Thursday, March 31, 2011

Historical Research Made Easy: Just Stumble onto Something

There was a time in the distant past, say, about ten years ago, when serious historical research involved a finely developed skill set, some travel, plus lots of time and effort. Today, maybe not so much. We can stumble onto more pertinent material accidently online any random evening than we used to be able to dig up in months.

The results of one recent study illustrate how information of local interests can pop up for us.
Two researchers, Dr. William G. Thomas III of the University of Nebraska and Dr, Kurt Kinbacher of Spokane Falls Community College produced a publication called “Shaping Nebraska: An Analysis of Railroad and Land Sales, 1870-1880.”(1) These fellows were interested in the role that railroads played in the settlement of the Great Plains, particularly Nebraska. It is impractical to study a huge region in any detail and even if one could there would likely be too much stuff to look at in any timely manner. So the answer is to pick a smaller sample and study it well.

Thomas and Kinbacher chose to concentrate on three specific townships in two Nebraska counties and to extrapolate their conclusions to the region in general. The townships were Olive Branch Township in southwest Lancaster County and Lynn and School Creek townships in Clay County.

It is our good fortune that they chose Clay County as we gain the benefit of their efforts.

The study looked at railroad land sales. The Burlington Railroad came into the state at Plattsmouth in 1869 and connected with the Union Pacific near Kearney. Sutton and Harvard were the early developing communities between Lincoln and Kearney making Clay a candidate for the study. The Burlington received alternate sections of land from the government for ten miles either side of the tracks for each mile of track they laid. That is, 6,400 acres for each 5,280 feet of track for a total of 2,450,000 acres – 5% of the state. Development of the Great Plains was government policy and the 1864 Pacific Railroad act was one of two large 19th Century “stimulus packages” to further that policy. The other stimulus program was the Homestead Act two years earlier. Both were successful. Nebraska’s population grew from 120,000 in 1870 to 453,000 in 1880 and over one million by 1890.

The railroad needed revenue from freight and passenger service to sustain its operations. Railroads actively recruited settlers. The Burlington spent $500,000 recruiting potential settlers in Europe between April, 1870 and December, 1872. That would have been the gross proceeds from sales of 143 square miles at the average price of $5.47 per acre. They focused on Germans, Czechs and Scandinavians plus two agents worked Great Britain exclusively. But their greater successes came from folks “back east” as large populations, often second generation immigrants came to Nebraska from Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

There was a high level of sophistication in the recruitment literature. Material aimed at English speaking prospects used maps and timetables to illustrate the maturity of the rail system. The focus was on business prospects with graphs charting growth in commodity production and income levels. Materials aimed at non-English speaking immigrants were much more textural. Europeans were worried about water and wood so brochures told of rivers and streams with abundant flowing water. Wood represented more of a problem for the advertisers who had to acknowledge the near complete absence of trees, but instead told of ready access to cheap coal and the advantage of easily clearing land with no trees.

Settlements often developed into ethic islands or clusters of like-immigrants. German language literature pointed out the numerous German communities on the plains. Meanwhile, English language material told of honest, hard-working English, Scots and Scandinavians. The Burlington claimed that one half of southern Lancaster County was made up of German communities. The actual figures were between one-fourth and a third. Close. Few immigrants self-identified as Germans as Germany had only became a nation in 1871. They were more likely to call themselves Prussians or Bavarians or Hanoverians, etc. Olive Branch Township “Germans” self-identified with at least nineteen different principalities.

Lynn Township in Clay County illustrated another aspect of settlement. Seventy-eight percent of Nebraskans in the 1880 census were native born. Forty percent of Lynn Township sales of railroad land went to Ohioans with early arrivals from the town of Newburgh near Cleveland.

School Creek Township hosted the closest to an actual “colony” of any area in the study. Black Sea Germans from Russia with the Grosshans, Griess & Company purchased 5 ¾ sections of railroad land in School Creek Township on September 4th, 1873.

There were several considerations when settlers had to choose between homesteading and purchase of railroad land. Homesteaders filed a claim, spent five years developing the land then took title. Railroad land was purchased but ownership was immediate. Homesteaders stuck it out for the five years forty percent of the time. A total of 270 million acres passed into private hands under the Homestead Act. Railroad land lent itself to speculators to a greater degree. But other factors seemed to play into longevity.

Olive Branch and Lynn township purchasers of railroad land tended to move on within a few years. The School Creek Township settlement of Germans from Russia was far more stable. Forty of the fifty-nine sales contracts to Germans from Russia in the county were in School Creek with the other nineteen, primarily from the Volga region, in the three adjacent townships. As land came available, members of the Germans from Russia community purchased that land sustaining the community.

This study of railroad land sales was good for our selfish needs here in Sutton in that it tells us something about local settlement. If there is a flaw in the study it may be that it did concentrate on railroad land sales. Railroad land was only one half of the story. Interspersed between sections of railroad land were sections of homesteads often settled by different groups with significantly different motivations. 
But overall, this study is a good illustration of the type of scholarly work that was largely inaccessible to us just a few years ago. We are fortunate that the researchers choose Clay County for their study giving us further insight to what happened here, back then.

This article first appeared in Sutton Life Magazine, December 2010 issue. Contact Sutton Life Magazine at 510 West Cedar, Sutton, NE 68979 or at

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