Half-Century of Historic Preservation

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, which was signed by President Lyndon Johnson in October 1966. The act was passed in response to the loss of historic buildings across the country during the postwar boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Historic monuments across the country were demolished in a wave of highway construction and urban renewal. Here in Nebraska, landmark buildings such as the old Omaha Post Office were demolished as part of the redevelopment of city centers, while highway construction isolated neighborhoods and threatened historic landscapes.

Old Omaha Post Office, demolished 1966

Old Omaha Post Office, demolished 1966

The National Historic Preservation Act established a system to identify and protect historic resources across the nation from damage or demolition by federally funded projects. The act built upon previous federal laws, dating back to the 1906 Antiquities Act, which protected historic monuments and archaeological sites. Cities joined the federal government in passing local ordinances that embraced preservation and established commissions to identify, document, and protect historic buildings. These laws were modeled on ordinances passed by cities such as New Orleans, Charleston, and Santa Fe, which began in the 1930s to protect their historic colonial downtowns.

Visit preservation50.org to learn more about the 50th anniversary of the Preservation Act and nationwide commemorations. Participate in the National Park Service’s 50 for 50 social media campaign by visiting their website.

The Nebraska Historic Preservation Office will continue to provide information on the commemoration and future events via its newsletter. You can sign up to receive the newsletter here!

For more information, please contact Ruben Acosta, National Register Coordinator, at ruben.acosta@nebraska.gov.

— Ruben Acosta, Nebraska State Historic Preservation Office

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Marker Monday: The Skala Timber House

Welcome to Marker Monday! Each Monday we will feature one of Nebraska’s hundreds of historical markers. If you’d like to see a specific marker featured, send an email to amanda.chait@nebraska.gov.

Location: 

3rd St, Battle Creek, Madison County, Nebraska; 41.992849, -97.60052

Marker Text:

The Joseph and Katherine Severa Skala house, built near Battle Creek by 1869, is a rare product of Czech-American culture. Discovered inside a house being demolished in 1968, the remains were moved here. The timber rooms have been preserved as found, and, except for the roof and two later openings, reflect the original construction. The structure is a masterpiece of ancient Slavic carpentry skills so old they are rare even in Europe. This Czech technique is distinguished from similar methods by the use of thin planks set within a post-and-beam frame. Known as post-and-panel construction, this is the only example in Nebraska. The planks are so skillfully crafted that they rest perfectly upon each other. The unusual two-room arrangement is also an old Czech peasant cottage plan. Noteworthy interior features include the tie beams, and the diagonally-placed willow lathes with mud and straw plaster. The present roof and porch were built following traditional Czech practice using old lumber donated by Mary Lucht, a descendant of the first pioneers. Window shutters were added for security.

Bibliography / Read on:

David Murphy, “Old Cuts in New Wood: Traditional Czech Carpentry in the Central Great Plains,” Nebraska History 84 (2003): 2-17.

 

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Marker Monday: Fairmont Army Air Field (1 and 2)

Welcome back to Marker Monday! Each Monday we will feature one of Nebraska’s hundreds of historical markers. If you’d like to see a specific marker featured, send an email to amanda.chait@nebraska.gov.

Location:

Rural Road H, Fairmont, Fillmore County, Nebraska; 40.597152, -97.59451

Marker Text:

1: Construction began on the Fairmont Army Air Field September 17, 1942. Located east of here, it was one of eleven built in Nebraska during World War II. The 1,980-acre field began as a satellite of the Topeka Army Air Base. Early in 1943 the name was changed to Fairmont Army Air Field. A short-lived training school gave way to the 451st Bombardment Group, which arrived in September 1943. Other groups were the 485th, 504th, 16th, 98th, 467th and 489th. Hangers of various sizes housed B-24s, B-17s, and B-29s. Extensive concrete runways and other structures were built. The field had barracks for nearly 6,000 officers and enlisted men. Its 350-bed hospital was the largest in Nebraska. In September 1944 Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets visited Fairmont and selected the 393rd Bomb Squadron of the 504th to join the 509th Composite Group at Wendover Field, Utah. This group dropped both atomic bombs on Japan. The field was declared surplus in the spring of 1946.
2: Fairmont Army Air Field, located 3 1/2 miles south, was one of eleven army air force training fields built in Nebraska during World War II. The 1,980-acre field provided final training for the 451st, 485th, 504th, and 16th Heavy Bombardment Groups before they proceeded to the European, Mediterranean, or Pacific Theaters. The 98th, 467th, and 489th Bombardment Groups returning from Europe trained at Fairmont for possible service in the Pacific. The groups flew B- 24, B-17, and B-29 bombers. The rapid influx of construction workers and military personnel needed to build and operate the field brought housing shortages, as well as an economic boost, to Fairmont and other nearby communities. Area residents welcomed the servicemen and tried to make their stay more pleasant, often inviting the soldiers into their homes. Some servicemen met their future wives while at Fairmont, and returned here after the war to raise their families. Fairmont Army Air Field was de-activated in October 1945 and declared surplus in the spring of 1946. Part of the field is now operated as the Fairmont State Airfield.

Further Information:

Aerial view of Fairmont Air Base, A.A.F. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

“Fairmont Army Airfield” on www.nps.gov.

McKee, Jim. “Fairmont Army Airfield.” Lincoln Journal Star 25 October 2015. JournalStar.com Web. 12 January 2016.

Search results at NebraskaHistory.org.

 

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Marker Monday: Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Robinson

Welcome back to Marker Monday! Each Monday we will feature one of Nebraska’s hundreds of historical markers. If you’d like to see a specific marker featured, send an email to amanda.chait@nebraska.gov.

Location: 

Soldier Creek Rd, Crawford, Dawes County, Nebraska; 42.670114, -103.4722

Marker Text:

Black soldiers of the Ninth and Tenth cavalry regiments (called “buffalo soldiers” by the Plains Indians) garrisoned Fort Robinson for eighteen years and played an important role in northwestern Nebraska’s history. Organized in 1866, the regiments first served in the Southwest. In 1885 the Ninth Cavalry arrived at Fort Robinson, which was regimental headquarters from 1887 to 1898. The black troopers helped build the new post during the fort’s 1887 expansion and were the first cavalrymen sent to the Pine Ridge Reservation during the Ghost Dance trouble of 1890. Lt. John Alexander, the second African American graduate of West Point, and Henry Plummer, the first black chaplain in the regular army, served here. So did ten buffalo soldier Medal of Honor men. In 1902 the men of the “Fighting Tenth” Cavalry, veterans of the Battle of San Juan Hill, made their headquarters here. Four years later the Tenth helped capture Ute Indians who had fled their Utah reservation, the last military action against Indians on the northern Plains. In 1907 the regiment left for duty in the Philippines.

Further Information: 

The Buffalo Soldiers were members of the all-black Ninth and Tenth U.S. Cavalry. They were stationed at Fort Robinson during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Several notable Buffalo Soldiers, including 10 Medal of Honor recipients, served at the fort.

Background While many black men served in the military during the Civil War, the first peacetime all-black units in the regular Army were created by Congress in 1866. The units were a popular place for freed slaves to find work and purpose. These new black soldiers were divided into four (later consolidated into two) regiments of infantry and two regiments of cavalry, the Ninth and the Tenth.

African American football team. 10th Cavalry, Ft. Robinson. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

The Name The Buffalo Soldiers were given their nickname by their primary adversary, the Plains Indians. There are two competing theories about the origin of the nickname. Some say the soldiers fought with the ferocity of a buffalo; others say the soldiers’ black skin and curly hair reminded the Indians of the buffalo.

At Fort Robinson The Ninth Cavalry served in the Southwest, Kansas and Indian Territory (Oklahoma) before coming to Fort Robinson on August 10, 1885. In 1887, the fort became the regimental headquarters of the Ninth. The Buffalo Soldiers were the first cavalry unit sent to the Pine Ridge Reservation during the Ghost Dance trouble of 1890. The “trouble” ended in the Wounded Knee Massacre in December of that year and is considered the last engagement of the Indian Wars. In 1898, the Buffalo Soldiers were sent to the Philippines to fight in the Spanish-American War. After the war, the Tenth Cavalry were assigned to Fort Robinson and remained there until 1907.

Black soldier, wife, and three children. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

Notable Buffalo Soldiers The second African-American graduate of West Point, Lt. John Alexander, and Henry Plummer, the first black chaplain of the regular army, served at the fort. Ten Buffalo Soldiers who served at the fort received the Medal of Honor. Eight of these recipients earned the medal before coming to Fort Robinson, either in Indian Wars or in Cuba; one earned the medal while at the fort; and the last earned his medal in Cuba after being at Fort Robinson. Two of these soldiers, Emmanuel Stance and George Jordan, were buried in the Fort Robinson Cemetery. (All the graves at the Fort Robinson Cemetery were moved to Fort McPherson National Cemetery, near Maxwell, Nebraska, in 1948.) Emmanuel Stance, the first black to win a Medal of Honor after the Civil War, served at the fort from 1885 until his death in 1887. He received his Medal of Honor fighting Kickapoo Indians in Texas in 1870. By the time he reached Fort Robinson, he was a sergeant with a 19-year career behind him, though he had been court marshaled several times. Once at the fort, Sgt. Stance, a strict, almost abusive, disciplinarian, was involved in several incidents with his men. On Christmas Day in 1887, Sgt. Stance’s dead body was found in the nearby town of Crawford. It is believed that he was killed by one of his own men as revenge for his leadership style.

Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

Racial Issues The Buffalo Soldiers were often treated badly based on race. When the Ninth Cavalry passed through Hastings, Nebraska, a private was shot twice by a local law official after they got into a dispute. Even though both blacks and Native Americans were oppressed minorities at the time, they were still strong adversaries. The Buffalo Soldiers included many former slaves who wanted to prove their patriotism to the nation while the Native Americans were fighting to keep their homeland. The fact that they were both oppressed by whites did not create any good feelings between them.

Bibliography / Read on:

Buecker, Thomas R. Fort Robinson and the American West, 1874–1899. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003.

Buecker, Thomas R. “One Soldier’s Service: Caleb Benson in the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry, 1875-1908.Nebraska History. Summer 1993: 54-62.

Schubert, Frank N. “Ten Troopers: Buffalo Soldier Medal of Honor Men Who Served at Fort Robinson.Nebraska History. Winter 1997: 151-157.

Schubert, Frank N. “The Violent World of Emanuel Stance.” Nebraska History. Summer 1974: 203-220.

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Top Stories from 2015

The NSHS had a big year in 2015! Listed below are just a few of our big accomplishments and best moments.

Nebraska History Museum. Just because the museum has been closed doesn’t mean its staff has been resting! Our museum staff has been working tirelessly to get the new facility ready for visitors in April 2016. Between redesigning the space, managing construction, maintaining collections, and creating new exhibits, they have kept busy. We can’t wait for you to experience all of their hard work once the museum reopens in just a few short months!

The Nebraska History Museum will reopen to the public on April 1, 2016!

The Nebraska History Museum will reopen to the public on April 1, 2016!

Nebraska Historic Tax Credit (NHTC). The State Historic Preservation Office allocated $14,960,178 for 46 projects under the new “Nebraska Historic Tax Credit” (NHTC) program. This is the first year that funds were allocated. The statutory limit of credits available in one year is $15 million. The office received 58 applications requesting $17,508,708. State legislation, the “Nebraska Job Creation and Mainstreet Revitalization Act,” provides a 20 percent state income tax credit (up to a limit of $1 million for a single project) for eligible expenditures made for rehabilitating qualified historic buildings. The program is administered by the State Historic Preservation Office and the Nebraska Department of Revenue.

NSHS Publications. The NSHS published two books in 2015:

Rodeo Nebraska by Mark Harris; foreword by Candy Moulton. This large-format hardcover features contemporary photos and stories of Nebraska’s small-town rodeos. “After eighty-two events in sixty-two separate Nebraska locations, Mark Harris has created a captivating tribute to rodeo like no other.” – Joel Sartore, National Geographic photographer.

Fort Robinson, Crawford, Nebraska: Self-Guided Driving Tours, by Thomas R. Buecker. This revised and expanded edition of our popular guidebook was written by the fort’s premier historian, our late colleague Tom Buecker. It contains maps and 28 photos showing the fort as it grew and changed over the years.

Both of these books are available for purchase at the Landmark Stores!

Quilts for a Cause. Thousands of children visited the NSHS headquarters this year on class trips, for Hour at the Museum, or at Free Family Fun Days. Many of them worked to create hand-tied quilts while learning about Nebraska’s history. By the end of the year, 36 quilts made by these children had been sent to communities in distress to provide warmth and comfort during hard times.

DSCN2843

In 2015 children visiting the Nebraska History Museum sent 36 quilts to communities in distress.

Collections. Our collections team has been adding to and digitizing the artifacts that the NSHS protects for the state of Nebraska. They recently acquired a rare early map of Nebraska, Sally Ganem’s inaugural ball gown, Ernest Haight’s sewing machine, a UNL marching band director uniform, and a large amount of square dance materials. Further, more than 43,000 records are now in the Past Perfect Online database, including 64,443 images!

Underrepresented Cultures in Nebraska. The State Historic Preservation Office hosted a research assistant to conduct a statewide study on Japanese-American settlement in Nebraska. The project included co-sponsorship of a weeklong photography exhibit, a seminar and a full-day conference on the subject. The office also successfully received a grant to study adobe houses in Scotts Bluff County, a project to recognize the culture and traditional construction practices of Mexican-Americans who settled in the area.

The 50/50 Building. Our Archaeology Division moved to their new home at the end of 2015 and our collection of government records will be physically moved over to join them over the next several months. The new facility is state of the art, providing a safe space for historic records and archaeological collections and all the necessary lab equipment for our archaeologists who continue to discover and care for artifacts from Nebraska’s ancient history.

5050 Building new curation facility

The Archaeology Division is enjoying its new curation facility.

Marker Mondays. Our social media team launched a new and engaging blog series called “Marker Mondays!” Each Monday, a new blog post is published, highlighting one of Nebraska’s hundreds of historical markers, all scattered around our great state. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter to get up to the minute alerts!

As you can see, 2015 was a very productive year (and those were only some highlights). We are all looking forward to building on this momentum and seeing what 2016 brings!

If you have any questions or would like more information on any item listed above, please email amanda.chait@nebraska.gov.

 

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Marker Monday: The Blizzard of 1888

Welcome back to Marker Monday! Each Monday we will feature one of Nebraska’s hundreds of historical markers. If you’d like to see a specific marker featured, send an email to amanda.chait@nebraska.gov.

 

Location:

2401-2413 Nebraska 41, Milligan, Fillmore County, Nebraska; 40.510226, -97.38521

Marker Text:

One of the most spectacular and harrowing events in the history of the Great Plains was the Blizzard of January 12, 1888. Other storms had produced colder temperatures and greater amounts of snow. It was the combination of gale winds, blinding snow, and rapidly falling temperatures that made the 1888 blizzard so dangerous. The storm’s full fury lasted up to eighteen hours in many parts of Nebraska. Because of the suddenness of its onset, the blizzard caught many children away from in one-room schoolhouses. In an attempt to rescue her two sons, Charles and Thomas, from school Mary Masek of Milligan trekked nearly two miles to the schoolhouse. Finding the building empty, she started for home, but she never reached her destination. She was found frozen to death huddled near a cottonwood tree, only a short distance from a neighbor’s farmhouse. The Blizzard of 1888 created the scene for heroic acts. Mary Masek, like many Nebraskans, fell victim to one of nature’s most violent displays while courageously attempting to save the lives of her children.

Read on:

Hendee, David. “125 years ago today, Blizzard of 1888 ravaged the Plains.” Omaha World-Herald 12 January 2013. Omaha.com Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

Search results at NebraskaHistory.org.

 

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Marker Monday: The Ponca Tribe

Welcome back to Marker Monday! Each Monday we will feature one of Nebraska’s hundreds of historical markers. If you’d like to see a specific marker featured, send an email to amanda.chait@nebraska.gov.

 

Location: 

89101 522 Ave, Niobrara, Knox County, Nebraska; 42.750804, -98.06448

Marker Text:

This is homeland of the Ponca Indians who have lived in this area since earliest recorded history. In 1868, the federal government signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie which transferred the land to the Sioux without the permission of the Ponca. Treaties made with the government in 1858 had guaranteed their land to them. The Ponca were forcibly removed to Indian Territory in 1877. Unable to adjust to the climate of the South, many became ill and died. Among these was the son of Chief Standing Bear. In January 1879, the chief and his small band left Indian Territory bearing the remains of his son for burial in Nebraska. When troops arrested the small band, white friends came to their aid. As a result of a court decision it was determined that “an Indian is a person within the meaning of the law.” This important action did much to provide legal rights for all Indians. A Nebraska reservation was eventually assigned to the Northern Ponca while many of the Southern Ponca remained in Oklahoma. In 1962, at the request of the Ponca, Congress provided for a termination of the reservation. Today the Ponca can be proud of their fight for justice. In 1977, Chief Standing Bear was elected to the Nebraska Hall of Fame in the State Capitol.

 

Bibliography / Read on:

Search: Ponca Tribe on www.nebraskahistory.org.

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Marker Monday: Mayhew Cabin, 1855

Welcome to Marker Monday! Each Monday we will feature one of Nebraska’s hundreds of historical markers. If you’d like to see a specific marker featured, send an email to amanda.chait@nebraska.gov.

Location: 

2012 4th Corso, Nebraska City, Otoe County, Nebraska; 40.673348, -95.87018

Marker Text:

This cabin, one of Nebraska’s oldest structures, was built in the summer of 1855 as the home of Allen B. Mayhew, his wife, Barbara Ann (Kagy) Mayhew, and their sons, Edward and Henry. John Henry Kagi, Barbara Mayhew’s brother, lived briefly with the Mayhews before joining abolitionist John Brown in Kansas. In February 1859 Kagi helped Brown lead eleven Missouri slaves to freedom in Iowa via Nebraska City. During the trek Kagi narrowly avoided arrest while at the cabin. He was killed in October 1859 during Brown’s raid on the Harpers Ferry, Virginia, arsenal to seize weapons for a slave uprising. Beginning in the 1870s, stories and recollections about this turbulent era credited the cabin as an Underground Railroad station. Edward Mayhew recalled Kagi once bringing fourteen black persons (possibly escaping slaves) to the cabin for breakfast. When the cabin was moved several feet in the 1930s due to highway construction, a “cave,” allegedly used to hide freedom-seeking slaves, was recreated nearby. Legends connecting John Brown to the Mayhew cabin made it a popular tourist attraction devoted to the antislavery cause.

Further Information: 

Nebraska State Historical Society historian, James E. Potter, investigates the connection of John Brown to the Mayhew cabin in an article published in Nebraska History. The article examines available evidence in order to determine the extent to which John Brown’s Cave and the adjacent Mayhew log cabin in Nebraska City may or may not have contributed to the escape of fugitive slaves. It has been alleged that through Brown’s direct involvement, the “cave” was an important Underground Railroad station, sheltering scores if not hundreds of black fugitives who were making their way out of bondage. The article debunks the story of the cave, concluding that it is an example of folklore that demonstrates how generations of Nebraskans have come to regard the crusade against slavery as a meaningful part of their past.

Bibliography / Read on:

James E. Potter, “Fact and Folklore in the Story of ‘John Brown’s Cave’ and the Underground Railroad in Nebraska,” Nebraska History 83 (2002): 73-88.

Note: The photograph accompanying this post was taken before the original marker was replaced in about 2009. The 1852 date was clearly erroneous, being two years before the Nebraska Territory was established and opened to white settlement. The current marker with the 1855 date is based on research done by Jim Potter for the above article. So, the text in this blog post is correct; the photo is outdated.

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Marker Monday: Chimney Rock

Welcome back to Marker Monday! Each Monday we will feature one of Nebraska’s hundreds of historical markers. If you’d like to see a specific marker featured, send an email to amanda.chait@nebraska.gov.

Location: 

Nebraska 92 Scenic, Bayard, Morrill County, Nebraska; 41.720471, -103.3390

Marker Text:

Rising 470 feet above the North Platte River Valley, Chimney Rock stands to the south as the most celebrated of all natural formations along the overland routes to California, Oregon, and Utah. Chimney Rock served as an early landmark for fur traders, trappers, and mountain men as they made their way from the Rockies to the Missouri River. To later emigrants, the solitary spire marked the end of plains travel and the beginning of the rugged mountain portion of their journey. The tip of the formation is 325 feet above the base. Chimney Rock is composed of Brule Clay with interlayers of volcanic ash and Arickaree sandstone. Thousands of travelers carved their names in the soft base only to have these records disappear through the forces of nature. This eroded landmark is smaller than that which greeted early visitors to the area, but its presence for the generations of the near future is secure. In 1941 the eighty acres containing the site were transferred to the Nebraska State Historical Society by the Roszel F. Durnal family. In 1956 Norman and Donna Brown deeded additional land to the Society. In that same year, Chimney Rock was designated a National Historic Site by the federal government.

Further Information: 

The most famous landmark on the Platte River Road was Chimney Rock, a geological feature in the Wildcat Hills of west Nebraska. Studies by historians have shown that between 95 and 97 percent of all the westward migrants who kept journals of their travels made some mention of Chimney Rock, thus making it the most talked about feature along the road. The popularity of the feature was so great one traveler wrote, “This curiosity has been well described. I will not inflict another upon the reader.”

It is estimated that the tip of Chimney Rock is 325 feet above the base. The spire alone is estimated to be 120 feet tall. Based on descriptions by pioneers, it is believed that the rock could have been up to 100 feet taller during the mid 1800s than it is now. Erosion and lightning strikes are responsible for the drop in height. Many travelers in the Nineteenth Century predicted that the rock would soon erode away completely and become nothing more than a mound of rock and sand, but the monument is still present today.

The rock was originally called “Elk Penis” by Native Americans, which was censored to “Elk Peak” by white travelers. The rock was usually called “the Chimney” in earlier accounts. The first known usage of “Chimney Rock” was in 1842 in the journals of Charles Preuss, the cartographer of John C. Fremont’s famous exploratory journey.

Like many other landmarks on the trail, pioneers carved their names into its side. These names have all since eroded away.

The Nebraska State Historical Society owns the oldest known photograph of Chimney Rock, taken by Charles R. Savage in 1866.

Bibliography / Read on:

Mattes, Merrill J. The Great Platte River Road: The Covered Wagon Mainline via Fort Kearny To Fort Laramie. Lincoln: Nebraska State Historical Society, 1969.

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Marker Monday: Kearney – Fort Kearny

Welcome to Marker Mondays! Each Monday we will feature one of Nebraska’s hundreds of historical markers. If you’d like to see a specific marker featured, send an email to amanda.chait@nebraska.gov.

Location: 

Interstate 80, Kearney, Buffalo County, Nebraska; 40.670663, -99.15709

Marker Text:

For the next fifty miles east-bound travelers will be passing from the semi-arid Great Plains into the country of eastern Nebraska. Near here are located the city of Kearney and Fort Kearny, for which it was named. The fort was established in 1847 and continued in use until 1871. Fort Kearny was built at a point where eastern trails joined to form the Great Platte River Road to the West. Thousands of overland travelers passed by the fort each year. The U.S. Army was sent here not only to aid and protect the emigrants but also to protect the Indian tribes in the region from the travelers and to prevent inter-tribal warfare. Numerous road ranches were established near the fort. One notorious outfitting point nearby was Dobytown, which also attracted pleasure-seeking soldiers.

Several military expeditions against hostile Indians were garrisoned a this post during the 1860’s, when the Sioux and Cheyenne made many raids against wagon trains and Union Pacific Railroad construction crews. Once the railroad was built and settlers entered the area, the need for the post lessened, and it was abandoned. Today it is a State Historical Park and is entered on the National Register of Historic Places.

Further Information: 

Between 1848 and 1871, Fort Kearny was an important military outpost on the Great Plains and marked the beginning of the Platte River Road. The fort is named after General Stephen Watts Kearny but is frequently misspelled “Kearney.” The city of Kearney, located near the fort, perpetuates this old error.

The Old Fort Kearny: In 1844, a report by the Secretary of War recommended building a chain of military forts along the Oregon Trail to protect travelers. This plan was approved by Congress in 1846. One of the forts created was near Table Creek along the Missouri River and called Fort Kearny. Present-day Nebraska City is built near the old fort. Old Fort Kearny, as it came to be known, was not placed at an important location along the trail at that time. In 1847, the War Department decided to move Fort Kearny to central Nebraska, near the Platte River’s Grand Island.

The New Fort Kearny: On September 23, 1847, Lieutenant Daniel P. Woodbury led an expedition to select the new location of Fort Kearny. On October 2 he reached Grand Island (the feature, not the city, which had not yet been established) and selected a spot for the fort which was 197 miles west of the old Fort Kearny. This was an ideal location, he said, because it was elevated enough to avoid flooding, was close to good timber and had a central location to keep peace between the warring Pawnee and Sioux. On March 12, 1848, Battalion Commander L.E. Powell and some engineers left the old fort to begin work on the new fort. By May 1 the old fort was abandoned. The new fort was at first called Fort Childs, after a veteran of the Mexican War and friend of Lt. Woodbury. However, the War Department decided to rename it Fort Kearny. To avoid confusion, many people called the new fort “New Fort Kearny” or “Fort Kearny on the Platte.”

Fort Kearny and the Westward Migration: The fort was only one year old when the California Gold Rush of 1849 began. As such, it was under-manned and short on supplies. It was thus ill-prepared for the 30,000 people who traveled along the Platte in that year (though only 25,000 of these passed on the south side of the river near Fort Kearny.) Most of these travelers passed Fort Kearny between May 8 and June 22, with over half of all the travelers passing the fort between May 18 and June 2; on one day, May 24, between 500 and 600 wagons carrying between 2,000 and 2,500 people total passed the fort. The fort was so small at the time one pioneer wrote that the fort was “misnamed”: “[F]or there is neither wall nor picket, nor any fortification of any kind.” Another described the fort as “a number of rudely constructed huts built on the sods or turfs of the prairie, laid up after the manner of laying bricks.” Despite this inglorious beginning, the fort quickly became a bulwark of American civilization on the plains. One pioneer wrote:

On reaching [Fort Kearny], the emigrant feels that he has reached an oasis; he sees once more the evidence of civilization… [H]e fully realizes he is still protected, still inhabits America.

The fort was important because it allowed pioneers to restock their supplies and receive news from home. The fort also provided medical care and other services. For the military, the fort was important as a base of military operations against the Plains Indians. Fort Kearny was never attacked, and no major battles occurred in its vicinity. Fort Kearny marked the convergence of several westward trails. Routes from Independence, St. Joseph, Old Fort Kearny and Council Bluffs (later Omaha) all came together at the fort and continued on more or less the same route across most of the Platte (the Great Platte River Road).

Travelers were forbidden from camping in the vicinity of the fort so the grazing land could be used by the military’s animals. The officers at the fort also disapproved of migrants walking through the fort’s grounds. Some migrants had already run out of supplies by the time they reached the fort. Officers were allowed to sell supplies from the fort to these travelers. In some cases, when migrants had no money, they could be lent the supplies (and usually never paid them back). One traveler traded dried peaches and loaf sugar for 175 pounds of flour.

Relative to other forts on the frontier, like Leavenworth in Kansas or Laramie in Wyoming, Fort Kearny was never that large. The garrison generally did not exceed 200 men, and there about the same number of civilians on the fort at any given time. Even as the fort expanded in the 1850s, many migrants didn’t think of it as a fort since it never had any fortifications.

Two cities, Kearney City (Dobytown) and Valley City (Dogtown) developed in the vicinity of the fort. These started out as places for mail carriers to rest their horses and get food. Kearney City became famous for its plentiful bars and gamblers. These towns slowly disappeared after the railroad was built in 1866. The new town of Kearney, on the railroad line north of the Platte, became the municipal center of the area. When the railroad passed through the area along the north side of the Platte in 1866, with the fort’s usefulness running out, General William Tecumseh Sherman ordered that the fort be liquidated. Since it was still being used as an ammunitions testing area, it was not immediately torn down, but by 1870 only 50 men were stationed there. The last garrison finally left in 1871.

Later History: After the fort was abandoned by the military, the land was made available to homesteaders. In 1922, the Fort Kearny Memorial Association was founded and purchased 40 acres of land at the site of Fort Kearny, which consists of about half the land the fort formerly sat upon. In 1929 this land became a state park. None of the original fort stands today. The area surrounding the fort has been mostly developed with farms, so all traces of the old migratory trails are gone. Still, archaeologists have identified the locations where several buildings once stood. Since few pictures or sketches of the fort were ever made, it is difficult to know what the fort used to be like; however, a replica of the blacksmith shop is now part of the park.

Bibliography / Read on:

“Fort Kearny State Historic Park and State Recreation Area.” Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Mattes, Merrill J. The Great Platte River Road: The Covered Wagon Mainline via Fort Kearny To Fort Laramie. Lincoln: Nebraska State Historical Society, 1969.

Fort History 

Fort Kearney and the Gold Rush

Fort Kearney and the Pony Express

End of Fort Kearney 

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