A History of North Omaha, Part 1

A History of North Omaha, Part 2Almost a thousand years ago early American Indians roamed the thick woodlands the lined the Missouri River bottoms in East Omaha. There were fishing ponds and hideaways, both excellent for keeping the small western villages of the Woodlands culture that dotted the area. On the plateau above the river was a prairie that looked more like an African savannah than the “oceans of grass” white settlers later reported. Dotted with oak trees and plum thickets, there were bison and elk, bear and cougars roaming freely throughout the area that is North Omaha today.

A lodge in the style of the Woodland people who lived in the area of present-day North Omaha.

Missing History

North Omaha’s history isn’t widely talked about. Probably for the same reason that the city allows this beautiful chunk of history diminish and flounder, its history is almost non-existent. Growing up in the neighborhood I found sketches of history from deep corners: a pastor who taught me about the city’s black radicals, and a nonprofit colleague who taught me about its deep African American culture and traditions. There was nothing in my history classes, and anything I heard on the news was negative- the riots in the 1960s and 70s, the gang violence in the 1990s, and the racist crimes of the 1980s through today. The media painted modern black leaders from my neighborhood to be ineffectual at best, and radically anarchist at worst.

As a teen growing up with this soul-sucking morass of negativity, coupled with an apparent community self-deprecation that was conditioned to allow depression, made for a rough transition to the middle class, predominately white community where I live today. One way I learned to make sense of my today was to learn more about the yesterdays of North Omaha. Combining guerrilla research methods I taught myself over the years, I plumbed the Internet, my memory, and a lot of source materials. I put together a comprehensive history of the community I’ve come to love, not only because of my connection to the place, but because of what it was and what it can become. I have published this history on Wikipedia in order to make it massively available to anyone who was interested. Throughout this blog I link almost exclusively to articles I have created about North Omaha. The purpose of this blog is to rewrite that encyclopedic content into a readable format.

An early image of Native Americans who lived in the area of present-day North Omaha.

Before Europeans

After those early Woodlands cultures roamed the eastern Nebraska woods along the Missouri River, other tribes rolled through the area in succession. The Poncas from the north came to North Omaha occasionally to hunt, with the Pawnee coming from the west, and both later ceding it to the Omahas who stalked bison on its narrow, long plain. Today the plain would expand from the Ponca Hills in the north, going southwards to downtown, stumbling along the Missouri River cliffs next to Florence Boulevard, and stopping at the rolling hills that used to demarcate downtown along I-480.

A view from the Ponca Hills in circa 1910.

Lewis and Clark in North Omaha

There is anecdotal evidence that the Lewis and Clark Expedition climbed to the top of Belevedere Point when they traveled through the area in 1804. In 1812, Spanish fur trader Manuel Lisa established the first European settlement west of the Missouri River in Indian Territory. His fort, located at the foot of Hummel Park’s bluffs at the intersection of Ponca Road and J.J. Pershing Drive, closed when he died in 1820. In 1822, the American Fur Trading company established a trading post in North Omaha, immediately north of present-day Dodge Park. That post closed in the 1840s.

The pioneer Saratoga School in present-day North Omaha in 1885.

Little Towns in North Omaha

As the Mormons traveled west to escape New York and later Illinois in the 1840s, they asked the federal government for permission to cross the Nebraska Territory. In 1845, leaders of this group sought out the chief of the Omaha tribe for permission to camp on his land in what is present-day North Omaha.

The group ended up staying in what they called Cutler’s Park in 1846, and after hundreds died from the rough prairie winter, they continued westwards to the Salt Lake valley.

Their entree piqued the curiosity of other European Americans from the east though, and within a decade Omaha City was founded. The little pioneer towns of Florence and Saratoga, both of which are in modern North Omaha, were established at the same time.


Rich People in the Country

There were farms scattered across present-day North Omaha. Immediately north of downtown Omaha, between present-day Ames Avenue and Cuming Street, the first people to build substantial homes were the city’s first wealthy elite.

 

Former mansions in North Omaha, Nebraska
A few of the former mansions in North Omaha, including from upper left the Alvin D. Jones Mansion; the J.J. McCreary Mansion; the A.J. Poppleton Mansion; the John I. Redick Mansion, and; the Francis Bailey House.

 

Mansions were built by the wealthiest people from the 1860s through the 1890s. They included homes built by J. J. Brown, Clifton Mayne, Mercer, and John McCreary. Large homes and estates were built by several people, including A. J. Poppleton and Nebraska’s last territorial governor, Alvin Saunders. These people had extremely large homes, entertained the city’s elite, and were influential in Omaha’s economic, social and political development.

 

Ethnic Groups in North Omaha

The history of North Omaha unfurls from there: A cacophony of ethnicities including Scandinavians and Jews, blacks, Germans, and English flood the neighborhoods, Fort Omaha grew, and Indians left the area after a notable trial while Irish immigrants lived in dugouts on the old plain. A land deal including much of the neighborhood got Nebraska Territory legislators to leave the capitol in Omaha, at least for a little while. Inconvenient realities filled the city’s newspaper pages.

The city’s pioneer cemetery, for a period located behind notorious public housing projects, filled up by the early 1900s. A world’s fair and a car driving track brought a suburban streetcar line and more people to the community, and Florence got closer to the city. There was a community of railroad porters, a squatter’s neighborhood, and a military road that edged the neighborhood. Blacks were lynched in Omaha during this period, and fortunes were built on the backs of the poor.

Students at Pilgrim Baptist Church Vacation Bible School in 1931.

African Americans Build Community

After helping build the city’s downtown core, the African American working class birthed a professional class. Nebraska’s first black legislator representing the community from 1893 to 1897.  A world war brought the community’s beautiful interpretation of the so-called “New Negro Movement”, with a bustling commercial district along North 24th Street becoming a showcase of black culture.

A criminal class also took hold in the community at this time, with a few leaders who easily mingled with the city’s notorious boss. At the same time, the suburban push north merged Florence permanently into North Omaha, bringing the pioneer burg to the edge of the big city, along with Benson and the western neighborhoods of the community, including Gifford Park, Gold Coast, and Dundee.


More Ahead

I’ll write more about the middle history of North Omaha soon. Spanning from the late 1800s through the 1960s, it covers a vibrant time in the community’s cultural and architectural development. A powerful civil rights movement that preceded the national campaign, white flight, and other markers made this a huge time for all of Omaha, and particularly North Omaha.

Later, I’ll write about the 1970s through today in order to highlight the factual, deep, and poignant roots of the community that exists today. All this history definitively displays the need to preserve what has happened, and encourage what can happen. Its a nod to the future, too. Stay tuned.

 


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