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Nebraska Early History

First Early Inhabitants of Nebraska

Nebraska Early History

Early history examines the archaeological record that tells the story of the first inhabitants of Nebraska. Learn about the prehistory and culture of the first early inhabitants, and what lessons it might teach us about the early history of Nebraska.

Nebraska First Early Inhabitants Timeline

  • 9,000 - 12,000 years ago - Big Game Hunters: The earliest documented human occupation on the Central Plains is dated at around 12,000 years ago near the end of the last great Ice Age. These early people are called Paleoindians. This tradition is characterized by a highly mobile lifestyle that relied on the hunting of big game as a primary food source. Reconstruction of the customs are derived primarily from animal kill and butchering sites, and small temporary camps. The bones of butchered mammoths, camels, ground sloths, extinct forms of bison, and other animals have been found.
  • 2,000 - 9,000 years ago - Foragers: By 9,000 years ago the last Ice Age had ended and the climatic patterns somewhat characteristic of the modern period became established. Many of the animals such as mammoths, camels, horses, and others that had dominated the Plains during the Ice Age were extinct. It appears that the range or movement of people was more localized than during the Paleoindian period.
  • 1,000 - 2,000 years ago - Early Potters: The Woodland tradition was a time of innovation during which many new technological, economic, and social ideas made their appearance. Many of these new elements were borrowed or brought in from other cultures present in the great woodlands to the east of Nebraska. The name Plains Woodland reflects this adaptation of ideas from the east for use in a Plains environment.
  • 600 - 1,000 years ago - Village Farmers: The Central Plains Villagers tradition is marked by a change in subsistence and material culture traits by local Woodland populations. The adaptation may have been caused by the ending of a moist climatic period, and consequent thinning of game and plant resources. Subsistence practices were altered by more intense use of small garden horticulture based largely on maize, beans, and squash.
  • 1541 - Francisco Vasquez de Coronado (1510-1554) explores the area
    1682 - Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (1643-1687) explores the area

Early History of Native Americans in Nebraska

The Indigenous People of Nebraska

The names of the Nebraska tribes included the Cheyenne, Comanche, Chippewa, Delaware, Fox, Omaha, Kansas, Kiowa (see above picture), Missouri, Iowa, Otoe, Sauk and the Pawnee.

Nebraska's fossil beds and glacial deposits show that it once was an inland sea bed that later was elevated above water. The area once had a tropical climate, but during a later period, glaciers covered the land. Archaeologists estimate that prehistoric people inhabited the area between 10,000 and 25,000 years ago, based on discoveries of stone tools and weapons. The earliest inhabitants were nomadic hunters, but centuries later, others came to the grasslands to hunt, fish and farm. Archaeologists have found stone tools and weapons that these people used. Throughout history, the climate in Nebraska varied between long periods of drought and times of plentiful moisture. We know that at one time, the area was covered by an inland sea and had a tropical climate. Later, glaciers covered the land. This constant change meant that people came and went from the area. This created a diverse mixture of Indian languages and cultures.

The Pawnee and their northern neighbors, the Arikaras lived in the area the longest. These people migrated northward about 500 years ago and established villages along the rivers in Nebraska. The Pawnees hunted buffalo and grew beans, corn and squash. By the eighteenth century, other tribal groups, including the Omaha, Ponca and Oto people, migrated to the area and set up villages in the eastern part of the state along the Missouri River. Other groups, including the Lakota (Sioux), Arapaho and Cheyenne, came from forested areas north and east of the Missouri River. By 1800, there may have been 40,000 native people living in Nebraska.

Spanish explorers brought horses to the Plains, and horses changed Native American culture forever. The Pawnees and Omahas began to use horses on their bison hunts and nomadic cultures like the Lakota began to center around horses and became completely dependent on bison for food, clothing, tools another items.

A second influence that changed Indian culture was the beginning of the fur trade in the eighteenth century. The Indians traded extensively with Europeans and began to use European guns, drink alcohol, and wear European clothing. Along with these trade items, the Europeans also brought diseases like measles and smallpox, and epidemics devastated the Indian population.

Despite these changes, traditional Indian culture continued in Nebraska until the 1830s. As white settlers moved into the area at that time, the US government began to negotiate with tribes for land grants. In the 1850s, Nebraska became a territory and the land was made available to settlers for ownership, despite the fact that the land had not actually been legally acquired from the Indians.

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