Robert W. Furnas of Brownville is considered the Society's founder. He established the Nebraska Advertiser newspaper in 1856 and the Nebraska Farmer magazine in 1859. He also served in the territorial legislature. Following Civil War service, he was Nebraska's governor from 1873 to 1875.
On August 12, 1878, Furnas invited other prominent Nebraskans to organize a state historical society to gather, from "living tongues and pens," material that would illustrate Nebraska's settlement and growth.
The organization meeting was held in Lincoln on September 25-26, 1878, and the Society was incorporated.
After the 1883 legislature appropriated $500 for the Society and designated it a "state institution," it began publishing historical recollections and the reports of its meetings.
The Society adopted its official seal in 1888. The Latin phrase, translated as "Let arms give way to the gown," means let conflict be replaced by understanding and the rule of law.
For fifteen years, the Society had no permanent office or museum. In 1893 the Society moved into one wing of the new University of Nebraska library (now Architecture Hall).
The Society's collections of books and "curios" were displayed in "open storage."
Fieldwork was an early activity. Here, Ethnologist Melvin Gilmore records Omaha Indian songs for the Society.
Since 1878 members have supported the Society with their dues and had a voice in its governance.
The officers had always believed the Society should have a building of its own. Lincoln architect George Berlinghof drew this design at the Society board's request about 1907.
After the Society asked for funding to build a library and museum, the 1907 legislature appropriated $25,000 to build the basement of one wing of the proposed building. It was completed in December 1909, across the street southeast of the capitol, but funds were never provided to finish the building. Some Society collections were stored in the basement until the 1940s.