Our city's antebellum history is the most interesting due to the territory west of the Missouri River being "Indian country." and the frontier of the west. The land our city sets on was twice owned by the French, and owned by the Spaniards in between. Even though the Indians already lived on the land, both the French and Spaniards decided they were the first from the "Old World" to lay eyes on a portion of it, and therefore claimed it for the home country. One such acquisition covered all land drained by the Mississippi, meaning as far back as rivers and tributaries feeding the Mississippi would now be under French rule. So they didn't actually see it as much as decide they owned it. The history of the Omaha area before the early white settlers is the American Native history, and is described in more detail on the Native History pages.
The land owned by the French was purchased by the U.S. for $15,000,000 as part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Following the purchase, the area was explored by Lewis and Clark during their 1804-1806 expedition to the Pacific Northwest and back. They met and befriended the local Native American population. The initial "council" meeting between Lewis and Clark's expedition and Native American nations took place a short distance upstream from the Omaha* area. For the next 40 some years, natives ruled this land. The lands west of the Missouri were designated by Congress as "Indian country" American law was enforced only through treaties with the natives that lived here.
The earliest portions of downtown Omaha originated on the same lands as an ancient village of the Otoe natives or at least their burial grounds. The burial mounds were noted by the Lewis and Clark expedition. By the time that Omaha was being built, the mounds had mostly disappeared or shrunk in size from the effects of the weather. Part of the early grading and excavations revealed Native American burial sites. Several were documented to be around 11th Street around Douglas and Dodge Street areas.
Following the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Otoes joined with the Pawnee for protection from the Maha nation who had started to take over the area. The Maha nation name spelling is used throughout the Lewis and Clark journals. The Maha nation later became known as the Omaha nation. It is unknown when or how the O started to precede the earlier spelling. Omaha is assumed to be the evolution of E-ro-ma-ha, the name given by the Omaha Indians to the stream where they settled. You can read a fuller explanation on the Omaha Natives page.
When the Mormon's arrived at the Missouri River in 1846 following persecution in Nauvoo, Illinois, special arrangements had to be made with the natives to allow the church members to stay on their lands for two winters. The Iowa side became heavily populated, way before Iowa became a state in December 1846. When the Mormons moved on, Council Bluffs (then called Kanesville) was becoming a popular staging area for westerly travelers, fur traders, and early settlers. In spite of the dangers of crossing Indian territory, many were willing to face the challenge for a greater return on the west coast.
In January 1853, the residents of Kanesville changed the name to Council Bluffs.* Held up for the winter of 1853, Council Bluff's population soared, some waiting for the lands across the river to become available when the treaty with natives would expire the next year. When natives ceded land to the U.S. Government in 1854, a ferry that was already established in Council Bluffs opened the floodgates to our downtown area. Some land had already been "staked" out by wealthy Council Bluffs businessmen who could see the future of Omaha, and risked their scalps to be the first to mark their territory. Soon a plan was drawn up for city blocks in the downtown area, and Omaha was established.
Omaha became known as "The Gate City" to the west Some of the early travelers that intended on heading on out west decided this spot was just what they were looking for, and stayed. It had its conveniences, land was (initially) free, and it was close to civilization across the river in case things went bad.
Omaha grew due to its proximity to the already established Council Bluffs. It was clear a railroad was going to cross the country, and everything pointed to Omaha as being the most likely location that it would cross the Missouri. Folks in Omaha wanted the prestige it would bring.
A senator of Illinois, Stephen Arnold Douglas*, had every intention of making sure the railroad went through Illinois, which in turn would take the beeline to the Platte River to continue across the country.. To help ensure it, he proposed legislation to create a new territory west of Iowa and Missouri. To reduce the chance that the south won out on the railroad, Mr. Douglas proposed the new territory be divided into two states, the northern a free state, the southern a slave state. His initial plan failed but his second revised plan succeeded. The railroad did cross the Missouri River at Omaha, and the territory became the country's 37th state. The details of how this happened is an entire story in itself. To see how Mr. Douglas pulled this one off read the full story.
When state boundaries were decided on, county lines were drawn up and named. Omaha is in Douglas County, named after the man more popular than Abe Lincoln*, Stephen Arnold Douglas, "the Little Giant."
Omaha was twice the territorial capitol, having it after Bellevue, giving it up to Florence (for a week but not legally) then back, before passing it on to Lincoln to be the official state capitol. The first legislative meeting was in a building closer to downtown Omaha; following the meeting, legislative meetings were in the building built on Capitol Hill. The Capitol Hill territorial capitol building in Omaha was torn down to build a school. A short time later, the school expanded by building four additions around the old one. The school is Central High School located between 20th and 23rd Streets just north of Dodge.*
Compared to its competition, the city of Omaha grew and prospered with the railroad. The wild west settled down. The buffaloes disappeared. The frontiersmen survived by becoming businessmen or showing later pioneers the way west. The most famous, William F. Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill moved to New York to play a frontiersman in a play. Omaha, no less New York, had lost touch with the frontier life. Learning a new trade, Buffalo Bill gathered his talents and friends together and introduced his new show to a crowd of 8,000 in Omaha, Nebraska in 1883. The wild west was nothing more than a play.*
One of Omaha's grandest times was in 1898, when Omaha hosted the Trans-Mississippi Exposition and Indian Congress. The country had been settled all the way to the west coast where everyone seemed to be heading. In order to revitalize settlement of the Midwest, the U.S. Government decided an exposition was in order. Every city in the Midwest competed. Nebraska Congressman William Jennings Bryan helped Omaha secure the prestigious honor.
The grounds were in the North Omaha area from Binney Street to Ames between 16th and 24th Streets. The area was converted from cornfields to become the first Exposition to have electricity. President McKinley switched the lights on from Washington, and even visited the exposition on October 12 causing an attendance record of 98,845. Not every person attending was from Omaha. At the time, Omaha's population was just over 150,000, an impressive number for less than 50 years of growth. People from all over the country and even the world traveled to Omaha just for the event. In total, more than 2 million people attended the event (about 3.5% of the nation's population). When you think about it, that is astounding. We probably don't have anything today that gets 3.5% of the population to visit it, and in such a short period of time. Also, consider the difficulty of travel during 1898, and the figures seem even more impressive.
In addition to a 2,000 foot long lagoon complete with gondolas, the most impressive, enormous, spectacular and articulately decorated buildings were constructed just for the event. Unfortunately, the buildings were built more for looks than longevity. Basic wood construction was covered with a combination of plaster and horsehair, then coated with a white wash. They looked good but they were made to last only a couple of years. Several states participated, and each built its own building. Kansas was the only state to build a brick building, the only building that was saved when it was moved to Riverview Park (the pavilion there for many years). All the other buildings were torn down to salvage the wood. Later to become part of Kountze Park, the lagoon left an impression that collected water, froze over, and provided a convenient place to go ice-skating; that is until the 1950s when it was filled in so the area could be developed for housing.
Pictures are available at the Omaha Joslyn Art Museum of one of Omaha's times to show off. You can see a great model of the Trans-Mississippi Exposition (approx. 20 feet long) at the Court House Atrium near the entrance on Farnam St (near 19th Street). To see some historic photos of the event, try this link: Trans-Mississippi Exposition.
At the start of the 20th century, Omaha was a rootin' tootin' town with saloons open 24 hours a day. Anything and everything went on here. Far from the civilized eastern coast, we got away with things because we were still "out west." We had our good moments and we had our embarrassing moments. Somehow we survived and have become somewhat civilized. We are proud of our history, well, at least the good.