Frank James a Thanksgiving Star at Norfolk

Frank James. NSHS RG2316-44

Frank James. NSHS RG2316-44

Thanksgiving Day in Norfolk in 1904 was marked not only by religious services and family dinners, but by the “amusement feature of the day,” matinee and evening performances of Hal Reid’s melodrama The Fatal Scar. The star of the show was none other than Frank James (1843-1915), the older brother of outlaw Jesse James (1847-1882). Frank James was one of several former outlaws, including Cole Younger, who entered show business after their criminal careers ended. During the last thirty years of his life, James worked at a variety of jobs, including a short-lived stint as an actor.

The Fatal Scar was advertised by the Norfolk Weekly News-Journal on November 11 as “well worth looking at as a matter of curiosity.” Apparently the residents of Norfolk agreed. There was no football game in town that Thanksgiving, no ice for skating, and no snow for sledding. The focus of attention after dinner was the theater. The News-Journal said on December 2:

Street scene of Norfolk published by the Norfolk Postcard Company. NSHS RG1431-50-1

Street scene of Norfolk published by the Norfolk Postcard Company. NSHS RG1431-50-1

“A good house greeted the attraction during the afternoon and the theater was packed from orchestra chairs to the top of the gallery at night. It was one of the biggest houses that has been seen in the theater during this or any other season. Frank James, the former desperado, was the ‘star’ attraction in the Fatal Scar company and really about the whole show.”

The troupe left Norfolk the day after Thanksgiving for Fremont. Frank James continued to attract audiences as the show moved across Nebraska. But as the Alliance Herald noted after A Fatal Scar had played in that city, James as an actor was “far from a star and no doubt would do a better job in a more familiar but discarded profession.”

Want to read more about Nebraska’s past? Become a member of the Nebraska State Historical Society and receive Nebraska History magazine, four issues yearly. Selected articles from past issues are posted online at the NSHS website. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

 

 

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Dr. Peabody Fought Omaha Cholera Outbreak in 1867

Dr. James H. Peabody. From Alfred T. Andreas, History of the State of Nebraska (Chicago, 1882)

Dr. James H. Peabody. From Alfred T. Andreas, History of the State of Nebraska (Chicago, 1882)

Cholera, characterized by severe diarrhea, vomiting, and dehydration, was the most dreaded disease of overland travelers in 1849 and the 1850s, and its possible recurrence was dreaded for decades afterward. Physician James H. Peabody, a former Civil War surgeon, helped fight an outbreak in Omaha in 1867 and before it was over, had contracted the disease himself. The Omaha Daily Bee on September 20, 1892, published an interview with Dr. Peabody, who consulted his past medical notes for details of the 1867 outbreak:

“September 15, 1867, just a quarter of a century since, I was called to see one John M. Bury at the boarding house of Thomas Finan which was situated at No. 212 South Tenth street . . . . On inquiry I found he had just come up from Memphis, Tenn., where cholera was raging.”

Bury died less than twenty-four hours after symptoms appeared. The next day his landlord fell ill with cholera, followed by the landlord’s wife and three daughters. Peabody recalled, “The house was full of boarders at my first visit, but they scampered off like rats from a sinking ship. It was almost next to impossible to get anyone to feed and nurse the Finan family, who were nearly all helpless.” Peabody emphasized, “No one who has not witnessed the rapidity of death in claiming a victim in this disease can imagine the panic that ensues. Men and women with some few exceptions seem to think that their first duty is to save themselves and not to look after their neighbor and they act according.”

Omaha in the mid-1860s, looking northwest from Thirteenth and Farnam Streets. NSHS RG2341-8

Omaha in the mid-1860s, looking northwest from Thirteenth and Farnam Streets. NSHS RG2341-8

Peabody estimated that about sixty cases of cholera were diagnosed in various parts of the city during the 1867 outbreak. During this trying period he contracted cholera from one of the fifteen such patients he treated, but fortunately the doctor survived. Peabody also recalled the public health measures used to fight the spread of cholera in Omaha in 1867:

“Dr. [J. R.] Conkling was our health officer and he was an excellent one, disinfecting most thoroughly by taking all the beds, bed clothing, carpets and everything else he thought might serve as a means of infection and burning them up. I fumigated the houses where my patients had been with sulphur, had everything whitewashed or painted, burned all the clothing I could get access to and with the assistance of the other physicians stamped out cholera and preserved Omaha from getting a backset just as she had recovered from the effects of the [Civil] war.”

Want to read more about Nebraska’s past? Become a member of the Nebraska State Historical Society and receive Nebraska History magazine, four issues yearly. Selected articles from past issues are posted online at the NSHS website. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

 

 

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The Nebraska State Capitol’s Roots in World War I

Lowering the stone into place at the cornerstone ceremony of the third Nebraska State Capitol on November 11, 1922. NSHS RG1234-71-84

Lowering the stone into place at the cornerstone ceremony of the third Nebraska State Capitol on November 11, 1922. NSHS RG1234-71-84

The Armistice marking the end of World War I was signed on November 11, 1918; Nebraska Governor Samuel R. McKelvie signed a bill in 1919 for the construction of a new State Capitol that could house state government and also serve as a memorial to Nebraskans killed in the war. The groundbreaking ceremony for the third and present State Capitol, held on April 15, 1922, gave Nebraskans an opportunity to display pride not only in their state but in the recent American victory in World War I as well. The cornerstone was laid on November 11, 1922, Armistice Day (now Veterans Day).

The groundbreaking in April coincided with the visit to Lincoln of Marshal Joseph J. Joffre, commander of the French Army during the early years of World War I, as part of a larger world tour to promote peace, The Lincoln Star on April 15 and 16, 1922, reported details of the groundbreaking, attended by Joffre, and his whirlwind visit to the city, which included stops at the University of Nebraska campus and the home of another famous soldier of World War I, Gen. John J. Pershing.

Military veterans were an important part of the ceremony. The Star said: “Men in khaki who fought side by side with Joffre’s countrymen in the great struggle marched behind ‘le grand marschal’ in the parade from the Burlington Station to the Capitol. Veterans of the Spanish-American and Philippine wars and the Civil War were also in line. . . . Almost a hundred of the G.A.R. veterans had turned out and stood bravely at attention while the great marshal went past.”

Lowering the stone, November 11, 1922.  NSHS RG1234-71-72

Lowering the stone, November 11, 1922. NSHS RG1234-71-72

The visiting World War I hero was received at the old Capitol by Governor McKelvie, who then gripped plow handles behind a team of horses to cut a thirty-foot furrow to signal the start of construction of the new Capitol. The cornerstone was laid on Armistice Day. McKelvie, dignitaries in top hats, the American Legion, and thousands of citizens braved a heavy drizzle to watch the cornerstone being lowered into place. The inscription: “The Capitol of Nebraska, November 11, 1922. Dedicated to the memory of those who fell in the service of their country.” The building was completed in 1932.

Read more about the Nebraska State Capitol, its exterior sculpture and its design, background, and influence, in Nebraska History magazine. Members receive four issues yearly. Selected articles from past issues are posted online at the Nebraska State Historical Society’s website. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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Two Governors Welcome a President to Omaha

James E. Boyd (1834-1906). NSHS RG2411-536

James E. Boyd (1834-1906). NSHS RG2411-536

In 1891 President Benjamin Harrison visited Omaha on a return trip to Washington, D.C. from the Pacific Coast. Omaha’s Morning World-Herald on May 14 noted that thousands of people had turned out the day before to welcome him to the city and hear him speak on the need for foreign markets for agricultural products. Harrison and his entourage arrived by train and traveled from the depot in carriages along a decorated parade route toward a grandstand from which he delivered his address.

One political oddity characterized the official parade: Both Republican John M. Thayer and Democrat James E. Boyd participated. Boyd, a resident of Omaha, had been elected governor in 1890, but when he tried to assume the office in January of 1891, Thayer refused to vacate it on grounds that Boyd, born in Ireland, was not an American citizen and therefore ineligible to serve. The Nebraska Supreme Court advised otherwise, and Boyd took office on February 6, 1891. However, the same court rendered a decision in May sustaining Thayer, whereupon he was reinstated.

John M. Thayer (1820-1906). NSHS RG2720-4

John M. Thayer (1820-1906). NSHS RG2720-4

Edward F. Morearty in his Omaha Memories, published in 1917, recalled the difficulties caused by the participation of both Boyd and Thayer in ceremonies welcoming Harrison to Omaha. Morearty said: “A few days prior to his arrival I introduced in the city council a resolution which was adopted, which in substance placed the council on record as declaring that one John M. Thayer, being an usurper of the office of Governor of this State, that on that occasion he be treated and classed as a private citizen, and that James E. Boyd be recognized as the Governor of the State, and that he be accorded that honor. This resolution met with the hearty approval of the people of Omaha.”

When Thayer and his entourage arrived at the Omaha depot to join the festivities, only “shrewd diplomacy” on the part of councilman Tom Lowry, who had charge of the parade, prevented a scene, “as Mr. Thayer had read of the action of the city council and, being a pompous and fiery old gentleman, he manifested a firm determination to resent what he termed an insult to his high official position. Without his knowledge he was placed some twenty carriages behind Mr. Boyd, and he never knew the difference until the day he died. Had he been in front I am confident his presence would have created a riot.”

President Harrison apparently took no official notice of Nebraska’s delicate gubernatorial situation during his brief visit to Omaha. On February 1, 1892, the Nebraska Supreme Court’s decision sustaining Thayer as governor was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which declared Boyd a citizen and eligible to serve as governor. Boyd then reassumed his position for the remainder of his term.

More information on Nebraska’s political history is available in Nebraska History magazine, a benefit of membership in the Nebraska State Historical Society. Both full members and subscription-only members receive four issues yearly. Selected articles from past issues are posted online at the NSHS website. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

 

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Fuller Automobiles Once Manufactured in Nebraska

Angus Automobile Company factory in Angus, Nebraska. An early automobile, said to be the “the 14th car completed,” is parked just outside. NSHS RG3463-5

Angus Automobile Company factory in Angus, Nebraska. An early automobile, said to be the “the 14th car completed,” is parked just outside. NSHS RG3463-5

Pioneer automobile maker Charles M. Fuller Jr. (1874-1940) built his first car in 1898 at the age of twenty-four in Angus, Nuckolls County, Nebraska. Today the town is gone. But for several years in the 1910s it was the home of the Angus Automobile Company, employing forty craftsmen who produced more than six hundred cars during its short life.

Fuller left the small town of Angus in 1902 to work for the St. Louis Motor Company and later the Buckeye Manufacturing Company of Anderson, Indiana, where he was instrumental in building the Lambert car. He returned to Nebraska with a Lambert and convinced investors that he could build a better car. He organized the Angus Automobile Company with a capitalization of $50,000, and on February 16, 1907, production of the Fuller automobile began.

The building behind this early Fuller car could be the Angus Automobile Company factory. NSHS RG3463-34

The building behind this early Fuller car could be the Angus Automobile Company factory. NSHS RG3463-34

The Omaha Bee said on July 28, 1907: “This enterprise is all the more to be admired, as the factory is located in a small town . . . practically off the main line of railroad communications, but those back of the enterprise are substantial men.” Fuller was described as “an old-time expert in automobile building.”

There were four models of the Fuller car. The best seller was a five-seater Model A touring car that sold for the comparatively high price of $2,500. A roadster with the same specifications as the touring car was also available. A runabout Model C was also featured. The Fuller car used only genuine leather for its upholstery, had sixteen to eighteen coats of paint, and the best engine then available.

Unfortunately, the success of the Fuller car was brief. In 1908 a demonstration was held at the Nuckolls County Fair in which a Fuller completed two laps of the fairgrounds racetrack in sixty seconds, averaging sixty miles per hour. The performance was so exceptional that a group of Omaha businessmen offered to buy the Angus Automobile Company. Charles Fuller wanted to accept the offer, but the other stockholders did not. The resulting dispute resulted in Fuller’s decision to sever all ties with the company. Without his inventive ability and drive, the business soon folded.

Fuller, who received a number of patents for automotive design innovations, moved on to other ventures. In 1915 he relocated to southern California, where he continued to design machines, including tractors and a device to mine desert gold without the use of water.

neb-madeWant to read more about products made in Nebraska? Visit an online exhibit at the Nebraska State Historical Society website. We invite you to become a member of the NSHS and receive Nebraska History magazine, four issues yearly. Selected articles from past issues are posted online at the NSHS website. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

 

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Nebraska’s Ghosts Still Dot the Landscape

perkey's from catalogThe decades-long shift from rural to urban living has left the map of Nebraska dotted with abandoned town sites. A county-by-county listing of the state’s place names and their origins, including those of many ghost towns, is found in Perkey’s Nebraska Place Names, by Elton A. Perkey, first published by the Nebraska State Historical Society in 1982, and now in its fourth edition. It’s available from the NSHS Landmark Stores.

A former postal employee, Perkey combed post office records for obscure place names long vanished from the map and consulted library and archival sources at the NSHS. He defined a ghost town as “a village now faded from the map due to economic factors.” They vanished, he said, for a variety of reasons: “(1) failure to gain the county seat; (2) poor economic base; (3) lack of railroad; (4) inability to handle indebtedness; (5) fraudulent establishment designed to dupe the gullible; (6) Missouri River floods or abandonment of river trade due to railroad competition.”

One of the best known of Nebraska’s ghost towns, Rock Bluffs (later Rock Bluff City or Rock Bluff), was founded in Cass County in 1856 and during territorial days was a thriving river town. Perhaps the most notable incident in the town’s history was that involving a ballot box that “went to dinner.” During the referendum of 1866 Nebraska voters were deciding whether the territory should become a state, and if statehood was achieved, whether the first officers would be Republicans or Democrats.

The political parties were almost evenly divided in Nebraska Territory, and the election was close. In the precinct of Rock Bluff 107 votes were cast for the Democrats, enough to put Cass County in the Democratic column. However, the county canvassers decided that because the ballot box had been taken to the home of one of the election officials over the noon hour, when the polls were declared closed, all Rock Bluff precinct votes would be thrown out. The result was that Cass County went Republican, and its representatives furnished the edge in the legislature that enabled the Republican legislators to elect Nebraska’s first two United States senators.

Because of this celebrated incident, Rock Bluff achieved a permanent place in Nebraska’s political history. However, when the Burlington Railroad built through nearby Plattsmouth, the Cass County seat, Rock Bluff went into a serious decline. Today it is a ghost town. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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Finding Nebraska’s Ghost Towns

Overlay of the plat map of the village of Violet (originally Butler) over the current site showing the correspondence between trees and streets

Overlay of the plat map of the village of Violet (originally Butler) over the current site showing the correspondence between trees and streets

Ghost towns evoke images of dusty streets, ramshackle buildings, and tumbleweed. Popular imagination places them in the high peaks of the Rockies or isolated in the deserts of the Great Basin and the South West. However, Nebraska has its own ghost towns, silent witnesses to the state’s agricultural and transportation history. They also speak to the optimism of the state’s settlers, their aspirations, and the challenges they faced on the frontier. These lost communities are easy to miss while driving along the state’s highways, but with some basic detective work, they arise out of the landscape to tell their story.

All that remains of the village of Edholm in northern Butler County are two grain elevators and the town cemetery

All that remains of the village of Edholm in northern Butler County are two grain elevators and the town cemetery

Often, the quickest means of discovering Nebraska’s ghost towns is to consult historic maps. Many former communities were established by land development companies or other private land holders, who in the process had town sites surveyed and platted. Comparison between current and historic maps, especially historic railroad maps, helps to identify ghost towns. Aerial photographs also assist in the discovery of these towns, revealing features that are hidden at ground level, such as building foundations, roadbeds, and railroad rights-of-way. Finally, county histories, newspapers, and oral histories also point to the locations of ghost towns.

Former site of St. Deroin in Indian Cave State Park. St. Deroin was an important Missouri River crossing and was one of the earliest towns established in Nebraska, but declined following a shift in the course of the Missouri. Nearly all of the town site was swept away by floods in 1911 and 1920

Former site of St. Deroin in Indian Cave State Park. St. Deroin was an important Missouri River crossing and was one of the earliest towns established in Nebraska, but declined following a shift in the course of the Missouri. Nearly all of the town site was swept away by floods in 1911 and 1920

Railroad ghost towns are the easiest to identify due to their larger size, physical remains, and higher number. Often, these towns were large enough to have graded streets, which are still visible in the landscape. These streets may still be shaded by trees planted by the original settlers. Isolated grain elevators also often indicate a former town, especially when they are oriented at an angle against the common grid of county roads, implying a location along a long-abandoned railroad. Many of these towns were founded during the period of railroad expansion, 1870-1890, and were abandoned by the late 1930s due to the collapsed agricultural economy and the closure of railroad branches.

Another class of ghost towns includes former river settlements. These towns were primarily located at fords or ferry sites along Nebraska’s multiple rivers, and are among the earliest settlements in the state. The sites of these communities often have few, if any remains such as streets or structures, due to floods or changing river courses.

The town of Antioch once boasted over 1,000 inhabitants during the Potash Boom of WWI. However, nothing remains of the town’s temporary structures and streets in southern Sheridan county, except for some factory ruins

The town of Antioch once boasted over 1,000 inhabitants during the Potash Boom of WWI. However, nothing remains of the town’s temporary structures and streets in southern Sheridan county, except for some factory ruins

Other ghost towns include speculative settlements, constructed to serve as possible sites for county seats, or as possible railroad depots, or as future centers for an industrial or agricultural area. These settlements are the hardest to find, as they often were in existence for the shortest period of time and were composed of the most temporary of buildings. These settlements are primarily found only on old maps, and have left little impression on the landscape, except for place names, groves of trees, or possibly a cemetery.

Nebraska’s ghost towns, while not as visually impactful as the mythologized ghost towns of the far west, are a key part of the state’s history and are a target for investigation and preservation. Much can be learned from these town sites, which provide us clues on not only the economic and material aspects of prairie life, but also give insight to how people planned for the future and saw their relationship between their community and the larger world.

The village of Anoka was established by the Pioneer Town Site Company in 1903 along the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. A substantial railroad town in its day, only the streets, a grain elevator, and a store building remain of the town buildings

The village of Anoka was established by the Pioneer Town Site Company in 1903 along the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. A substantial railroad town in its day, only the streets, a grain elevator, and a store building remain of the town buildings

– Ruben Acosta / National Register and CLG Coordinator, State Historic Preservation Office

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NSHS 136th Annual Awards Presentation

NSHS awards honorees

NSHS awards honorees, from left to right: David Levy, Rebecca Anderson, John Swigart, Nancy Gillis, Sen. Jerry Johnson, Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, Dr. LuAnn Wandsnider, Dr. Christopher Dore, and Barry Jurgensen.

On Friday, October 17th the NSHS held its 136th Annual Members’ Meeting and Awards Presentation in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska.

Following a brief meeting led by NSHS Board President Dee Adams, the Society honored a number of Nebraska’s prominent history makers through the distribution of annual awards:

The Asa T. Hill Award, for outstanding work in Great Plains archeology, was presented to Dr. Christopher Dore, John Swigart, and Dr. LuAnn Wandsnider. They were honored for the time and energy they devoted to developing a digital mapping GIS (Geographic Information System) of all archeological sites – over 10,000! – and areas of investigation for the entire state of Nebraska. The GIS has proven to be a remarkably useful spatial tool for archeological research and cultural resource management. This was also the first GIS of its kind in the nation!

The Nebraska Preservation Award, for significant achievement in the preservation of Nebraska’s historic places, was presented to David Levy, an Omaha attorney who spearheaded the effort to enact LB 191 (2014), which established the Nebraska Job Creation and Mainstreet Revitalization Act and created a Nebraska Rehabilitation Tax Credit (NRTC) program.  A registered lobbyist, he provided his services pro bono through three sessions of the Legislature.

The Addison E. Sheldon Memorial Award, for significant achievement in the interpretation and preservation of history, was presented to Nancy Gillis, in honor of her years of service as director of the John G. Neihardt Historic Site in Bancroft, Nebraska and her continued work to protect and teach the history of Native Nebraskans.

The James L. Sellers Memorial Award, for an outstanding contribution published in Nebraska History, was presented to Rebecca J. Anderson for her article, “Grandma Gabel, she brought Ralph: Midwifery and the Lincoln, Nebraska Department of Health in the Early Twentieth Century.”

The James C. Olson Memorial Award, for inspiring and guiding K-12 students to discover and learn from the histories that Nebraskans share, was presented to Barry Jurgensen of Arlington Public Schools. While at APS, Mr. Jurgensen has instituted the Forever Free Project, in which students in his honors history class research and nominate sites associated with the Underground Railroad to the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom. You can read about Mr. Jurgensen and his students in this recent article from the Journal Star.

Finally, the Champion of Nebraska History Award, for conspicuous service in the public arena in support of the mission of the NSHS, was presented to Senator Jerry Johnson and Senator Jeremy Nordquist. Senators Johnson and Nordquist were both instrumental in the passage of LB 191 (2014), which enacted the Nebraska Rehabilitation Tax Credit (NRTC).

Senator Johnson named the bill as his priority in the second session of the 103rd Legislature. That priority status was essential to ensure consideration of LB 191 by the full body which led to its passing. Senator Nordquist was the primary guide and negotiator with his fellow Senators in the Legislature, providing a remarkable example of a committed champion for preservation. Through his tireless work, LB191 was passed with 45 votes in support and no votes in opposition. The resulting statute is testimony to his efforts.

The NSHS offers its thanks and congratulations to this year’s honorees!

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Buffalo Bill in Politics

Buffalo Bill at age thirty-five. NSHS RG3004-12

Buffalo Bill at age thirty-five. NSHS RG3004-12

Many of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s exploits as a buffalo hunter, scout, and showman have been publicized in works ranging from dime novels to serious historical studies. In light of these successes it is doubtful that Buffalo Bill ever had any serious interest in political affairs.

However, an obscure episode in Cody’s life did lead to his “election” to the Nebraska Legislature in 1872. At a convention held in Grand Island, some of Cody’s friends secured his nomination as the Democratic candidate from the Twenty-sixth District, which included the counties of Lincoln, Cheyenne, Dawson, Buffalo, Kearney, Franklin, Harlan, and unorganized territory. The board of canvassers for this election district was located in Lincoln County. As a Democrat Cody had little hope of being elected from the predominantly Republican district and later remarked in his autobiography that “in fact, I cared very little about it, and therefore made no effort whatever to secure an election.” However, his name proved a powerful vote getter, and the returns filed with the Lincoln County board of canvassers gave Cody a majority of about forty-four votes over opponent D. P. Ashburn of Gibbon.

A contest was immediately filed on behalf of Ashburn, charging that the returns were incomplete. An investigation revealed that the Harlan County clerk had sent his returns to the city of Lincoln, rather than to Lincoln County. When the results of these additional votes were tabulated, Ashburn was found to have received a majority of them and the legislative seat was awarded to him.

Members of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago during which Cody was briefly mentioned as a Nebraska gubernatorial candidate. NSHS RG2316-30

Members of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago during which Cody was briefly mentioned as a Nebraska gubernatorial candidate. NSHS RG2316-30

More than twenty years later, in the summer of 1893, Buffalo Bill was briefly suggested as a Nebraska gubernatorial candidate after he and a troupe of performers from his Wild West show had played a prominent part in the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Sunday Morning Courier of Lincoln on July 2, 1893, commented, “The Chicago Sunday Democrat suggests the Honorable William F. Cody for governor of Nebraska and a number of papers in this state have endorsed the suggestion.”

The Courier, however, did not approve of Cody’s presence in Chicago, which the newspaper believed had encouraged the world to think of Nebraska as without culture, “a howling wilderness, the home of Buffalo Bill and his cowboys, the land of Indians and buffaloes,” and discouraged the “Cody for governor” idea. The boomlet soon died, probably much to the relief of Buffalo Bill.

Want to read more about Nebraska’s past? Become a member of the Nebraska State Historical Society and receive Nebraska History magazine, four issues yearly. Selected articles from past issues are posted online at the NSHS website. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

 

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The Election of 1864 and Nebraska

For the full story of Nebraska Territory during this dramatic era in American history, see James E. Potter, Standing Firmly by the Flag: Nebraska Territory and the Civil War, 1861-1867 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012).

For the full story of Nebraska Territory during this dramatic era in American history, see James E. Potter, Standing Firmly by the Flag: Nebraska Territory and the Civil War, 1861-1867 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012).

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the election of 1864, one of the most momentous in American history. Abraham Lincoln’s re-election as president on November 8, 1864, virtually assured that the Civil War would continue until Union victory was achieved and the institution of slavery was destroyed. Another hallmark of that year was Nebraska Territory’s failure to take advantage of an opportunity to become a state. In April Congress passed an enabling act authorizing Nebraskans to adopt a state constitution complying with certain conditions that, if met, would have led to immediate statehood. However, no constitution was drafted and Nebraska remained a U.S. territory whose residents could not vote in presidential elections until statehood finally came in 1867.

As for the 1864 election, Civil War historian James M. McPherson (Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction) has termed it unique in history because it was held in the midst of a civil war that would decide the nation’s future. Moreover, no other society had ever let its soldiers vote in an election whose outcome might determine whether they would have to keep on fighting. Both Lincoln’s supporters and critics knew that if Lincoln were returned to the White House and the Republicans maintained control of Congress, the war would go on to its bitter end.

Clement L. Vallandigham, NSHS RG1013-34-49

Clement L. Vallandigham, NSHS RG1013-34-49

The election presented Democrats in the North with a dilemma. A significant number, whose most prominent spokesman was former Ohio Congressman Clement L. Vallandigham, argued that the war was a failure and that the Union could be saved only by an immediate end to hostilities and a negotiated peace. They were known as “Peace” Democrats (also called “Copperheads”) and many Republicans considered them sympathetic to the Confederacy at best and traitors at worst. By contrast, the so-called “War” Democrats believed that the Southern armies must be defeated on the battlefield before peace could be restored, although they disagreed with many of Lincoln’s policies toward achieving that goal, such as the emancipation of slaves and the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union army.

As the time neared for holding party conventions, the Peace Democrats’ argument that Lincoln and his administration’s prosecution of the war had been a failure was bolstered by a seeming stalemate on the battlefields and by the tremendous number of Union army casualties sustained in bloody fighting during the spring and summer. In the absence of decisive Union victories over the Confederate armies, many Republicans and even Lincoln himself doubted his chances for re-election by a war-weary electorate. Continue reading

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