Thursday, April 23, 2009

An Abundance of Land in Nebraska

While people could purchase land directly from the federal government, many did not.  The land available from the federal government depended upon various land acts throughout the mid to late 1800s and into the 20th century.   (The photo on the right depicts people waiting in line at the Broken Bow, Nebraska Land Office.)

Your research should always begin at the courthouse level, checking deed indexes and then the actual deeds.  Patents are also registered in the courthouses, but you will not find the complete files in those jurisdictions. 

If you suspect that your ancestor purchased land from the federal government, search the web site of the Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records.  Be sure to read the information on their web page before performing a search.  

The U.S. General Land Office Tract Books for Nebraska are located in the Nebraska State Historical Society, 1500 R Street, Lincoln, Nebraska.  The society is undergoing a two-year renovation program, so at this time the research materials are unavailable.  When you are able to use these books, keep in mind that they are only for land obtained from the federal government.  The information contained is:  name of person(s) who filed for land, date, legal description, type of land entry and final certificate number.  

Nebraska Land Offices and Date Opened
Omaha City - 1854
Brownsville - 1857 
Nebraska City - 1857 
Dakota City - 1857 
Beatrice - 1868 
Lincoln - 1868 
Grand Island - 1868 
West Point - 1869 
Lowell - 1872 
North Platte - 1872 
Norfolk - 1873 
Bloomington - 1874 
Niobrara - 1875 
Neligh - 1881
Valentine - 1882 
McCook - 1882 
Sidney - 1886 
Chadron - 1886 
O'Neill - 1888
Alliance - 1890 
Broken Bow - 1890

Distribution of Federal Land in Nebraska
Homesteads - 19,224,310 acres 
Gifts to Railroads - 8,172,859 acres
Kinkaid Homesteaders - 7,834,240 acres
Pre-Emption - 4,996,480 acres 
Sale - 3,991,658 acres 
State Lands - 3,025,780 acres 
Homesteads commuted for cash - 2,634,240 acres 

Rails Then and Now in Nebraska

A mournful whistle, a loud thump ... more than a thump ... a boom, a crash.  My sleep is interrupted.  Oh yes!  It's coming from the railroad yards as they move trains by computerized remote control.  One train section forcefully hits another to link together, eventually making one long train.

As I try to get back to sleep my thoughts turn to what used to be.  Pretty typical of a genealogist!  The Platte River Valley across the state of Nebraska was the route of wagon wheels and carts, clanking and banging their way along to the west.  Eventually those wheels were replaced by steel wheels of greater magnitude. 

As early as 1836 there was talk about constructing a railroad to connect the eastern United States with the Pacific Ocean.  More so after the explorations in 1842 and 1846, Congress began debating the importance of such a means of transportation.  A railroad was being built across Iowa and entrepreneur Thomas Durant hoped to extend the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad to the Pacific coast.  He sent his engineer, Grenville M. Dodge, to make surveys and collect data.  

The timing was poor as an economic panic hit the nation in 1857.  Then came the Civil War which eliminated any southern route to the Pacific.  It was apparent that any route west would have to go through the Platte Valley which was taking settlers to the west coast.  The government realized if it was to be built, they would have to do the financing.  Promotion companies began vying for the contract.  On 1 July 1862 the Pacific Railroad Act was passed. This provided for a hundred million dollar corporation ... the largest capitalization ever known in the United States. 

The act presented the promoters with a right of way through public lands, 200 feet each side, for the entire distance that the railroad would be built.  They would have free use of building materials from public lands.  Through the act they would received every alternate odd numbered section of public land to the amount of four sections a mile on each side, along with a subsidy of $16,000 a mile on the plains and $32,000-$48,000 a mile through the mountains.  In the process there would be an annulment of Indian titles.  

On 2 December 1863 near the ferry landing on the west bank of the Missouri River at Omaha, ground was broken.  Progress was extremely slow and by the spring of 1866, only 60 miles of rails had been laid.  General Dodge of the Union Army became Chief Engineer of the railroad and saw the project through completion.  By the summer of 1866 the tracks were about midway through Nebraska.  On 6 October 1866 the track crossed the 100th meridian near the present community of Cozad, 247 miles from Omaha.  Shortly after that Dodge went to an area near the confluence of the North and South Platte rivers.  It was the projected site of North Platte and was to be a railroad division point, 291 miles west of Omaha.  

The railroad, known as the Union Pacific Railroad, reached North Platte on 3 December 1866 and that winter progressed westward.  North Platte became the first of the notorious "Hell-on-Wheels" towns, which was an expression credited to Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield (Mass.) Republican.

In December of 1866 the area had been prairie and within three weeks there were about 20 buildings, including a brick roundhouse capable of storing 40 engines.  nearby was a frame depot and frame hotel which cost $18,000 to build.  Within a few months there were 15 businesses in North Platte, nine of which served food and/or drink.  North Platte's population soared with construction workers, miners, soldiers, traders, teamsters, prostitudes, adventurers and speculators.  All within six months it grew to 5,000 people.  Wide open living ... gambling, shooting, drinking ... no laws against it! 

By 1870 the route was advertised in newspapers as the Union Pacific All Rail Route to California and the Pacific Coast.  The journey of 1,800 miles was made in record time.  Each train had sleeping cars and a Pullman's Palace.  Some of the passenger lists for those early years have survived.  It is exciting to read the names.  In July of 1871 Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton traveled together from New York to the west coast.  Also passing through North Platte were artists, actors, actresses and lecturers, going to San Francisco.  Early balloonists, Professor Coe and Mr. Lay, made their way to California on the Union Pacific Railroad in January of 1873.  Professor Coe made balloon observations over Confederate camps during the Civil War.  Along with the famous came the not so famous ... carloads of unidentified emigrants.  Railroad travel also allowed people to return to the east as easily as they went west.  

It is so different now.  The Platte River Valley is still here, lined with homes extending far to the west, one of which is mine.  What began as one set of railroad tracks is now known as the Union Pacific Bailey Yard.  It is the world's largest Railroad Classification Yard covering 2,850 acres with 315 miles of tracks.  There are 16 receiving and 18 departing tracks with 3,000 cars sorted daily.  One of the railroad's largest repair facilities is there, large enough to house three football fields.  

You can see all of this in action from the newly built Golden Spike Tower at North Platte.  It is local history in progress by preserving the past and allowing people to view the present and future.  The eight story building has displays, a gift shop and an 8 story enclosed 365 degree view of Bailey Yard.  From there you can envision the lay of the land before the rails and during the early progress.  You can watch the computerized movement of train cars that create the loud crash that I've grown used to hearing.  Occasionally it wakes me at night so I can reflect on the days gone by in the life of the railroad.  

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Researching in Nebraska Courts

The court system in Nebraska consists of a supreme court, district courts and limited jurisdiction courts.  Under the limited jurisdiction courts are found the county, juvenile, municipal and workers' compensation courts.  The court where many records will be found that interest the genealogist is the County Court.  Also of interest to the genealogist is the District Court which is a trial court of general jurisdiction.  

The District Court hears all felony and civil cases involving more than $10,000.  It acts as the appellate court for county courts.  The County Court has limited jurisdiction and handles most misdemeanor cases, ordinance violations and civil cases involving less than $10,000.  There are 93 counties in the state of Nebraska, 21 judicial districts and 48 district court judges.  There is an elected clerk of the district court to handle administrative duties.  There are 57 court judges in the County Court jurisdiction with an appointed clerk to handle the administration.  

Actual county government in Nebraska began when it was a territory in November of 1854.  At that time the boundaries of the first counties were established as Burt, Cass, Pierce (later was named Otoe), Douglas, Dodge, Washington, Richardson and Forney (later was named Nemaha). The last county created in Nebraska was Arthur County in 1913. 

During the territorial period of 1855-1867 there were justice courts (justices of peace), probate courts and district courts.  The actual county justice courts continued to exist until 1970 when they were abolished.  There were also police magistrate courts in the territorial time period. They also continued until about 1972.  

Marriages will usually be found in the County Clerk's office.  Some smaller courthouses maintain land records in the County Clerk's office, but normally they are found in the Register of Deed's office.  Look for naturalization papers in the County Clerk of County Judge's office. Records of divorce, civil and criminal records are found in the Clerk of the District Court offices.  Probate records and guardianships are usually in the office of the County Judge.  

While some courthouses have records from the formation of the county, some may be stored offsite and some may be at the Nebraska State Historical Society in Lincoln, Nebraska. You may discover that some courthouses have computerized indexes of their records, such as probate and marriages.  

A listing of election officials, which is also the county clerk, can be found at the Nebraska Secretary of State web page.  This also includes addresses, both postal and e-mail, plus telephone numbers.  A good web page to check for what is available in public records online is the Nebraska Free Public Records Directory.  Read more about Nebraska's judicial system at Nebraska Judicial Branch

When doing your Nebraska research also investigate city or municipal level records.  Some of these include burial permits, cemetery records, council or committee records and police records. 

Be prepared for your Nebraska courthouse research by knowing in what jurisdiction you'll find the records! 

Monday, April 6, 2009

West Nebraska Family Research & History Center

Sometimes genealogists think that only public libraries have genealogy materials.  Quite the contrary!  A good example of this is the West Nebraska Family Research & History Center located at 1602 Avenue A, Scottsbluff, NE 69361.  

There is no charge to use the facility which is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and by appointment on Sundays.  The center encourages and promotes research, offers educational programs and workshops.  

They have three workstations with microfilm readers and a microfiche reader, computer with high speed Internet access, photocopy machine and scanner.  Their reading room has open bookshelves with books, newsletters, old phone books, magazines, indexes, city directories, maps, gazetteers, family files and a lot more.

When I visited the center, I was impressed with the materials that pertain to the panhandle of Nebraska with emphasis on Scotts Bluff County.  It was worth the visit and time spent there browsing through their collection. 

For more information, call them at 308-635-2400 or visit their web page.  If you are attending the Nebraska State Genealogical Society conference April 30th-May 2nd, be sure to check if they are open then stop by for a look at their collection.