good an investment as they could make would be to put up about thirty good tenement houses.”

By James C. Olson

Superintendent, State Historical Society

October, 1946

Become a Member!

Our members make history happen.

Join Now

Other Publications

The Bachelors’ Protective Union of Kearney

When the Bachelors' Protective Union gave a gala reception for two of its newly married, former members and their brides in March of 1890, the social club for young, ...

U.S. Weather Bureau in 1890s Nebraska

The U.S. Weather Bureau was established by an act of Congress on October 1, 1890. It took over the weather service that had been established in the office of the Chief ...

Canning the Way to Victory

During American participation in World War I the U.S. Food Administration, under the direction of Herbert Hoover, launched a massive campaign to persuade Americans to ...

The Shoemaker’s Ashes

"Edward Kuehl, one of the most peculiar characters that ever lived in Omaha, or anywhere else, was found dead in his bed last night in the back room of his place of ...

Crazy Horse Surrender Ledger Foreward

Red Dog, an Oglala Lakota who lived at the Red Cloud Agency, Nebraska, 1876-77 (Nebraska State Historical Society   In the summer of 1876, following the ...

Darryl F. Zanuck

Darryl F. Zanuck Darryl F. Zanuck (1902-1979), a native Nebraskan, produced some of Hollywood's most important and controversial films. He helped found 20th Century Fox ...

The Burlington’s Profitable Pork Special

Nebraska railroads were much concerned with developing an adequate economy in the areas they served. The Burlington, for example, had a long history of caring for the ...

Bungalow Filling Stations

After the giant Standard Oil Company was broken into thirty-four separate companies in 1911, the newly independent Standard Oil of Nebraska dominated the state's market ...

The Bull Fight

This is the perfect time of year for a visit to the old fishin' hole. But a group of fisherfolk from Plainview discovered that this bucolic pastime sometimes has ...

Buffalo Soldiers West

African-American soldiers on the western frontier are the focus of an exhibit at the Nebraska History Museum in Lincoln. Buffalo Soldiers West, on loan from the Colorado ...

Protection for Buffalo

The extermination of the buffalo on the Plains occurred largely between 1870 and 1885. The Nebraska State Journal of Lincoln on February 1, 1874, editorialized in vain ...

Buffalo Hunting

In late October 1877 young Rolf Johnson and three friends left their homes in Phelps County, Nebraska, for a buffalo hunt in northeastern Colorado. The hunt was not very ...
About History Nebraska
History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
Explore Nebraska
Discover the real places and people of our past at these History Nebraska sites.

Upcoming Events

View our new and upcoming events to see how you can get involved.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.

History Nebraska Education

Learn more about the educational programs provided at our museums, sites, and online.

Education Digital Learning Resources

Find games, lists, and more to enhance your history education curriculum.

History Nebraska Programs

Learn more about the programs associated with History Nebraska.

Latest Hall of Fame Inductee

The Nebraska Hall of Fame was established in 1961 to officially recognize prominent Nebraskans.

Listen to our Podcast

Listen to the articles and authors published in the Nebraska History Magazine with our new Nebraska History Podcast!

Nebraska Collections

History Nebraska's mission is to collect, preserve, and open our shared history to all Nebraskans.

Our YouTube Video Collection

Get a closer look at Nebraska's history through your own eyes, with our extensive video collections.

Additional Research Resources

History Nebraska Research and Reference Services help connect you to the material we collect and preserve.

History Nebraska Services

Digital Resources

Find all of our digital resources, files, videos, and more, all in one easy-to-search page!

Support History Nebraska
Make a cash donation to help us acquire, preserve, and interpret Nebraska’s history. Gifts to History Nebraska help leave a legacy and may help your taxes, too! Support the work of History Nebraska by donating to the History Nebraska Foundation today.

Volunteers are the heroes of History Nebraska. So much history, so little time! Your work helps us share access to Nebraska’s stories at our museums and sites, the reference room, and online.