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A Biography of Florence Kilborn

This is a biography of Florence Kilborn (c1854-1866), namesake of the Florence neighborhood in North Omaha.

James C. Mitchell (1810-1860) was a land speculator and opportunist in Kanesville, Iowa in the 1840s. When the Mormon pioneers established Winter Quarters across the Missouri River from Iowa, Mitchell and his investors saw the potential of the soon-to-be-squandered village developing near the water’s edge. He choose a name for his new town few people new the history of until recently. This is a biography of Florence Kilborn, the namesake of the City of Florence, Nebraska.


Florence Kilborn
This is Eliza Mitchell (1809-1881) with her granddaughter Florence Kilburn (1851-1866), for whom the town of Florence is named.

The story of Florence Vandenberg Kilborn, the namesake of the Florence neighborhood, begins with her step-grandfather almost two decades before she was born.

James C. Mitchell was a sea captain who married a widow in 1836. Bringing her from England to the U.S., they settled on the Mississippi River in a new town called Bellevue, Iowa, in 1840. In 1849, the Mitchell family moved to Kanesville, Iowa. While running a successful store there, he took the advice of influential local fur trapper Peter Sarpy and put together the Winter Quarters Town Company. Working with investors, he bought up all of the former Winter Quarters in the Indian Territory, located north of Kanesville across the Missouri River.

When part of the Indian Territory was named the Nebraska Territory and formally opened for settlement on May 30, 1854, the Winter Quarters Town Company immediately began campaigning to become the territory capital. However, Mitchell knew the town needed a better name and soon renamed it for his wife’s two-year-old granddaughter, Florence Vandenberg Kilborn.

Florence Kilborn circa 1861
This is an oil painting of Florence Kilborn, namesake of Florence, Nebraska, circa 1861. This is a family-owned artifact shared courtesy of Lois Erwin.

Florence Kilborn was the daughter of Nathaniel and Hannah Kosnik Vandenberg Kilborn. Nate and Hannah were married in 1846, and had five children. Hannah was the daughter of Eliza Mitchell, who was a widow that remarried James C. Mitchell. Florence was the step-granddaughter of Mitchell.

Born in Bellevue, Iowa in 1851, Florence Vandenberg Kilborn was sickly most of her life, and a beloved child in the family. Her parents had four other children, including Pearl (18??-18??), Hannah (1857-????), James (1852-1896) and Nathaniel (1868-????). However, only two of them lived to adulthood, Hannah and Nathaniel. Florence Kilborn was Hannah’s daughter.

1860 Census showing Florence Kilborn's birthdate as 1851.
In the 1860 census, Florence Kilborn is listed as being 9 years old, which would make her birthdate of 1851. Info courtesy of Cindy Turner Dodd.

A longtime store owner, James Mitchell also owned several other essential businesses in his new town, including a ferry, a saloon, a hotel and the newspaper. Originally called Winter Quarters, he also owned the majority of the town land company. In 1854, he decided to rename the town in honor of his sickly granddaughter. The town of Florence, Nebraska Territory, took off and grew quickly.

When Florence was four years old, she came to her town to stay with her grandmother and step-grandfather. The stately Mitchell House was reported to be a nice home, and little Florence and her grandmother had a picture taken together.

Florence Kilborn c.1867
This picture claims to be Florence Kilborn at age 15..

Florence died on April 18, 1866 in her hometown of Bellevue, Iowa. She was buried in the First Presbyterian Cemetery of that town.

Over the next several years, Florence’s siblings memorialized their fallen sister, with her brother James and sister Hannah separately naming their daughters after Florence. The named traveled in Hannah’s family for at least another generation.

In 1917, the City of Florence, Nebraska, was annexed into Omaha. However, the honor to Florence Vandenberg Kilborn continues today with the neighborhood, it’s school and several other places named after her.

Special thanks to Michaela Armetta, Michele Wyman, Jody Lovallo and John Lemen for their contributions to this article.

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