In 1854 the first census takers in Nebraska were fanning out across the territory to get the first accurate count of the state’s citizens. The returns, carefully preserved in the archives of the Nebraska State Historical Society, showed a total population of 2,732, including thirteen slaves.
The first census was ordered by Acting Governor Thomas B. Cuming to enable him to apportion the settled part of the territory in legislative districts. The seven deputy marshals appointed to do the work had a difficult task. The early territorial population was largely transient. The boundary between Kansas and Nebraska had not yet been surveyed, making it virtually impossible to determine in which territory some of the settlers were living. Indeed, some of the settlers originally credited to Nebraska Territory actually were living in Kansas.
The total population was divided among the eight original counties: Richardson, 851; Pierce and Forney, 614; Cass, 353; Douglas, 645; Dodge, 106; and Washington and Burt, 163. Divided between the North and the South Platte sections, the returns showed 1,818 persons living south of the Platte and 914 living north of the river. By manipulating the census results, Governor Cuming angered South Platte residents. Despite the fact that almost twice as many persons were living south of the river, he assigned the four counties in the North Platte section seven councilmen (or senators) and fourteen representatives. The South Platte section was given six councilmen and twelve representatives. Bellevue, though north of the river, objected to being included in the same county with Omaha and joined the South Platte in suspecting the governor’s motives.
This favoring of the North Platte section was the beginning of a rift between the two sections that did not heal during territorial times. Mass meetings were held at many places in the South Platte region, and Governor Cuming was personally vilified. Cuming, by apportioning the territory in defiance of the census returns, did much to intensify the rift between the two sections. This created a great deal of dissatisfaction with this initial effort in the establishment of organized government in Nebraska Territory.