The History of Omaha | The People, Landmarks and Events That Made Our Amazing City

May 22, 2019Add a CommentPosted By

Since its founding in 1854, the city of Omaha has always been a vibrant, energetic city continually transforming itself. Whether it was the Native American tribes, pioneers, railroad laborers, meat packers or technology gurus, everyone who came to call Omaha home helped make our amazing city what it is today.

Named after the Native American tribe, Omaha means “those going against the wind or current” and we can’t think of a better phrase to describe our proud Omahans.

Today, Omaha is the 42nd largest city in the United States and home to over 900,000 people. We’re literally one of the best places to live in the country, named time and time again on the top of “best of” lists and we’re full of friendly Midwesterners who will always welcome visitors with open arms.

To pay tribute to our remarkable city, we’ve rounded up some of the most important events, people and landmarks that contributed to our history. Happy learning!

Jump Ahead:

Major Dates | Important Figures | Famous LandmarksGroups Dedicated to Preserving Omaha’s History

Major Dates

1800 — 1804 | The Beginning

Omaha History, People and Events

Just like much of the land in the middle of America, Omaha sits on a piece of President Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase. After finalizing the deal with France, the United States made plans to send out several missions to explore and chart the new territory. On July 21, 1804, the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition passed by the riverbanks of what would later become the City of Omaha. They set up camp near present-day Bellevue for five nights, before heading north about 20 miles, where they met with Native American Tribe, the Otoe. They had a council meeting with members of the tribal leadership on top of a bluff on the west side of the Missouri River. This “Council of the Bluffs” became the inspiration for the name of our sister city, Council Bluffs.

 

1854 | The Nebraska Territory is Born

Council Bluffs was settled slowly over the next few decades, with many illegal land speculators staking out land in the Omaha area as early as 1840. In 1854, the Omaha Tribe sold the majority of their tribal land, consisting of four million acres, to the United States for less than 22 cents per acre. This allowed the Kansas-Nebraska Act to be drafted, which created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska under the condition that they remain slave-free. The newly founded City of Omaha celebrated the new territory by hosting a picnic on Capitol Hill at the present day site of Central High School.

 

1855 | NP Dodge Becomes the First Real Estate Company in the United States

Omaha History, People and Events

Brothers Grenville and Nathan Philips Dodge left Massachusetts in 1853 and 1854 and made their way to Douglas County followed by their parents and sister a few years later. The duo founded a land office in Council Bluffs in 1855. While Grenville went on to serve as a general in the Civil War and helped found the Union Pacific Railroad, N.P. stayed in the land-sale business, building the foundation for what is now America’s longest-running, family-owned real estate firm.

 

1862 | The Union Pacific Railroad

Council Bluffs was chosen as the eastern stopping point of the United States’ first transcontinental railroad in 1862 to avoid the difficulty of constructing a bridge across the Missouri River. This ensured that Omaha would become a major transportation center for the entire country for years to come. With the passing of the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, the Union Pacific Railroad was born, constructed westward from Council Bluffs to meet the Central Pacific Railroad Line. The pioneer railroad was (and still is!) headquartered in Omaha, making our beloved city one of the railroad capitals of the world.

 

1898 | The Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition

The Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition was a world’s fair held in Omaha from June 1 to November 1 of 1898. Its goal was to showcase the development of the entire West, stretching from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Coast. Over 2.6 million people came to Omaha to view the 4,062 exhibits during the exposition. Many temporary buildings, structures and features were installed around the city for the expo, including some reproductions of Grecian and Roman temples. The Grand Court of the massive fair was located on the current site of Kountze Park.

 

1908 | Omaha University

Photo courtesy of the University of Nebraska at Omaha

What is known today as the University of Nebraska at Omaha, started out as the University of Omaha. It was founded in 1908 by faculty from the Omaha Presbyterian Theological Seminary as a private, religious university. Eventually, in 1930, the university became a public institution and later in 1968, was integrated into the University of Nebraska system. Today it is recognized nationally for its online education, graduate education, military friendliness and community engagement efforts.

 

1912 — 1968 | Civil Rights

While the national civil rights movement didn’t begin until the 1940s, Omaha began securing civil rights for a variety of American people as early as 1876, when Standing Bear v. Crook ruled in favor of a Native American, finally giving them the rights of citizens. In 1912, the local Omaha chapter of the NAACP was created and thus began the hard and slow journey (that included the help of our very own N.P. “Phil” Dodge III) to the late 1960s, when the Civil Rights Acts were finally put into place.

 

1939 — 1991 | World War II and the Cold War

Omaha History, People and Events

The approach of World War II brought the construction of the Glenn L. Martin Company aircraft assembly plant at Fort Crook (now Offutt Air Force Base), adjacent to Bellevue, on Omaha’s southern outskirts. Aside from boosting the local economy, the plant brought rapid growth to Bellevue. The plant closed in 1945, but the Cold War, beginning in 1948, led to the designation of the plant site as the Strategic Air Command headquarters. The military presence at the base enhanced the economy of the Omaha area and boosted residential growth in the nearby communities of Gretna, La Vista and Papillion.

 

1950 — The Rosenblatt Stadium

While Omaha was a fairly popular city — what with the Union Pacific Railroad and the Omaha Stockyards, the largest livestock processing center in the world — the construction of the famed Rosenblatt Stadium was what really put the city on the map. Since its construction, the College World Series has been held in Omaha (now at the TD Ameritrade Park), bringing over six million fans to the area every year.

 

1955 — the 21st Century | From Livestock to Technology

Omaha History, People and Events

By 1955, Omaha had surpassed Chicago as the world’s top livestock market. Most of the local stockyards closed in 1999, but meatpacking has remained a significant part of the local economy, our steak becoming a national icon. And while we haven’t turned away from our agricultural roots, we’re known for much more than that now. In the past few decades, we’ve seen a significant amount of technology startups and entrepreneurs coming to the area — garnering us the nickname the “Silicon Prairie”.

 

Important Figures

Omaha has been home to hundreds of thousands of incredible people who have shaped America’s history. Unfortunately, we could not include all of them on this list, but we did round up a few of Omaha’s famous historical figures that helped transform the area into the amazing city we know today.

Malcolm X

Minister & Activist

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in Omaha in 1925. He was an American Muslim minister and a human rights activist who was a popular figure during the civil rights movement. While he didn’t spend much of his life in Omaha, he did come back in 1964 to speak at the Elks Club on Lake Street and the lecture hall at the now-demolished Civic Auditorium, where he gave a riveting speech on racism and black rights. Malcolm X was assassinated in New York City in February 21, 1965. You can visit several of his memorials here in Omaha, including his birth site, and the annual Malcolm X Festival at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

 

Sarah and George Joslyn

Philanthropists

Omaha History, People and Events

Photo courtesy of Joslyn Art Museum

George and Sarah Joslyn were part of the wave of entrepreneurs who moved west after the transcontinental railroad was completed. In 1880, George opened a branch of a printing firm in Omaha, which he owned by 1896. He renamed it the Western Newspaper Union, which was once the country’s largest supplier of “ready print” newspapers. Sarah and several other women formed the Board of Charities for the City of Omaha. She was also on the executive boards of the Child Saving Institute and the Humane Society and was a prominent donor to several Omaha organizations. She also created the Joslyn Art Museum as a memorial to her husband after his death.

 

Grenville Dodge

General, Politician and Railroad Pioneer

Grenville Mellen Dodge was a Union army officer on the frontier and pioneering figure in military intelligence during the Civil War. In 1853, he was summoned to Washington, D.C. by President Abraham Lincoln, who was interested in Dodge’s railroad expertise. He asked him to divine a location along the Missouri River, where the transcontinental railroad should have its initial point. Dodge went on to help direct the construction of the transcontinental railroad and become a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Our very own Sandy and Nate Dodge went to Golden Spike, Utah to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad. You can learn all about the festive celebration here!

 

Mildred Brown

Activist & Journalist

Mildred Brown was a journalist, newspaper publisher and a leader in the Civil Rights Movement of Omaha. She and her husband moved around a lot, from Alabama to Chicago to Des Moines, before finally settling down in Omaha. They founded and ran the Omaha Star, a newspaper created for the African-American community in the area. After 1945, she ran the Omaha Star alone and in 1960, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her as a goodwill ambassador to East Germany. Today, you can learn about her in the Omaha Business Hall of Fame and the Nebraska Journalism Hall of Fame.

 

Famous Landmarks

Omaha is steeped in history, so it’s only natural that we’re home to some incredible historic landmarks. If you’re looking to be surrounded by some Omaha history, we recommend heading to some of our oldest neighborhoods, like Benson, Old Market, Dundee and the Gold Coast District. Or, pay a visit to one of these breathtaking historical landmarks.

Boys Town

In 1917, Edward J. Flanagan established a refuge for homeless boys of all races and religions on the edge of downtown Omaha. In the first year, they served over 1,000 young men and became known as Father Flanagan’s Home for Boys. When they realized that more space was needed, they secured a farm west of Omaha, which became the permanent home for the Village of Boys Town, a National Historic Monument since 1985. Make sure to pay the area a visit and explore everything from the Hall of History to the Boys Town Visitor Center.

 

Fort Atkinson

Established in 1820 on the recommendation of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Fort Atkinson was the first U.S. military post west of the Missouri River. If you’re looking to get a taste of American history, you can visit the reconstructed outpost any time you’d like! Bring the whole family and enjoy one of their living history demonstrations, which take place throughout the summer and fall.

 

Joslyn Castle

Omaha History, People and Events

While Joslyn Castle might not be an actual castle, it’s still a remarkable site. This gorgeous mansion is located in the Gold Coast Historic District of Omaha and was built by Sarah and George Joslyn, the area’s first millionaires and philanthropists. Many local institutions benefited from George and Sarah’s generosity, including the University of Omaha, the Nebraska Humane Society, the Fontanelle Home for the Aged, and many more. The castle-like mansion was completed in 1903 and features 35 different rooms (including a few hidden ones) that you can explore during a guided tour.

 

The Durham Museum

While the old Union Station now houses the Durham Museum, that doesn’t mean you can’t soak up some history when you visit. The stunning architecture has been preserved and harkens back to days gone by. Plus, the museum has ties with the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, the National Archives and the Field Museum in Chicago so you can dig even further into history than you ever thought possible!

 

General Crook House

Omaha History, People and Events

Photo courtesy of Steve Kowalski via the Douglas County Historical Society

This authentically restored home of General George Cook was built in 1879 in an Italianate style and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. You can tour the home any day of the week and get a taste of what life was like for a commanding officer living in the Frontier during the 1880s. No matter what time of year you visit, the home is sure to be a stunning sight with the gorgeous heirloom garden blooming in the warmer months and the grand holiday decorations that adorn the entire house during November and December!

 

Groups Dedicated to Preserving Omaha’s History

The Union Pacific Historical Society

The Union Pacific Historical Society was founded in 1984 and is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and sharing the history of the Union Pacific Railroad (UPR). If you’re looking to learn more about the history of the UPR — pick up one of their spectacular publications. The Steamliner is a quarterly journal that features work of historians and other experts about all aspects of the UPR including their operations, traffic, equipment and facilities. The Union Pacific Historical Society also publishes books, including their most recent publication: Jeff Asay’s Union Pacific Northwest.

 

History Nebraska

Omaha History, People and Events

Photo courtesy of History Nebraska

History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who wanted to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant people in the area. Today, they help preserve not only Omaha’s history but all of Nebraska’s by recognizing the people, places and events that made our state what it is today.

 

Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission

The Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission is appointed by the Omaha mayor and approved by the Omaha City Council. This special group recruits citizens from all walks of life from architects to small business owners to art museum curators and interior design firms  — all to help safeguard Omaha’s history. They work tirelessly to preserve or enhance structures, districts, tourist attractions and more. You can learn all about each current member of the council here.

 

What did we miss?

Omaha has a rich narrative, full of significant events, people and landmarks. What is your favorite moment in Omaha’s history? Let us know in the comments!

 


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