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  Spring 2009 Issue Excerpts

Here's a bit of what you'll find in the Spring 2009 issue.
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"Out here among the infernal Red skins":
Frank Appleton's 1874 Letter from Red Cloud Agency


Frank Appleton was a young man in the wrong place at the wrong time--he just didn't know it yet. Writing to "the folks at home" in Sioux City in January 1874, Red Cloud Agency's chief clerk described life in northwest Nebraska with a mixture of wonder and contempt.

Appleton got the job from his uncle, agent John J. Saville, who had already hired Frank's father, Amos, to build the agency itself. Young Frank found himself far from home in the midst of an uneasy coexistence between whites and natives. The situation was more volatile than he apparently realized.

Red Cloud Agency served as an administrative center and distribution point for government food and goods guaranteed to the Sioux by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. It took its name from the Oglala Lakota chief who had fought successfully against the United States government a decade earlier, and who now insisted that the agency serving his people be located here where they lived, and not away on the Missouri River as the government had wanted.

At the time, the Indian agency system was part of President Grant's peace policy, or "Quaker policy," meant to halt warfare on the western frontier. It allowed the Quakers and other Christian denominations to administer the agencies and--with government support--to "civilize" and Christianize the Indians. Red Cloud Agency was controlled by the Episcopalians.

The agency's history is a complex tale of rivalry and resentment. Some Indians saw no alternative to cooperating with whites; others wanted to keep fighting against white encroachment and against traditional enemies such as the Pawnee. Some whites advocated peaceful treatment of Indians; others believed that peace was impossible until the Indians were crushed by war.

By the time of Appleton's letter, Saville was already warning authorities that he might need military assistance. Non-agency Sioux from the north often came to Red Cloud Agency to draw free rations, causing discord and harassing the agent. Finally Saville requested that an army post be built nearby. The army refused, however, believing this would only incite a war.

Saville received several threats against his life. When he was away from the fort on February 8 (leaving Appleton as acting agent), the young clerk was likewise threatened. Though an Indian friend warned him not to answer his door during the night, Appleton ignored the advice. Around 2:00 a.m. on February 9, he opened his door to a Minneconjou warrior who shot and mortally wounded him. And that--followed later that day by the fatal ambush of Lieutenant Levi Robinson and Corporal John Coleman near Fort Laramie, attributed to warriors from Red Cloud Agency--led to renewed calls for troops. This time they came.

Appleton's letter (along with his barely-begun diary) resides in the collections of the Nebraska State Historical Society. It is valued not only for its content, but also for its link to a larger event: The arriving soldiers built a camp named in honor of the fallen lieutenant, and Camp Robinson--now Fort Robinson--became one of the most storied and significant military outposts of the northern plains.

The entire essay appears in the Spring 2009 issue.


Social Transformation and the Farmers' Alliance Experience:
Populism in Saunders County, Nebraska
- John A. Sautter


Saunders County, Nebraska, was a leader in the Nebraska Farmers' Alliance movement and the later Nebraska Populist Party of the 1890s in terms of the number of members, county members holding state offices, and the movement's longevity. However, the county did not fit the typical profile of a strong Populist county: it was located in eastern Nebraska, it was not hard-hit by the economic depression of the early 1890s, and its predominant cash crops were corn and hogs, rather than wheat. In the absence of these other factors, the development of a strong Alliance movement culture made Saunders County a Populist stronghold.

The Farmers' Alliance was arguably one of the most important agriculture and political groups of the late nineteenth century in Nebraska. The Alliance was instrumental in the formation of the Nebraska Populist Party and represented a concerted effort by farmers to develop viable alternatives to traditional social institutions. In most localities the degree to which the Alliance and the Populist Party were successful tended to rise and fall in relation to the severity of economic depression. Thus, in central and western Nebraska, where the depression of the 1890s was far more devastating, there was more political upheaval against the two traditional parties. In eastern Nebraska, on average, farmers were less affected by the economic downturn in agriculture and therefore tended to continue voting as Democrats or Republicans.

Located in eastern Nebraska, about fifteen miles north of Lincoln and twenty miles west of Omaha, Saunders County defies the conventional wisdom of the 1890s that the farther west one went the more radical were the politics. Except for Saunders County, all of the leading county Farmers' Alliance organizations (as measured by membership and number of sub-alliances) were located in central Nebraska. Though it did not suffer the severity of economic hardship experienced by central and western Nebraska counties, Saunders County developed one of the largest, most active, and politically successful Alliance organizations in the state, and represented, by far, the most important county Alliance in eastern Nebraska, producing some of the most important leaders of the Nebraska Populist movement.

The entire essay and additional photos appear in the Spring 2009 issue.


The Missouri National Recreational River:
An Unlikely Alliance of Landowners and Conservationists
- Daniel D. Spegel


The Missouri River has historically been a temperamental force. People huddled close to it for security and sustenance, though they knew it held the kinetic energy to overwhelm them at any moment. In the mid-twentieth century the federal government harnessed the river's great potential with the creation of large public works projects. Federal authorities have continued to alter the river's natural course ever since.

Bordering northeastern Nebraska, one segment of the mighty river has maintained its natural character by escaping most of these radical alterations. Efforts to preserve it as a component of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System have been a precarious balancing act between progress and conservation.

This is the story of an unlikely alliance formed in the late 1970s, in which conservationists seeking to preserve this reach as a federal recreational river joined forces with landowners intent on stabilizing the riverbanks. The coalition spurred Congress to enact the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978, from which the fifty-nine-mile stretch of Missouri National Recreation River (MNRR) was created.

Because the coalition involved a marriage of differing ideals that were at times difficult to reconcile, lawmakers had to walk a fine line in order to keep all parties in agreement. To do so, they wrote legislation with unique stipulations. Nonetheless, the history of the legislation's development is a remarkable example of compromise--and perhaps naivety. In the end, the scenic designation led to a far different result than what many of its backers anticipated.

The Missouri River Basin encompasses one-sixth of the contiguous United States, draining a watershed of more than 500,000 square miles. Starting at an elevation of 4,032 feet above sea level, the river leaves its mountainous origins and descends more than four hundred feet over a twelve-mile series of cataracts to the Great Plains. It later widens at the large reservoir above Fort Peck Dam in northeastern Montana. The remainder of its journey is through mostly flat grasslands, with bluffs often flanking its valley.

The stretch of river designated the MNRR begins at Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, South Dakota, and runs fifty-nine miles downstream to Ponca State Park, Nebraska. (This is also referred to as the "fifty-nine-mile" segment or reach). This unrestrained segment comprises only a small portion of the mighty river's 2,341-mile length, but its historic, scenic, and natural values are remarkable. The reach offers a vision of what much of the Missouri River used to be like in its natural state--free-flowing, with a shifting and braided channel, islands, sandbars, and wetlands. The river here is also wide and shallow compared to the long channelized stretch downstream from Sioux City to St. Louis.

Efforts to control the Missouri River were sporadic until Congress authorized the Pick-Sloan Plan in 1944, the largest and most durable alteration of the river and its floodplain. As a part of the Flood Control Act of 1944, the plan was a consequence of the Great Depression and the conservation movement's belief that multipurpose water projects would stimulate growth in the arid West. The Pick-Sloan Plan was largely responsible for creating the conditions that made a wild and scenic river designation of the fifty-nine-mile segment important. If the plan's massive projects had never been built, the MNRR probably would not have been established.

The plan called for five main stem dams/reservoirs in the Dakotas: Garrison/Lake Sakakawea; Oahe/Lake Oahe; Fort Randall/Lake Francis Case; and Gavins Point/Lewis and Clark Lake. (Montana's massive Fort Peck Dam and reservoir had already been completed.) The storage capacity of these six reservoirs is about seventy-three- million acre-feet, the largest amount of water stored by any system in North America. Meanwhile, reinforced banks and the dredging of a navigation channel helped tame the river's lower reaches.

The benefits of these engineering efforts are undeniable. Major floods are no longer the threat that they once were, and recreational opportunities have increased, thus improving local economies. According to data maintained through 1999 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a total of 6,731,800 visits are made each year to the six main stem reservoirs, and recreationalists spend $108.26 million annually. The improvement in upstream recreation is also related directly to the enhancement of fishing and wildlife in the system reservoirs. The upper three larger reservoirs have been stocked with cold-water fish to take advantage of their deep, chilly waters, and large areas on project lands are preserved for diverse wildlife. Thirty-six hydropower units at the six main stem dams provide a combined capacity of 2,435 megawatts, helping to meet the region's power needs. The navigation project provides a means for low-cost transportation as a link in the Mississippi River waterway system, and the river provides irrigation for dry farmlands.

But the bad must be taken with the good. William Graf, professor and chair of geography at the University of South Carolina, writes: "The past two centuries of intensive technological development of America's river resources have damaged the physical, biological, and chemical characteristics of the streams and their associated landscapes by fragmenting what was once an integrated system." Quite simply, regulated rivers, like the Missouri, cannot function naturally. Except in a few reaches, the Missouri no longer resembles the free-flowing and meandering river it used to be.

System regulation has likewise degraded the river's water quality. Examples of this degradation are temperature changes found in the reaches downstream from the dams, low concentrations of suspended solids in the releases, and dissolved oxygen problems during droughts. The almost sediment-free releases from the dams have increased riverbed degradation, deteriorated fish and wildlife habitats, and increased riverbank erosion. Severe erosion has always been an issue in the fifty-nine-mile reach, but annual flood deposits replaced the soil that the river took downstream. The main stem dams have halted this accretion process, resulting in a net loss of land.

The entire essay and eight pages of full-color Missouri River photos by Michael Forsberg appear in the Spring 2009 issue.


Looking for "Wide-Awake" Young People:
Commercial Business Colleges in Nebraska, 1873-1950
- Oliver B. Pollak


"I ain't homesick a bit, or at least not that I know of," wrote sixteen-year-old Frisby Rasp to his parents. In May 1888, Rasp left the family farm in Polk County, Nebraska, to enroll at Omaha Business College. His letters during the next month express the culture shock experienced by a young man far from home and family for the first time.

"I wouldn't live in the City always for anything," he wrote in the same letter. "Get an education there and a good start in life and then let me have a farm. If I had to live in the City always the very thought would kill me."

Rasp was one of many Nebraskans in the latter nineteenth century who sought to better his prospects at the state's new business colleges. Between 1874 and 1903, at least fifteen business colleges opened in Omaha, and twelve in other Nebraska communities. From Omaha with a population of 102,555 in 1900, to Aurora with 1,921 residents, educators sought to prepare students for the needs of commerce.

The needs were growing. Railroads, banks, the legal system, stockyards, post offices, and other businesses employed stenographers, typists, secretaries, telegraphers, cashiers, and clerks for mail, payroll, and shipping. Introduced commercially in the 1870s, the typewriter created a new industry (Remington, Smith, Underwood, Oliver, and Monarch), a new occupation (typist), and eventually led to a de-emphasis of penmanship.

American public education, however, did not yet teach practical office skills. Business colleges filled this role. They were a new breed of school, led not by traditional scholars but by entrepreneurs, court reporters, business equipment dealers, and those familiar with office job placement.

The schools were often family enterprises involving husband-and-wife stenographers (Boyles College and York Business College and Normal School), siblings (Omaha Commercial College), fathers and sons (Boyles), or other relatives (Van Sant School of Shorthand). Some schools had long lives; most didn't. About fifty denominational and commercial Nebraska institutions of higher education lasted a few years, closed, merged with other institutions, moved, or changed their name. Hastings Business College had ten owners in fifty-four years.

When schools failed, they usually did so for familiar reasons. In June 1912, Aurora High School purchased Aurora Business College for $1,500. The college attributed the closing to "increasing competition from both public and private institutions of learning." The closing of Deshler Lutheran High School and Business College in 1927 was attributed to a variety of reasons: flu and scarlet fever; competition; excessive tuition; an acute economic depression immediately following World War I; loss of subsidy; poor location for a regional high school; and "too great an undertaking for local control and support." And like the "paper towns" of the pioneer era, some schools never left the promoter's table.

The entire essay and additional photos appear in the Spring 2009 issue.


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