History of Omaha

United States > US City Index > Omaha > History

What was once a vast expanse of prairie land, home to the native Omaha, Otoe, Pawnee and Ponca tribes, is now considered one of the fastest growing urban areas in the Midwest. One of the first documented explorers to discover the area was Sieur de La Salle, a Frenchman who traveled the area in the late 1600s. He named the area Louisiana and claimed the entire region, including Nebraska, in the name of France. Possession of the area shuffled between France and Spain with ownership eventually granted to France by the Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1800.

Three years later, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory under the Treaty of Paris for $15,000,000. This acquisition opened the area for exploration and eventual colonization. Two of the first Americans to see the beauty of this vast prairie wilderness were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Their legendary expedition along the Missouri River in 1804 brought them and their party of explorers to Omaha's front door when, in the area now known as Fort Calhoun, they held a council with the Otoe and Missouri Indians.

When reports of Lewis and Clark's journey reached the already-tamed East Coast, adventurous men and women alike packed up their homes and families and began the treacherous trek westward. The abundance of wide open land, endless supplies of food and furs, and the possibility of striking gold were attractive to these dream seekers and fortune hunters. Becoming known as the 'Gateway to the West,' Omaha's proximity to the Missouri River made it the perfect stopping off point during the long journey to the wilds of the West. The Oregon Trail crossed through town bringing millions of travelers through the area. Evidence of the deep ruts carved by the covered wagons are still visible today. Mormons heading westward toward Utah set up Winter Quarters just north of town in what is now known as Florence. Here, the harsh winter of 1846-1847 claimed over 600 lives. The Mormon Cemetery still stands on the site.

In 1854, the Omaha Indians relinquished their hold on the land, and with the assistance of Congress's Kansas-Nebraska bill, opened the Nebraska Territory for settlement.. With this, the city of Omaha was founded. Omaha, meaning 'above all others upon a stream,' was named for the outcast Indian tribe. At the outset, housing lots were free to those who would make improvements on them. Within three years, these same lots were sold for $4000 each. As more and more people streamed into the Omaha area, stores, hotels, saloons and restaurants began springing up around the area now known as downtown.

Omaha drew national attention when Edward Creighton, for whom Creighton University is named, strung the first telegraph wires west in 1860, completing the Omaha to San Francisco line two years later. In 1863, President Lincoln chose Omaha as the eastern terminus for the first transcontinental railroad. These historic developments would impact Omaha for years to come: Omaha currently boasts over two dozen telecommunications centers and is considered the '800-number capital of the nation.' It is also home to the Union Pacific Railroad, one of the biggest railroad organizations in the country.

Nebraska was granted statehood in 1867. At this time, Omaha's population had grown to over 30,000. The city's astonishing growth boomed with the opening of the area's first meat packing plant in 1871; the founding of Creighton University, named for Edward Creighton, in 1878; the formation of a warehouse district and a downtown shopping district; and the establishment of the Union Stock Yards in the 1880s.

1888 saw the opening of Fort Crook, a military establishment that would later become part of
Offutt Air Force Base, home to the Strategic Air Command. Located within the Fort Crook facility was Martin Aircraft Corp. Built here were the legendary B-29 bombers the 'Enola Gay,' which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in, 1945, and 'Bock's Car,' used to drop the atomic bomb on Nagasaki three days later.

The Trans-Mississippi Exposition, held in Omaha in 1898, brought worldwide attention to Omaha and is considered to be the beginning of the 'Golden Age' for the Nebraska farmer. In 1917, Father Edward Flannigan founded Boys Town, 'a city within a city' for disadvantaged and troubled youth.

Omaha continued to experience tremendous growth during the '20s, '30s and '40s. By 1948, Omaha was the #1 supplier of meat in the nation, generating over $5 billion dollars for Omaha's thriving economy. Modern-day Omaha is the best of both worlds: it offers the benefits of big city life with the warmth and friendliness of a small town. With over 700,000 citizens, the city is a cosmopolitan urban center with scores of excellent restaurants, a world-class zoo, a regional medical center, 11 colleges, and an active entertainment community. Builders recently broke ground on a new multi-million dollar arena/convention center to be located in downtown, a testament to the exciting future that awaits those visiting and living in Omaha.

Omaha's Midwestern atmosphere and 'down-home friendly' feeling stems back to the early days of the pioneers. The city has come a long way -- from a rootin' tootin' wilderness town to a booming, modern metropolis -- and it remains a city that truly stands 'above all others.'