If you had asked me to tell you something about Nebraska a few years ago, I really couldn’t have told you much about the state. At most, I could have guessed that it was an agriculturally productive place, and just about as flat as Kansas. Both are kind of correct, but I had no idea about the natural variety of Nebraska. There are forests to the north and eastern edges of the state. The sandhills are an almost otherworldly landscape of grass covered sand dunes. And its western edge is full of fascinating formations and fossils. Nebraska has also played a major role in the history of the United States (particularly for travel). The Oregon Trail passed through the state, and it was the site of the ground breaking for the Union Pacific. It also became the gateway for the first roadtrippers to set out from the developed Eastern United States to explore the “wilds” of the west.
While I would be surprised if folks from afar have Nebraska on their bucketlist, if you are roadtripping the United States or if you live in the States, this isn’t a place to be missed. Nebraska has hiking, culture and history around every corner, and delicious foods to be enjoyed every day.
- 1 General Information
- 2 The Nature of Nebraska
- 3 The History of Nebraska
- 4 Culture in Nebraska
- 5 Where We Have Been
- 6 More Information from Around the Web
Type: United States (1867)
Region: North America
Official Languages: English
Population: 1,961,504 (2020)
Currency: US Dollar
Outlets: A and B, 120V supply voltage and 60Hz
Highpoint: Panorama Point
UNESCO World Heritage Sites: None
National Parks: Learn more at the official national park website
The Nature of Nebraska
The land that we now know as Nebraska emerged during the Late Cambrian, 514 million years ago (mya). At this time, it was beneath a shallow sea and remained that way for many millions of years. In fact, it wasn’t until the Late Permain (255 mya) that the shallow seas covering Nebraska drained and the land of the state became more arid. However, by the time that dinosaurs were going extinct during the K/T event (66 mya), Nebraska was once again covered by the ocean, which then receded by the Middle Eocene (50.2 mya) and has remained dry land since.
During the most recent Ice Age (0.125 mya), Nebraska was not covered by glaciers, but was dry and cool. At this point, the sand dunes that would make up the Sandhills of today, were not yet stabilized, but they existed.
This geologic change has led to the underlying soils, substrates, and landscape that we know today. If you’d like to know detailed information about the resulting geology of the state visit the USGS’s General Geology of Nebraska.
While Nebraska is dominated by the prairies that make up the Great Plains, it is also home to key wetlands, and woodlands to the east, as well as rivers and streams that have not only shaped the land, but also the human history of the state.
Even when it comes to the prairie, there are several types that characterize the Nebraska. The western edge is home to shortgrass prairie, the central section is of mixed grass prairie, and the eastern prairies are the tallgrass that are better known in Kansas. In the central region of the state are the rolling Sandhills (which I love love love, especially in the spring/summer).
The Sandhills, in particular, are one of the largest remaining, native-grasslands in the United States. (It is also exceptionally beautiful.) True to their name, the Sandhills are sand dunes that have been stabilized by grass. If you drive through this sweeping landscape, you will travel through s seemingly endless place of undulating lands and grass. A great way to experience it all is by hiking.
Sandhill Cranes are one of the most common crane species across the world, but what is important about Nebraska and this popular, beautiful species is that 80% of the sandhill cranes living in North America stop by the Platte River during their spring migration. That means that for this species, a 75 mile stretch of the river is absolutely essential for their survival.
While following the I-80, which follows that Platte, there are several places where you can stop to learn more about the cranes, and this very special place in Nebraska.
The Nature Conservancy’s: Sandhill Crane
Guides to Exploring the Nature of Nebraska
A Handy Guide to Some of the Best Hiking in Nebraska: I know it sounds surprising, but Nebraska is a great place to hike. Across the state there are national monuments, non-profit forests, and more. Whether you like wide-open spaces or verdant, rolling hills, you can find something to enjoy in this under-appreciated state.
The Geological History of Nebraska: https://eas2.unl.edu/~tfrank/History%20on%20the%20Rocks/Teachers/Plan%20files/Ford_GeohistNE.pdf
Nebraska Birding Guide: Ecological Regions (https://birdtrail.outdoornebraska.gov/ecologicalregions/)
Nebraska Game and Parks: Nebraska Habitat: https://outdoornebraska.gov/learn/nebraska-habitat/
The History of Nebraska
As far as we can tell, currently, the first humans came to the land of Nebraska 10,000+ years ago. By the 1600s-1700s, when Europeans started making contact with the peoples of Nebraska, many modern tribes called this area home. This included the Omaha, Pawnee, Otoe, Santee Sioux, Winnebago, Ponca, Iowa, and the Sac and Fox, of which six of these currently have reservations in the state. (With this in mind, it is important to note that the history of indigenous people in Nebraska, as with the rest of the United States, is still unfolding.)
The first Europeans to connect with indigenous Nebraskans were French and Spanish explorers and fur traders, and initial contact, while not always peaceful, lacked the eventual competition for resources that would come when Euro-Americans began trying to settle on the Great Plains and forests of Nebraska. By the 1900s, much of the land had been settled by white Americans, the result of decades of war, broken treaties with the indigenous peoples of this land, and expanding travel infrastructure, in particular, the eventual westward trainlines.
The state became a focal point for the movement of folks from the east coast to the West during the 1840s-1860s. The Oregon Trail, California Trail, and Utah Trail all followed the same route through Nebraska. So, more than 300,000 people struck off across the state with ox-pulled wagons. They faced extreme difficulties and dangers on their treks across the Great Plains, to the towering mountains of the west. Their legacy still remains in Nebraska. The I-80 now follows that same corridor, meaning that modern roadtrip travelers follow in the footsteps of these pioneers.
Euro-American settlement was further accelerated by the Homestead Act of 1862, which encouraged people to settled the western “territory,” by offering families 160 acres of public land if they could pay a small fee and remain on the land for 5 continuous years. This led to a land rush in Nebraska (among other states). It also made it the first state to join the Union after the US Civil War – just a few years after the Homestead Act had passed. 45% of the land in Nebraska was homesteaded, the largest amount in any US state.
Nebraska continued to play a large role in travel across the United States, when the Union Pacific broke ground in Omaha, NE in 1863. Although slowed by the Civil War, the company began a race with the Central Pacific. They pushed through Nebraska, into Wyoming, and beyond – heading west towards Promontory Summit in Utah.
During the 1930s, Nebraska was hard hit by the droughts and harmful agricultural practices that caused the famous “Dust Bowl.” The deteriorating conditions that resulted, drove many people out of the state, and other midwestern locations. But those who remained or returned helped the eventual recovery. And despite this difficult time, Nebraska remains a powerful producer and part of the United States “bread basket.”
Learn more by diving into the cultural attractions of Nebraska.
Culture in Nebraska
Nebraskan culture, in the most simple terms, is that of the United States with the flavor of the Midwest. Of course, however, there are also indigenous cultures in Nebraska, as well as many people who bring their home culture with them when they move to the state.
For tips on US American culture.
But when considering the Midwest, there are some additional considerations. First, no group of people is a monolith – so this won’t be true for everyone, but these are generally true. Midwesterners are friendly people; you can greet people on the street and in shops, even in the bigger Midwestern cities and expect a generally nice response.
The pace of life in the Midwest can be very different from either the West or East coast. People take things a little slower here, and often create their own fun. My family from the Midwest certainly can – there are always card games to be played, or time spent chatting on the porch.
More thoughts on the Midwest from Business Insider: https://www.businessinsider.com/how-the-midwest-is-different-than-the-rest-of-the-country-2018-7#6-a-dollar-goes-further-in-the-midwest-6
The Volga Germans were a group of immigrants who first moved from Germany to the Volga region of Russia in response to a very generous proclamation by Catherine the II. They were enticed by an offer that would still be appealing to many of us today – free land, 30 years of tax exemption, no military service, and freedom of religion. (An interesting mirror to the eventual Homestead Act in the US). For people who wanted a better future for their children and were seeking a peaceful home – it was an offer too good to pass up.
However, life in the Volga River region wasn’t easy. Many people had to give up their previous occupations and begin to work the land. This wasn’t always easy to do in that area. To make matters worse, about 100 years after Catherine’s invitation to immigrants, the many of the benefits promised were revoked. Thus, this group of people began searching for a new home in 1870s, beginning waves of Volga Germans settling in the US and elsewhere.
In the United States, one of the states that became home to many Volga Germans was Nebraska. Nowadays, that legacy can be found in the family history of many people (of course), but also in the little bierock sandwich that you can taste across the state. Bierock is a little contained sandwich like a calzone or pasty, most often filled with cabbage and beef. Runza is a big brand across Nebraska and surrounding states with a bierock, and other restaurants carry their own as well.
To learn more about the Volga Germans.
Guides to Exploring the Culture of Nebraska
Cultural Attractions in Nebraska: Nebraska has played a bigger role in US history than many might think, and the best way to learn about it, is by visiting the museums and monuments that tell the story in the place. For travelers, especially road warriors, this state is at the heart of the story of US travel.
Omaha Tribe of Nebraska (https://www.omahatribe.com/)
Explore Native Nebraskan history by visiting these places – from History Nebraska: https://mynehistory.com/tours/show/4
Trip Ideas for learning more about indigenous Nebraska – from Visit Nebraska (https://visitnebraska.com/history/native-american)
Learn about each of the modern tribes that called/call Nebraska home, Native American Nations: A Brief History of the Indians of Nebraska (https://www.nanations.com/nebraska-indians.htm)
Nebraska Studies: Timeline (https://nebraskastudies.org/en/1800-1849/)
Nebraska Department of Education: American Indian, Native American, and Indigenous Persons Resources (https://www.education.ne.gov/socialstudies/american-indian-native-american-and-indigenous-persons-resources/)
Smithsonian: Nebraska History: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/nebraska-history-and-heritage-5282396/
Union Pacific: 150th Anniversary of the Golden Spike (https://www.up.com/goldenspike/omaha-promontory.html)
Where We Have Been
More Information from Around the Web
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