Nebraska Territorial Organization

In 1851 and 1852 the first effort was made to erect a territory west of Missouri and Iowa, which was abortive, and the matter did not reach a vote in congress. At the next session, 1852-53, Willard P. Hall, of Missouri, on December 13, 1852, offered a bill in the House of Representatives organizing the territory of “Platte,” which included in its area what is now the greater part of Nebraska, the northern limit of the region being generally described as “the Platte River.” The bill was referred to the committee on territories. From that committee William A. Richardson, of Illinois, reported a bill organizing the territory of Nebraska, covering the same area. The report did not meet with the approval of the southern members, and they made such a fight on it that the report presented recommended that the bill be rejected. Notwithstanding the objections, however, the bill passed the house by a vote of 98 to 43, February 10, 1853. Now began the contest which became notorious in the history of the nation. The bill went to the senate heralded by proslavery blasts of warning. There was organized secretly a system to prevent free soil from becoming a new territory unless a similar tract of slave soil should be set off as a counterpoise in the national legislature, for to admit a free territory without one dedicated to slavery was to give the antislavery faction a political lever that might be used against the south. The bill reached the senate, where it was moved to “lay it on the table.” This defeated the bill by a vote of 23 to 17, the senators from the slave states, with the exception of those from Missouri, were solidly arrayed against the bill.

In the meantime the people of Iowa and many localities in the west had manifested their disapproval of the lines described in the bill, and they began to impatiently insist that the country west of the Missouri river be opened to settlement. Thousands of emigrants were camping along the eastern banks of the Missouri, impatiently awaiting the extinguishment of the Indian title to lands, and were awaiting the permission of the general government to cross over and settle in the new territory. And to that end in the fall of 1853 a considerable number of persons crossed the Missouri from Iowa, and, assembling at Bellevue and Old Fort Kearney, proceeded to hold an election for a delegate to represent their interests at “Washington in securing a territorial organization. Said election was held on the 11th of October, 1853, and resulted in the unanimous choice of Hon. Hadley D. Johnson, a prominent lawyer and leading citizen of Council Bluffs, Iowa.

On the 14th of December, 1853, a bill was introduced in the senate by Augustus C. Dodge, senator from Iowa, providing for the organization of the “Territory of Nebraska.” This measure adhered to the former boundaries, and it was referred to the committee on territories. The bill contained no clause interfering with the interdict on slavery in this region laid down by the Missouri compromise. The report of this committee contains so much information concerning the situation at that time that we quote the following from it, viz: “A question has arisen in regard to the right to hold slaves in the territory of Nebraska when the Indian laws shall be withdrawn and the country opened to emigration and settlement. By the eighth section of an act to authorize the people of Missouri territory to form a constitution and state government, and for the admission of such state into the union on an equal footing with the original states, and to prohibit slavery in certain territories, approved March 6, 1820, it was provided: ‘That in all that territory ceded by France to the United States under the name of Louisiana, which lies north of thirty-six and one-half degrees north latitude, not included within the limits of the state contemplated by this act, slavery and involuntary servitude otherwise than a punishment of crimes shall be and hereby are prohibited; provided always that any person escaping into the same, etc., such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person or persons claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid. ‘Under this section, as in the case of the Mexican law in New Mexico and Utah, it is a disputed point whether slavery is prohibited in the Nebraska country by valid enactment. The decision of this question involves the constitutional power of congress to pass laws prescribing and regulating the domestic institutions of the various territories of the union. In the opinion of these eminent statesmen who hold that congress is invested with no rightful authority to legislate upon the subject of slavery in the territories, the eighth section of the act preparatory to the admission of Missouri is null and void, while the prevailing sentiment in large portions of the union sustains the doctrine that the constitution of the United States secures to every citizen an inalienable right to move into any of the territories with his property of whatever kind and description, and to hold and enjoy the same, your committee do not feel themselves called upon to enter the discussion of these controverted questions. They involve the same grave issues which produced the agitation, the sectional strife and fearful struggle of 1850. As congress deemed it wise and prudent to refrain from deciding the matter in controversy then so your committee are not prepared to recommend a departure from the course pursued on that memorable occasion, either by affirming or repealing the eighth section of the Missouri act, or by any act declaratory of the meaning of the constitution in respect to the legal points in dispute. It is apparent that the compromise measures of 1850 affirm and rest upon the following propositions: First, that all questions pertaining to slavery in the territories and the new states to be formed there from are to be left to the people residing therein.”

When the report of the committee was presented Archibald Dixon, of Kentucky, gave notice that he would, when the bill came up, offer as an amendment a clause that the eighth section of the Missouri act “shall not be so construed as to apply to the territory of Nebraska or to any other territory, but that the citizens of the several states shall be at liberty to take and hold their slaves within any of the territories or states to be formed there from.” This, of course, would have annulled the compromise act, and it reopened hostilities. It was in the midst of this discussion and controversy that Hadley D. Johnson, representing the Nebraska people, reached Washington. He had no official status, but as representative of a large region affected by the measure he was admitted to the councils of the committee on territories. He had a good deal of influence with the committee, and it was mainly through his efforts that Senator Douglas requested the recommital of the bill. On January 23, 1854, a bill retaining the title was offered, but so amended as to leave but little of the original document. Two territories were now proposed, one to be called “Kansas,” the other “Nebraska.” The amended bill contained the following important provisions concerning slavery:
First that all questions pertaining to slavery in the territories, and in the new states to be formed there from, are to be left to the decision of the people residing therein, through their appropriate representatives.

Second. That all cases involving the title to slaves and questions of personal freedom are referred to the adjudication of local tribunals with right of appeal to the supreme court of the United States.

Third. That the provisions of the constitution and laws of the United States in respect to fugitives from service are to be carried into faithful execution in all the original territories, the same as in the states.

The fight that followed over this bill was a hotly contested one. Senator Douglas introduced an amendment affirming the principle of nonintervention by congress, which prevailed. Senator Chase moved “that the people of the territory may, if they see fit, prohibit the existence of slavery therein.” This was voted down. The contest and debate that followed was one of the most notable in the history of the country. It is not necessary to follow it in detail in this connection. So far as the destiny of Nebraska is concerned it is only necessary to say that the senate passed the amended bill by a vote of 37 to 14 on March 3, 1854. In May a bill was passed by the house, in form as an original measure, although it was in essence the amended senate bill. This was sent to the senate May 24, and was passed. The bill was approved by President Pierce May 30, 1854. The territory embraced 351,558 square miles, extending from the fortieth parallel of north latitude to the British possessions on the north, and from the Missouri river on the east to the summit of the Rocky Mountains on the west. The creation of the territory of Colorado, February 28, 1861, decreased the area by 16,035 square miles, and the creation of the territory of Dakota, March 2, 1867, further diminished the area by 228,907 square miles. At one time a triangular tract of 15,378 square miles was attached from Washington and Utah territories, lying on the southwest slope of the Rocky Mountains, but this was afterwards included in the 45,999 square miles which went to form the territory of Idaho, March 3, 1863.


Compendium of History Reminiscence & Biography of Western Nebraska, Alden Publishing Company, Chicago, 1912.

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