Pioneer Social Life

Life in Nebraska as reported by local newspapers in the first years of settlement was centered chiefly in the towns and farms along the west bank of the Missouri River. Linked to the outside world by river steamboats, the tendency of the people was to try to recreate the social life they had known in their former homes in the East and South. However, they were also influenced by events that went on around them. Freighting and emigrant wagon trains loaded and outfitted at Nebraska City, Brownville, Wyoming, or Omaha. Homes and farms were being established and new towns built. And if life along the river palled, there was the vast territory farther West.

The most universally celebrated holiday was probably July 4, Independence Day. The DeSoto Pilot of July 11, 1857, described a territorial celebration: “The day was ushered in with the firing of guns, pistols, anvils and every means by which powder could be exploded. At twelve o’clock the DeSoto Guards formed into line and, accompanied by our citizens en masse, proceeded through Main Street to Market Square where a commodious bower had been provided for the occasion.

“The Declaration of Independence was read in an appropriate manner by Mr. E. Bacon–followed by an oration from General [Experience] Estabrook of Omaha. . . . local and patriotic toasts were given, which were loudly cheered and responded to . . . . after which, the company sat down to an excellent dinner provided by Dr. A. Phinney. In the evening a splendid ball was given at Dr. Phinney’s, a large company attended, including quite a number of strangers from Fort Calhoun and Cuming City. Everything was conducted in good taste and the dancing was kept up till a late hour.”

There were other more serious forms of diversion: lyceums, reading clubs, sewing circles, church groups, and fraternal lodges. There were also dramatic clubs, which occasionally presented plays, usually of the classic variety. Lecture courses were made up of abstract and philosophical subjects. Some typical lectures given before the Omaha Library Association in 1860 as reported in the Omaha Nebraskian were: “The Real and the Counterfeit in the Battle of Life,” “Mammon: A Poem,” “Secret of Success,” and “Leaves and Leaf Products.”

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