The name Nebraska is derived from the Oto Indian word nebrathka. It means "flat water." The Indians used this name to describe the shallow Platte River that cuts through the center of the state. Nebraska's nickname is the Cornhusker State. It was inspired by corn, the state's most important crop. Most of the corn grown is used to feed cattle and hogs. They are Nebraska's most valuable farm products.

Nebraska is a midwestern state that lies roughly near the center of the United States. Nearly one-third of the state's residents live in one of two urban centers. One is Omaha, situated in the east along the Missouri River. The other is Lincoln, the state capital. Most residents are descendants of immigrants who came from Scandinavia and northern Europe in the late 1800s.

Nebraska has long served as an important route between the eastern United States and the West. The broad valley of the Platte River eased transportation across the plains. It was traveled by early fur traders and the wagon trains of western pioneers. It was also used as a Pony Express mail route. Later the nation's first transcontinental railroad cut across the state, joining east and west.

The Platte River valley is a level plain of corn and alfalfa fields. Those who have traveled along the valley have seen only a small part of Nebraska's geographic variety. There are also forested bluffs that overlook the Missouri River in the east. And there are striking canyons and plateaus in the southwest. There are also the wavelike, grass-covered dunes of the Sand Hills in the north. And there are the buttes and pine-covered cliffs that tower over the Niobrara River in the northwest.

Nebraska is one of the nation's leading agricultural states. Farming has shaped much of Nebraska's history. And it remains an important part of the state's economy. Nebraskans have long recognized the value of their fertile soils and abundant groundwater. They have tried to prevent the decline of these resources caused by erosion, overuse, and pollution.

As early as 1872, Arbor Day was founded in Nebraska. This occurred under the leadership of J. Sterling Morton. Now celebrated nationwide, this special day is set aside for planting trees. The purpose is not only to protect the soil from erosion but also to add beauty to the landscape.


Nebraska rises gradually from the Missouri River in the east to the far western section of the state. The far western section is known as the Panhandle. Much of the state is covered by a windblown material called loess. These are deposits of fine-grained sand, silt, and clay. They are the source of Nebraska's highly fertile soils. Few places on earth have larger loess deposits.

Land Regions

No clear boundary line exists between the state's two landform regions. These regions are called the Dissected Till Plains and the Great Plains.

The Dissected Till Plains.

The Dissected Till Plains are part of a larger region known as the Central Lowland. They cover the eastern quarter of the state. During the Ice Age, glaciers covered much of this region. When the glaciers melted thousands of years ago, they left behind large quantities of drift deposits. These deposits were in the form of boulders, gravel, sand, and other earth materials called till. The addition of windblown loess deposits on the Till Plains created a fertile land of low, rolling hills.

The Great Plains.

The Great Plains cover the rest of the state. They are part of a broad region that stretches all the way from Texas to the Canadian province of Alberta. This region has a fairly level surface. However, in some areas there are deep canyons and valleys. Nebraska's highest elevation is located in this region. It is 5,426 feet (1,654 meters) above sea level.

The most unique region of Nebraska is the Sand Hills. It is located across the north central part of the state. It covers some 19,300 square miles (50,000 square kilometers). That makes it the largest sand-dune area in the Western Hemisphere. The dunes were formed during the past 8,000 years. They are covered by grasses, which keep the sand stabilized. The Sand Hills region is an important ranching and cattle-grazing area.

To the west of the Sand Hills lies a region of high plains. It is made up of badlands, buttes, rugged hills, and canyons and is known as the Pine Ridge.

To the east and south of the Sand Hills are the Loess Hills. In the Loess Hills streams have cut steep-sided canyons into the plateaus. There are only two large level areas in the state: They are the Loess Plain of central Nebraska; and the Platte Valley, where rich soil has been deposited by the Platte River. These regions are the most productive agricultural areas of the state.

Rivers and Lakes

All of Nebraska lies within the Missouri River drainage basin. The Platte River was formed by the North Platte and South Platte rivers. It runs the length of the state. It carries water, especially snowmelt, from the Rocky Mountains eastward to its mouth near Plattsmouth on the Missouri River. In the spring the Platte is a full, wide river. But in late summer, its flow often slows to a trickle. The riverbed is wide and sandy. It has many small islands and sandbars.

The most important tributaries of the Platte are the Loup and Elkhorn rivers. The Niobrara River lies near Nebraska's northern border. A portion of it is designated as part of the National, Wild, and Scenic Rivers system. It is famous for its natural beauty and is used for recreation. Other important rivers in Nebraska include the Republican, Big Blue, and Little Blue. All of them flow into the Kansas River. The Kansas River is a tributary of the Missouri.

Nebraska has more than 1,000 small lakes in the Sand Hills. Most of these have resulted from abundant groundwater and a high water table. Most larger lakes in the state are reservoirs. They were created by damming rivers for irrigation, flood control, or hydroelectric power. The largest of these is Lake McConaughy. It was formed by Kingsley Dam on the North Platte River.


Nebraska has a continental climate. It has cold winters, hot summers, and low amounts of rainfall. January temperatures average 23°F (-5°C). But colder temperatures are common. July temperatures average 76°F (24°C). But most summers have at least a few days with temperatures above 100°F (38°C).

Precipitation in Nebraska is usually low. This is because air masses from the west lose most of their moisture in the form of rain and snow over the Rocky Mountains. This leaves dry air to move across the Great Plains. The driest part of the state is the Panhandle. There, less than 15 inches (380 millimeters) of rain falls each year. The wettest part of the state is the southeast corner. There, as much as 36 inches (915 millimeters) falls annually. Most precipitation occurs during the growing season. It is between April and September.

Nebraska is known for its extreme weather conditions. Rainfall can be vastly different from year to year. There can be heavy storms and floods in one year and drought in the next. In the wintertime, major blizzards have been known to close all roads. This isolates some farm families for days. In the summertime, heavy thunderstorms, hail, and occasional tornadoes can occur. They damage crops, buildings, and trees. Temperatures may change dramatically within a day.

Plant and Animal Life

The natural vegetation of Nebraska was once mostly prairie grasses. Wooded areas were originally concentrated near rivers and in parts of the Panhandle. Environmentalists have been concerned about the lack of trees. So forests have been planted to prevent soil erosion. The Nebraska National Forest is at Halsey in the Sand Hills. It is one of the largest planted forests in the world.

Wildlife is plentiful in much of Nebraska. Deer are found throughout the state. Pronghorn (American antelope) are common in the Sand Hills. Millions of sandhill cranes pause along the Platte River during their annual migrations north. Other wildlife include: freshwater fish; game birds; hawks; eagles; prairie dogs; gophers; squirrels; coyotes; and jackrabbits.

Natural Resources

Nebraska's soil and water are its most valuable natural resources. Together they have made Nebraska one of the leading agricultural states in the nation. Except for the Sand Hills, most of the state's soils are loams—various mixtures of clay, silt, and sand.

Much of central Nebraska lies over the Ogallala aquifer. It is a huge underground water supply used heavily for irrigation. Rapidly expanding agricultural irrigation has caused concern that the groundwater supplies are being used faster than they are being replenished. Conservation efforts are helping to preserve this priceless resource. They include the use of more efficient irrigation systems.


Nebraska's first inhabitants were Native Americans. They were of the Oto, Omaha, Missouri, Ponca, and Pawnee tribes. Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Dakota Sioux also hunted bison on Nebraska's plains. Native Americans now make up just over 1 percent of the state's population. They live mostly in the cities, in the northern Panhandle, and on three reservations.

It was not until the 1850s that white pioneers began to settle the region. Most of these newcomers came from Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio. Between 1870 and 1890 they were joined by about 1 million European immigrants. Most were Germans, Irish, Czechs, Swedes, and Danes. According to the latest national census, 90 percent of the people of Nebraska identify themselves as white, around 5 percent as African American, and nearly 2 percent as Asian. Nearly 10 percent claim Hispanic or Latino descent. This is a cultural rather than a racial designation.

Nebraska is considered an agricultural state. However, about 60 percent of its people live in cities or towns of more than 2,500 residents. Rural population density is greatest in the eastern quarter of the state. The western half of the state is sparsely populated. For example, Cherry County has fewer than 6,000 residents. But it is larger than the entire state of Connecticut.


Public schooling in Nebraska dates back to 1875. It was provided for in the state's first constitution. In those days, most Nebraskans lived in rural areas. The state contained more than 10,000 school districts. Most simply had a one-room country schoolhouse. Today most schools are much larger. But there are still a few one-room schools in rural areas.

The leading institution of higher learning is the University of Nebraska. It was established in Lincoln in 1869. Branch campuses are located in Omaha and Kearney. The university's football team, the Nebraska Cornhuskers, is consistently ranked among the best in the nation. On Saturdays during the football season, nearly 70,000 fans attend the games. They don red hats, sweaters, and jackets to cheer their team on at Lincoln's Memorial Stadium.

Other state-supported colleges are located in Peru, Chadron, and Wayne. Private universities include: Creighton University in Omaha; Doane College in Crete; Dana College in Blair; Midland Lutheran College in Fremont; Concordia College in Seward; Hastings College in Hastings; and Nebraska Wesleyan University and Union College in Lincoln.

Libraries, Museums, and the Arts

More than 260 public libraries serve communities throughout the state. Love Memorial Library is at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. It is an important research center. The Nebraska State Historical Society houses a large collection of historical books and documents. It also contains extensive displays on the archaeology and history of the state.

Other interesting museums include the University of Nebraska State Museum. It has a large collection of prehistoric animal fossils. The Museum of the Fur Trade is in Chadron. The Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer is in Grand Island. The Great Plains Black Museum and the Western Heritage Museum are in Omaha. The Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha has one of the largest collections of art of the American West. It includes works by Karl Bodmer and George Catlin. Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery is at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. It houses a collection of 20th-century works. The Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney displays the work of Nebraska artists. The Strategic Air Command Museum in Bellevue has aircraft on display. Also of interest is the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha.


Agriculture is Nebraska's most important economic activity. It involves not only farming but also many types of businesses related to farming. These include: the production and marketing of agricultural tools; irrigation equipment; food products; seed; fertilizer; and livestock feed.


Despite the importance of agriculture, the service sector of the economy produces more than 70 percent of gross state product (GSP). Wholesale and retail trade, especially of farm supplies and food products, are as valuable as the state's banking, real estate, and insurance activities. This is significant, as several large financial and insurance companies are headquartered in Omaha.

Personal services contribute significantly to Nebraska's service income. They include medical care, recreation, tourism, and the repair of goods and machinery. Government activities include the operation of public schools and military bases. There are also transportation and communication services and utilities. They include: railroad and trucking businesses; telephone companies; newspapers; radio stations; and power companies.


Nebraska is one of the leading agricultural states in the nation. It is regularly among the top producers of certain livestock and crops. Examples of livestock are cattle and hogs. Crops include corn, wheat, grain sorghum, alfalfa, dry beans, and sugar beets. About half of all farmland is used for growing crops. The other half is used as pasture or rangeland.

Livestock contributes about two-thirds of Nebraska's farm income. Cattle are fattened in feedlots throughout the state. Cattle ranching is concentrated in the Sand Hills and in the northern Panhandle. There, grass is abundant, but rainfall is not sufficient for crop production. Hogs also are raised.

The state's leading crop is corn. Nebraska cornfields cover about 6 million acres (2.4 million hectares). Most are irrigated with water from reservoirs and underground wells. Nebraska has more irrigated land than any state except California.


Many of Nebraska's manufacturing activities relate to agriculture. The state traditionally has been a leader in meat packing, food processing, and livestock feed. Now it is also an important producer of irrigation equipment and other farm machinery. Other manufactured products include: electrical equipment; scientific instruments; transportation equipment; fabricated metals; and pharmaceuticals.


Transportation has been important to Nebraska's economy since the early 1800s. Wagon trains of people migrating to Oregon and California followed the Platte River on their journey westward. The people called this section of the Oregon Trail the Great Platte River Road. Ox-drawn wagons were once used to haul goods from the Missouri River to mining communities in Colorado. Construction of the nation's first transcontinental railroad began, westward from Omaha, after the Pacific Railroad Act was passed in 1862.

Railroad companies are still important employers in Nebraska. The two largest are the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern. They have extensive rail networks for transporting agricultural products and manufactured goods. Water transportation is less extensive. The state's only navigable waterway is the Missouri River. It carries heavy barge traffic as far north as Sioux City, Iowa.


Newspapers have been published in Nebraska since it became a territory in 1854. Today there are about 20 daily newspapers. There are more than 100 weekly newspapers. The Omaha World-Herald is the largest daily. It reaches households in every county. Nebraska has more than 85 radio stations and 14 television stations.


Omaha and Lincoln are the only two large cities in the state. They are both located in the eastern part of Nebraska. Lincoln is the smaller of the two. It is more than five times larger than Bellevue. Bellevue is Nebraska's third most populous city. Most of Nebraska's smaller cities are located in the Platte River valley. They have populations between 10,000 and 40,000.

Lincoln is Nebraska's capital city. It was a tiny village surrounded by empty prairie when it was selected as the seat of government in 1867. It was named after Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States. Today the city contains more than 225,000 people. Lincoln is also a center for education in the state. And it is home to the main campus of the University of Nebraska. Local manufacturing industries make rubber products, electrical equipment, machinery, pharmaceuticals, and transportation equipment.

Omaha is Nebraska's largest city. It has a population of about 390,000. It was established in 1854 on the west bank of the Missouri River. It served as Nebraska's first territorial capital (1855–77).

Omaha is a leading railroad, manufacturing, and food-processing center. For many years it was a leader in meat-packing. Today's manufactures include machinery, electrical equipment, and chemicals. The city is also an important center for insurance corporations.

Since the 1950s, Omaha's suburbs have expanded rapidly. Today they cover two counties and even extend into Iowa. This has created a greater metropolitan area of more than 700,000 people.


Nebraska's first constitution was adopted in 1866. That was one year before the territory became a state. The present constitution was adopted in 1875. It was revised considerably in 1920.

Nebraska's government has three branches. The executive branch is headed by a governor who is elected to a 4-year term. Other officials of the executive branch include the secretary of state, attorney general, and treasurer.

Nebraska has the only unicameral, or one-house, state legislature in the nation. Its members are called senators. They are elected to 4-year terms on a nonpartisan ballot. That means that a candidate's political party affiliation is not listed at the voting booths. The highest court is the state supreme court. The major trial courts are district courts.


The first people to settle in the central Great Plains arrived more than 10,000 years ago. These early hunters followed the movements of such game animals as mammoths and bison. By A.D. 1100, these prehistoric peoples had developed agriculture in eastern and central Nebraska. There they raised corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers. They also made pottery. And they traded with other peoples.

By the late 1700s, Nebraska's Native American population consisted of a variety of tribes. There were nomadic hunters in the western part of the state. And there were village-dwelling farmers in the east. The largest of the farming groups were the Missouri, Omaha, Oto, and Ponca tribes. The Pawnee, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and the Dakota Sioux hunted bison on the plains.

European Exploration

Spanish and French explorers were the first Europeans to reach Nebraska. In 1720 the Spanish sent Pedro de Villasur on an expedition there. His mission was to remove the French. They had begun to trade with the Indians. The French explorers Pierre and Paul Mallet traveled across Nebraska in 1739 seeking a route to Santa Fe.

The vast Louisiana Territory included Nebraska. It twice changed hands between Spain and France before France sold it to the United States in 1803. The following year, President Thomas Jefferson sent the experienced frontiersmen Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the region. They were to report back on its nature and resources. Lewis and Clark described the entire Nebraska region as a "garden." They reported it was rich in resources and well-suited for agriculture. Later explorers in Nebraska were Zebulon Pike (1806), Stephen Long (1820), and John C. Frémont (1842). They disagreed with Lewis and Clark's impressions. They pronounced most of the region unfit for permanent settlement.

Early in the 1800s, fur trappers, traders, missionaries, and travelers moved across Nebraska. Then in 1840 began the great western migration. For the next 25 years, hundreds of thousands of pioneers in wagon trains followed the Oregon Trail. They went through Nebraska on their way to California and Oregon. The Mormon Trail to Utah and the Denver Trail to Colorado also cut through Nebraska.

The U.S. government built several forts for the protection of travelers. And trading posts were established along the Missouri River. But no other settlement took place until the 1850s. In fact, for several decades the federal government prohibited white families from establishing homes in what was then called "Indian country."

Settlement and Statehood

The active settlement of Nebraska began only after the territory was established by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which introduced the concept of popular sovereignty to territorial government. For the first time, settlers were allowed to determine for themselves whether or not they would permit slavery in their territory, and most Nebraskans were decidedly against it.

The original territory of Nebraska extended from the present northern boundary of Kansas all the way to the Canadian border. Omaha was made the territorial capital. By the time Nebraska became a state on March 1, 1867, several other territories had been carved out of the Nebraska Territory and the new state was reduced to its current size.

During the 1800s various treaties were negotiated with various Native American groups that transferred Indian lands to the U.S. government, thus opening up the land to white settlement. The Native Americans were given parcels of land called reservations. But much of this land was later reclaimed by the government. Eventually, most of Nebraska's native population was forced to migrate to reservations in Oklahoma.

In 1862, the U.S. Congress passed the Homestead Act. According to this law, anyone who was the head of a household and at least 21 years of age was qualified to receive a free 160-acre (65-hectare) parcel of land on which to settle. Thousands moved into Nebraska from eastern and other midwestern states and from Europe. Within ten years, the population had increased fivefold. Rapid growth continued, and by 1890 Nebraska had more than 1 million residents.

Farming Challenges

Most people who came to Nebraska in the 1800s planned to farm. But some moved to the cities growing up on the western frontier. Most of the farmers were accustomed to climates with adequate and predictable amounts of rainfall for agriculture. They did not imagine that farming in Nebraska would be very different. However, many soon faced enormous difficulties. In 1874 farmers were challenged by great invasions of grasshoppers. These insects devoured the crops and left many families without resources or food. Then in the 1890s, a severe drought struck with devastating results. For several years, some farmers harvested nothing at all. Many people gave up and returned East. Or they moved to cities to look for work.

Farmers realized they needed to adopt new farming methods if they expected to stay in Nebraska. They began experimenting with crops that were more suitable for dry conditions. Wheat and sorghum began to replace corn. Some farmers began irrigating their crops; others turned from crop production to livestock grazing. New techniques for tilling the soil and conserving soil moisture were tried.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, low prices for farm products crippled the state's economy. But even worse was a severe drought that ruined many farmers. Crops were destroyed by the dry conditions and by dust storms. This produced even greater concern for soil conservation. Programs were started to plant trees in areas called shelterbelts to reduce wind erosion of valuable soils. Numerous irrigation projects and reservoirs were created to protect farmers from dry seasons. Conditions improved during America's World War II years (1941–45) when farmers received record prices for their crops. Industrial growth also brought prosperity.

Modern Times

By the 1960s, business in Nebraska became less directly connected to agriculture. Low labor costs, high labor productivity, and easy access to markets outside the state began to expand Nebraska's manufacturing and service industries. Businesses, such as insurance companies and manufacturers of electrical and transportation equipment, machinery, and scientific instruments, diversified the state's economy and allowed more Nebraskans to live in urban areas rather than on farms or in small towns.

Today Nebraska's farms are fewer, larger, more specialized, and more mechanized than they once were. They also are more dependent on groundwater for crop production and are at risk when water tables decline. Modern farm equipment, such as large tractors, combine harvesters, and mechanical irrigation systems, has greatly reduced the need for manual farm labor. As a result, the number of farms and farmers has decreased steadily in the state since the 1930s. In 1935 there were more than 130,000 farms in Nebraska and their average size was about 350 acres (142 hectares). In contrast, by 1987 there were only about 60,000 farms, although they averaged 750 acres (300 hectares) in size. Economic conditions in the 1980s also contributed to Nebraska's shrinking number of farms.

Because Nebraska's farm products are now shipped all over the world, its farms are increasingly dependent on distant customers and favorable international trade policies. However, Nebraska's increasingly diversified economy makes the state able and willing to respond to ever changing market conditions.

Bradley H. Baltensperger
Nebraska: A Geography

How to cite this article:

MLA (Modern Language Association) style:

Baltensperger, Bradley H. "Nebraska." . Scholastic Grolier Online,
0-h.html. Accessed 2 Dec. 2021.

Chicago Manual of Style:

Baltensperger, Bradley H. "Nebraska." . Scholastic Grolier Online.
0-h.html (accessed December 2, 2021).

APA (American Psychological Association) style:

Baltensperger, B. H. (2021). Nebraska. . Retrieved December 2, 2021, from Scholastic Grolier Online.

SOURCE: The New Book of Knowledge

Back to Top