In the latest edition of Nebraska History we are highlighting Nebraska’s history in 150 photos in four parts. In the blog we will be previewing each part, along with adding an interesting photo and caption from each section.
Part 1: Before 1867
Willa Cather once wrote of Nebraska, “There was nothing but land; not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.”
Such was the perspective of settlers who came from Eastern towns and farms, as Cather’s family did when they arrived from Virginia in 1883, overwhelmed by the vastness of unpopulated, treeless space.
But Nebraska was not new country, even then. Imported diseases had devastated Native populations long before the first settlers arrived; the remaining people were restricted to reservations within decades. By Cather’s time, sun-bleached bones spoke of vast and vanished herds of bison that formerly provided a livelihood for generations of people.
Nebraska still looked rough and barely settled when it became a state in 1867, but the fact that it was now perceived as raw material for nation-building shows that a major transformation had already happened, if only in the minds of the state’s new settlers.
The picture above shows Nebraska in the 1850s was a territory full of paper towns and paper money. Hard currency was scarce on the frontier, and unregulated “wildcat” banks stepped in to fill an economic need for cash. This 1857 three-dollar bill was real money as long as people had confidence in the DeSoto, Nebraska, bank that printed it. If the bank was suspect, the bill would trade at well below par; when the bank failed later that year, the bill became worthless. The Panic of 1857 wiped out speculative banks and towns alike. NSHS 2565-2