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Reading 1: Lincoln's Beginnings
In 1866, the Nebraska Territory was eager to become a state. The people had adopted a state constitution and elected state government officials. These new officials included the Governor, Secretary of State, State Auditor, State Treasurer, and Chief Justice. On March 1, 1867, President Andrew Johnson signed the bill making Nebraska the 37th state. Choosing the location for a new state capital was one of the first issues facing the new government.
The territorial capital had been in Omaha since 1854. It stayed there despite protests from angry residents south of the Platte River. They argued that they were not fairly represented in the legislature. The new state government created the Capital Commission in 1867 to select a new location. Its members were Governor David Butler, Secretary of State Thomas Kennard, and Auditor John Gillespie. Together the Commissioners chose the small village of Lancaster, which they chose in part because of its proximity to salt deposits. At that time, Lancaster consisted of two stores, one shoe shop, six to seven houses, and about thirty residents.
The Commission submitted their plan to the state legislature. They faced no major opposition. Omaha Senator J. Patrick attempted to provoke some, but failed. He tried to revive Civil War bitterness by replacing the name "Capital City" in the bill with "Lincoln" (for Abraham Lincoln). The bill passed anyway. "Lancaster" became "Lincoln," Nebraska's new state capital.
Newspapers in Omaha fiercely criticized the decision to move the capital. They objected for several reasons. First, they pointed out that the territorial capitol building was still in good condition. Therefore, continuing to use it would save money. Secondly, they argued that the town of Columbus was a much more central location if the capital had to be moved. Finally, Lincoln was not accessible by a navigable river and it did not yet have railroads, permanent roads, telegraphs, or much commerce to support a growing city. Lincoln's supporters cited the area's naturally occurring salt deposits as a source of potential wealth. The salt industry did not expand as many hoped, but the Capital Commission moved forward with great faith in Lincoln.
The plan was to pay for the construction of the new capitol building by selling lots in the new city. The first sale did not go well. Lots sold for much lower prices than their appraised values (an estimation of monetary worth). At their going rate, they would not raise enough funds to build the capitol and their attempts to move the state capital to Lincoln would be considered a failure. At this point the Commissioners, with a group of Nebraska City businessmen led by James Sweet, took action. They agreed to bid lots up to at least their appraised value to encourage other buyers. This group risked personal fortunes. If the plan failed, then their money was lost. However, the plan succeeded and Lincoln began to grow rapidly. By October 9, 1869, the Nebraska State Journal reported that 110 homes and businesses had been built in Lincoln. They averaged four buildings a week! That was quite a change from just 10 buildings in July 1867.
The three commissioners next turned their attention to their own houses. Thomas Kennard built a splendid residence on his lot. Both the stylishness and size reflected Kennard's high social status. Not only was the house designed in good taste for the time, but it also included two parlors and a servants' wing. David Butler and John Gillespie also built impressive homes. The Lincoln newspaper, the Nebraska Statesman, stated that the three houses cost between $8,000 and $15,000 (which would be about $940,000 to $1,760,000 today). The paper gushed by saying that the homes "exceed in tastefulness of design any private dwellings in the State." With these homes, the Commissioners demonstrated that, even in their private lives, they believed in the future of the new city. This display of faith was an important factor in the struggling city's ultimate success.
Questions for Reading 1
1) Which state officials were elected in Nebraska's first state election?
2) How many buildings were in Lancaster in 1867? How many buildings were there in Lincoln two years later?
3) What type of house did Kennard build? Why did Kennard build such an elaborate house? How did it show confidence in Lincoln?
4) What might have motivated somebody to want to move the state capital from already-established Omaha to the small town of Lancaster?
Reading 1 is adapted from information found on the web site for the Thomas P. Kennard House, Nebraska State Historical Society.