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We the People    Nebraska Territory,
  Slave or Free?

Nebraska became a territory on May 30, 1854. President Franklin Pierce signed what became known as the "Kansas-Nebraska Act." The act repealed a ban on slavery in the lands of the Louisiana Purchase and rekindled the sectional fires that threatened to plunge the nation into civil war. Who would decide if slavery would be allowed? Would Indian peoples have rights?

"Popular Sovereignty"
The key to Southern support for organizing Nebraska and Kansas was the doctrine of Popular Sovereignty. The people (white male voters) in each territory, not the federal government, would decide whether to allow slavery.

Why Organize a Nebraska Territory?
Bills to organize a Nebraska Territory had been introduced in Congress as early as 1844. Supporters such as Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Democrat of Illinois, realized a transcontinental railroad would someday be constructed to the West Coast and wanted the line to pass through the Platte Valley, bringing economic benefits to Midwestern states and cities. The thought was that no railroad could be built there, nor white settlements be made, until the Indians were removed and government was established.

Indians Seek Representation
In 1852 a group of former Ohioans who had settled on the banks of the Missouri held a convention to send a delegate to Congress to urge creation of a Nebraska Territory. The group had lost their land in Ohio, and was eager to protect their new homes from speculators by gaining legal title. They elected Abelard Guthrie as their delegate. They were Wyandot Indians.

Two other groups soon held similar conventions; southern sympathizers from Missouri came into what is now Kansas, and northern sympathizers from Council Bluffs came into what is now Nebraska near Nebraska City.

Guthrie and other provisional delegates went to Washington and the debate over the Nebraska Territory began. Although a bill eventually passed, the Wyandot ultimately were forced to move to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Their organizing convention was not enough to win them the vote or status as U.S. citizens.

The seal of Nebraska Territory
included the motto, "Popular Sovereignty."

The Omaha Nebraskian
incorporated Popular Sovereignty in its motto.

Nebraska & Kansas,
Published by J. H. Coulter 1854 (3M pdf)

This is the first map published of the new Nebraska and Kansas Territories. The eastern edge shows explorers; American Indians hunt bison in the middle and dance in the western portion. Wildlife and landscape are also depicted in engravings. Note the text that explains that American Indian tribes are required to have a chief or head man who officially represents them in negotiations with the United States government.

Abelard Guthrie,
delegate elected from the provisional convention of the Nebraska Territory. Guthrie was not himself a member of the Wyandot Tribe, but his wife, Quindaro Nancy Guthrie was one-eighth Wyandot and a tribal member.

William Walker
was the first Provisional Governor of the Nebraska Territory and a member of the Wyandot Tribe.

This bas-relief sculpture
depicts the signing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. The sculpture is on the east façade of the Nebraska Capitol. Photograph by Richard Hufnagle, ca. 1964.



The Kansas-Nebraska Act left the issue of slavery to be decided by the citizens of each respective territory. There were initially slaves in the Nebraska Territory, but not many. The 1860 census indicates that of the 81 African-Americans recorded, fifteen were enslaved.

In January of 1861, the legislature abolished slavery in the territory, overriding the veto of the Governor.

On December 5, 1860, the sheriff of Otoe County advertised for the pending auction of two slaves, Hercules and Martha.

African-Americans in Brownville
, Nebraska Territory. Photograph by C. R. Walker, ca. 1864.

William Richardson
was a congressman from Illinois who introduced a bill to create the Nebraska Territory. Although his bill failed, Richardson guided the successful Kansas-Nebraska Act through the House of Representatives. He arrived in Omaha on January 12, 1858, to take office as territorial governor. Although capable, Richardson opposed the pro-southern, anti-homestead act policies of President James Buchanan and resigned after serving less than a year.

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
Bas-relief sculpture over the east entrance, Nebraska State Capitol. Photograph by Richard Hufnagle ca. 1964.

the symbol of enslavement. These came to Nebraska from Virginia, but it is not known if they were used here.

Virtual Exhibits


Nebraska Territory,
Slave or Free?

Citizens of the 37th State

First Nebraskans (1)

First Nebraskans (2)


Separate But Not Equal

Children and Youth

Accused and Convicted

A Matter of Faith


Shadow of Intolerance

    WWI Council of Defense

   1919 Riot

   Ku Klux Klan

   Red Scare

   Farm Belt Führer

   Sexual Orientation




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Last updated 4 January 2013

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