A History of Enslavement in Nebraska

This is "A History of Enslavement in Nebraska" by Adam Fletcher Sasse for NorthOmahaHistory.com.

Enslaved people fought and struggled and battled against enslavement from the first ship coming to the English colonies in 1619. Contrary to what many historians have said, Nebraska didn’t escape slavery. People were enslaved here, a spur of the Underground Railroad (UGRR) ran though the southeast corner of the state, and many formerly enslaved people lived in Nebraska after the Civil War. As a lie told by pro-enslavers before the Civil War, people were told there was no slavery in the state, and afterwards people were taught the same in schools, books and the media.

However, as this article shows, it’s not that there weren’t slaves in Nebraska, it’s that white people past and present—including politicians, historians, government workers and teachers—have neglected and denied seeing them for the entire history of Nebraska.

Before you read further though, read this quote from William Wells Brown in 1847:

Slavery has never been represented; Slavery never can be represented… I may try to represent to you Slavery as it is; another may follow me and try to represent the condition of the Slave; we may all represent it as we think it is and yet we shall all fail to represent the real condition of the Slave.

—William Wells Brown, From A Lecture Delivered before the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, November 14, 1847

This article will fail to successful portray slavery, enslavement, and freedom seekers in Nebraska. However, it is my attempt to share some of the facts about what happened. Please leave your questions, comments, concerns, considerations and criticisms in the comments section.

Before It Was “Nebraska”

York, the first Black person in Omaha, Nebraska
A statue of York, the first Black person in the area that became Nebraska, who came through in 1804 as a slave of Meriwether Lewis on the Lewis and Clark expedition. This statue is in St. Louis; Omaha does not recognize York’s role in the city and Nebraska does not recognize his role in the state.

The first Black person in Nebraska was an explorer enslaved by the Spanish. Estevanico or Estaban (c. 1500–1539) was a Moor from Spain noted for his bravery and excellent relations with different Native Americans the explorers contacted on his journeys, possibly including a trip to southeast Nebraska in 1540. After his killing by indigenous people in modern-day New Mexico, Estevanico became a legendary folk hero in Spain. He was owned by Antonio de Mendoza, the Viceroy of New Spain, and traveled to Nebraska with Francisco Vasquez de Coronado.

After the U.S. made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, it was legal to have slaves in Nebraska until 1861.

York was an enslaved man who came to the future state with the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804. After that, there were enslaved people at Fort Lisa near present-day North Omaha during its existence from 1812 to 1820.

Some anti-bellum Army officers in the Nebraska Territory were enslavers. They were at the Missouri Encampment near North Omaha from 1819 to 1820, and the subsequent Fort Atkinson from 1820 to 1827 near present-day Ft. Calhoun. Renowned Black mountain man James Beckwourth (1800-1866) was a formerly enslaved man who traveled through Fort Atkinson.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 ensured slavery was legal in the Louisiana Territory. The could be legal in the new Nebraska Territory. More than 30 years later, Congress renegotiated the compromise with Republicans acquiescing to Democrats with the idea that slavery wouldn’t happen in the state because of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Nearby, Cabenné’s Trading Post had enslaved people from 1820 to 1832.

At the beginning of 1854, a Northern Democrat senator who believed in enslavement named Stephen A. Douglas proposed a transcontinental railroad to promote western settlement. He knew it would be a huge moneymaker and he wanted in on the action! To get the votes form racist Southern Democrats also committed to enslavement, Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act that divided the once-huge Nebraska territory into the Kansas Territory and Nebraska Territory. Settlers in these new territories would be able to vote whether they would allow slavery or not. They thought Nebraska would not allow slaves.

There were also enslaved people at the first Fort Kearny near Nebraska City from 1844 to 1848, and at the second Fort Kearny near present-day Kearney from 1848-1861. A formerly enslaved man came to the Omaha area in 1846 on a buffalo hunt with his enslaver.

The Church of Latter Day Saints held enslaved people at Winter Quarters from 1846 to 1848, and they traveled through while the location was active through 1861. Jacob Bankhead was the first recorded death of an enslaved person in Nebraska. He was traveling through the area with the Church of Latter Day Saints and is buried in an unmarked grave in the Mormon Cemetery in Florence.

Enslaved people in Nebraska before it was organized into a territory included…

  1. (1540) Estevanico (c. 1500–1539), owned by Antonio de Mendoza, the Viceroy of New Spain, in southeast Nebraska
  2. (1804) York, (1770–75 – after 1815), owned by William Clark, on the western banks of the Missouri River
  3. (1812-1820) Enslaved people, names and number unknown, at Fort Lisa near North Omaha
  4. (1819-1820) Enslaved people, names and number unknown, at the Cantonment Missouri near North Omaha
  5. (1820-1827) Enslaved people, names and number unknown, at Fort Atkinson near Ft. Calhoun
  6. (1820-1832) Enslaved people, names and number unknown, at Cabenné’s Post near North Omaha
  7. (1844-1848) Enslaved people, names and number unknown, at first Fort Kearny near Nebraska City
  8. (1846-1847) Hark Lay Wales (1825–1881), at Winter Quarters in North Omaha
  9. (1846-1847) Green Flake (1828-1903), at Winter Quarters in North Omaha
  10. (1846-1847) Henry Brown (18??–18??), at Winter Quarters in North Omaha
  11. (1846-1847) Jane Manning James (1813–1908), at Winter Quarters in North Omaha
  12. (1848) Jacob Bankhead (18??–1848), at Winter Quarters in North Omaha
  13. (1848-1861) Enslaved people, names and number unknown, at second Fort Kearny near Kearney

Slavery In the Nebraska Territory

The Nebraska First Territorial Capital was completed in 1855, and is where young Tom Cuming would've governed the Nebraska Territory.
The First Territorial Capital of Nebraska was completed in Omaha in 1855. This is where many of the early debates about slavery in Nebraska happened.

Feelings against the self-determination of the Kansas-Nebraska Act were strong and a campaign called the Anti-Nebraska Movement spread across the country. This movement actually led to the formation of the Republican Party, created to be staunchly anti-slavery and to stop the Nebraska Territory from allowing slavery. It failed though, and the new Nebraskans were able to choose whether slavery would be allowed. While a few southern Nebraskans were recorded enslaving Black people, many northern Nebraskan politicians repeatedly said in the newspapers and the legislature that slavery did not exist in the territory and did not need to be addressed in law. Whether this was willful ignorance or genuine naivety is unclear. 

Bringing his family and at least five enslaved people to the territory in early 1854, businessman Stephen Nuckolls founded Nebraska City on July 10, 1854. In 1855, a census recorded 13 enslaved people statewide, mostly in Nebraska City. According to the US census in 1860, there were 10 enslaved people in the territory, and 71 free Black people. However, counting the known enslaved people living in military forts in the territory, Nebraska had far more enslaved people than Kansas at the time.

Early newspapers reported that in Omaha, “Nearly all the federal office holders were from the south and they brought with them a negro slave or two as servants.” A Southerner named Edward K. Hardin was appointed as one of the United States judges for the territory and came to Omaha in 1854 with his “colored body servant,” a euphemism for an enslaved person.

Here are the identities of known enslaved people who were in Nebraska after the territory began and before slavery became illegal in 1861.

  1. (1854-1860) Enslaved people, names and number unknown, in Omaha
  2. (c.1854-c.1860) Enslaved person, name and age unknown, owned by James C. Mitchell in Florence
  3. (c.1854-c.1860) Enslaved person, name and age unknown, owned by James C. Mitchell in Florence
  4. (c.1854-c.1860) Enslaved person, name and age unknown, owned by James C. Mitchell in Florence
  5. (c.1854-c.1860) Enslaved person, name and age unknown, owned by James C. Mitchell in Florence
  6. (1854-18??) Enslaved people, names and number unknown, owned by Charles F. Hally in Nebraska City
  7. (1855-1857) Enslaved man, owned by Mark W. Izard in Omaha
  8. (1855) Enslaved man, owned by Charles A. Goshen in Nebraska City
  9. (1858) Hercules, male owned by Judge Charles Holly in Nebraska City
  10. (1858) Martha or Dinah, female owned by Judge Charles Holly in Nebraska City
  11. (1858) Enslaved female, name and gender unknown, owned by Robert Kirkham in Nebraska City
  12. (1860) Shade (?), male owned by Stephen Nuckolls in Nebraska City
  13. (1860) Shack Grayson, male owned by Stephen Nuckolls in Nebraska City
  14. (1860) Eliza Grayson (1840-????), female owned by Stephen Nuckolls in Nebraska City
  15. (1860) Celia, female owned by Stephen Nuckolls in Nebraska City
  16. (1860) Enslaved man owned by Stephen Nuckolls in Nebraska City
  17. (1860) Enslaved person, name unknown, owned by Alexander Majors in Nebraska City
  18. (1860) Enslaved person, name unknown, owned by Alexander Majors in Nebraska City
  19. (1860) Enslaved person, name unknown, owned by Alexander Majors in Nebraska City
  20. (1860) Enslaved person, name unknown, owned by Alexander Majors in Nebraska City
  21. (1860) Enslaved person, name unknown, owned by Alexander Majors in Nebraska City
  22. (1860) Enslaved person, name unknown, owned by Alexander Majors in Nebraska City

The tension about enslavement in Nebraska was palpable, and in 1858 it took a new form. Rebellious pro-slavery radicals from Otoe and Cass Counties wanted to suceed from their counties and form a new one called Strickland County where slavery would be legal and promoted. After this was put down by the territorial legislature, a group of legislators banded together to promote “South Platte,” meaning anything in Nebraska south of the Platte River, becoming annexed to Kansas. While this proposal failed, the notion of the South Platte counties being pro-slavery and anti-Black stayed for decades after.

However, at the same time, freedom seekers were moving along the Lane Trail through the South Platte in significant numbers.

Traveling On The Lane Trail

“There is no way of arriving at a correct estimate of the number of slaves that were assisted on the Nebraska line, but it is safe to say there were several hundred. The work taught those who were held as slaves in Nebraska territory that there were on free soil, of which they soon took advantage.”

Alice A. Minick, 1896

As early as 1857, enslaved people in Nebraska became freedom seekers. Escaping their kidnappers and enslavers, these people traveled to Iowa where slavery was illegal, and either stayed there or continued north, often to Canada. In Missouri, which relied on enslaved people to build the state, and Kansas, where enslavement was growing in popularity, freedom seekers quickly learned they could get to freedom through the Underground Railroad in Nebraska.

Operating from Topeka, the Underground Railroad needed a safe passage to shuttle freedom seekers north into Iowa. As the Nebraska Territory opened for settlement and more pioneers moved in, a group called the Anti-Nebraska activists came. They were anti-slavery and pro-democracy and deliberately came to Kansas and Nebraska to fight enslavement.

These people faced dangers from enslavers, kidnappers, and others who profited from enslaving Black people. These hateful, hurt people believed Black people were sub-human, less than white people and were intended to be enslaved. They lived in Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska. They formed the strongest resistance to freedom seekers in Missouri, lining the route to the new territory with traps and ambushes to scare away, beat, or kill the so-called “Free Staters.”

The “Free Staters” were white people from the Eastern U.S. to keep Nebraska from becoming a slave labor state. To keep them safe, in 1856 abolitionist leader John Brown fought Bleeding Kansas and attacks on these settlers along the Missouri River. An Abolitionist militia leader in Kansas named James H. Lane (1814-1866), made the Lane Trail to safely move Free Staters from Iowa into Kansas by creating a route from Iowa through southeast Nebraska and into Kansas.

However, because of an Abolitionist doctor in Civil Bend, Iowa, named Dr. Ira Blanchard it actually had two functions. In 1856, Dr. Blanchard proposed to John Brown that the Lane Trail would be “the most practical route for transporting fugitives in Kansas to freedom in Canada.”

From then on, by day, the Lane Trail protected the white Free-Staters moving from the pro-slavery terrorists in Missouri, and at night it was an arm of the Underground Railroad for freedom seekers to escape to the north from Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska. Rock piles and tall bunches of grass in the prairies called “Lane’s chimneys” marked the path.

In 1857, the town of Falls City was founded by abolitionists who actively supported John Brown as he moved formerly enslaved people through the area. Until 1860, there was a hotel in Falls City used as a regular base of operations for the Underground Railroad, including John Brown and Jim Lane himself.

  • Station 1: The first station in Nebraska was located on a farm just outside of Falls City. Built in 1857, it was a barn belonging to David and Ann Dorrington in Falls City was used to harbor formerly enslaved people traveling on the Underground Railroad along the Lane Trail. There were several places around Falls City used to hide freedom seekers.
  • Stop 1: The next stop was a former town called St. Deroin. There, a half-Indian and half-French man named Antonine Barada (1807-1885) was called the “Lifeguard of the Missouri” because of his reputation for saving several slaves from drowning by personally carrying them across the Missouri River near where he lived
  • Stop 2: An Underground Railroad station was located in Nemaha from 1856 to 1859, when it was one of John Brown’s last stops in Nebraska before leaving for Harper’s Ferry. Furnished with “a stove and benches,” Brown had men, women and children freedom seekers in his last journey.
  • Departure Point 1: After St. Deroin, the Lane Trail and the Underground Railroad went to Brownville and if possible, freedom seekers crossed the Missouri River
  • Station 2: One of the most important stops along this trail was a cabin outside of Nebraska City owned by Barbara (1833-1882) and Allen (1826-1862) Mayhew. Barbara’s brother John Henri Kagi (1835-1859) was John Brown’s second-in-command, and was likely responsible for the Jim Lane Trail leading to their doorstep. The Mayhew Cabin stands today as a testament to the role Nebraska played in the Underground Railroad.
  • Departure Point 2: Crossing on the ferry in Nebraska City, the route of freedom seekers then went to Tabor, Iowa, and on to Iowa City. There, they would depart for Chicago and often, Canada.

John Brown in Nebraska

This headline about John Brown is from the Nebraska City News on Saturday, February 12th, 1859.
This headline about John Brown is from the Nebraska City News on Saturday, February 12th, 1859.

Much of this movement in Nebraska was led by John Brown (1800-1859) himself. Despite what current reports say, the newspapers in Nebraska from that era detail specific dates and numbers of enslaved people Brown brought north on the trail. Multiple times, John Brown met with Abolitionists along the way who the groups sheltered with, shunned blatantly racist towns, and trained his militia about the way. Shuttling slaves along this route through Cass, Otoe, Johnson and Pawnee Counties, Brown also traveled through Nemaha and Richardson Counties. He was the inspirational, deliberate and powerful Abolitionist activist who would soon die at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia—but not before he changed Nebraska forever. Brown got to Kansas in 1855. Some events and dates of John Brown’s time in Nebraska include:

  • July 23, 1856: John Brown’s first trip from Kansas to Nebraska City to scout the route.
  • October 8, 1856: John Brown escapes capture by Lieutenant Cooke near Nebraska City with an enslaved man.
  • October 27, 1856: John Brown goes through Nebraska to Chicago and the east.
  • Fall 1857: Brown goes back to Kansas through Nebraska.
  • November 17, 1857: Brown arrives in Nebraska City offering to break a jailed freedom seeker from jail in Nebraska City and bring him to Tabor, where Abolitionists have funding for their costs. They refuse to pay and the enslaved man disappeared from the record.
  • December 12, 1858:
  • February 11, 1859: John Brown and 75 militia members on horses escorted a group of 11 freedom seekers through Nebraska.

When John Brown left Nebraska and was murdered later, his demise wasn’t the end of freedom seekers coming to the state. In August 1860, a group of nineteen formerly enslaved people stayed over in Wyoming, now a ghost town on Hwy 75 north of Nebraska City. On August 18, 1860 a group of six or more freedom seekers accompanied by 30-40 Abolitionists “armed to the teeth” were reported in Salem, west of Falls City. Freedom seekers also didn’t move in conveniently prescribed routes, either: In 1858, a formerly enslaved man call Phillips started staying in Dakota City, and lived there for almost a year until rumors of his presence were made widely known. Then, Abolitionists came from across the river to rescue him back to Iowa. After that he wasn’t heard from again.

Troubles Along the Trail

Freedom seekers and other people were fighting and dying to end enslavement, and those troubles continued along the Jim Lane Trail.

There was a bloody shootout between formerly enslaved people and kidnappers at the Nebraska House in Brownville that same year, in 1857. Three Black people had escaped from Platte County, Missouri, and made it to a hotel called the Nebraska House once located at the corner of Water Street and Steam Boat Trace Trail in Brownville. One formerly enslaved person was shot and jailed. After a speedy trial found him not guilty of shooting the kidnappers, he was sent back to enslavement in Missouri. The other two freedom seekers escaped.

In 1857, a brigade of Abolitionists gathered outside of Nebraska City. The Abolitionist militia rushed the city to find and free enslaved people there. Soon after, they converged on the farm of Nebraska City’s founder, who was enslaving at least four people then. Searching around, the militia could not find him and left. Apparently, Nuckolls hid his enslaved people in the Missouri River bottoms near the town.

A legislator from Nemaha County introduced a bill in Nebraska’s territorial legislature in 1858 “to abolish slavery in the territory of Nebraska.” The bill was eventually tabled.

Two enslaved men called Shade Grayson and Shack Grayson might have escaped from Stephen Nuckolls between 1857 and 1858. Shack operated a printing press in Nuckolls’ Nebraska City bank.

Noted businessmen in Nebraska City relied on enslaved people to build their wealth, and in 1860 several escaped their captors. Alexander Majors (1814-1900) was a founder of the Pony Express in St. Joe, Missouri, who moved to Nebraska City in 1856, bringing six enslaved people with him. On June 30, 1860, they became successful freedom seekers on the Lane Trail. Judge Charles Holly owned two enslaved people, and Robert Kirkham owned two. He owned an enslaved woman when he lived in Nemaha County earlier.

On December 5, 1860, despite a law against it, the Otoe County sheriff auctioned two enslaved people called “Uncle Hercules” and Martha or “Aunt Dinah” in front of the county courthouse in Nebraska City. They were owned by Judge Holly, who fell behind on payments on a credit and the sheriff seized his property. Auctioning the enslaved people, they were taken to Missouri to continue their captivity. There were no repercussions for this public sale, which was technically illegal at the time.

The Eliza Grayson Case

In 1858, an enslaved person from that farm named Eliza Grayson and a younger woman called Celia escaped from the Nuckolls’ house in Nebraska City on the Underground Railroad into Iowa, just across the Missouri River. There may have been a third person with them. Apparently, Eliza met a man from Iowa named John Williamson who said he’d help them escape. Williamson, a mixed man with Black and Native parents, was a freeman with papers who traded butter, eggs, and trinkets with farmers on both sides of the Missouri River. He was a suspected conductor on the Underground Railroad, and did his work with Eliza and Celia.

Going through the darkness, current research suggest the group crossed the river about six miles north of Nebraska City. Historical accounts say they got across the river on ice flows that were jamming it up. He got them across and brought them to Civil Bend, Iowa, which was a Black town near the Abolitionist town of Tabor. These towns were both safe havens at different times along the UGRR.

Discovering the women were missing, Nuckolls raised a posse the next day. There were 17 men on horseback, and Nuckolls offered a reward of $200 for the person who kidnapped these freedom seekers.

Using posses and professional kidnappers, Nuckolls hunted for her for two years. While Nuckolls hunted across Iowa with his posse, they beat a Black Abolitionist who he believed helped his slaves escape. In 1859, the man sued Nuckolls, and for the first time in history, a Black man was allowed to testify against a white man in an Iowa court.

In November 1860, Nuckolls and a professional kidnapper found Grayson in Chicago. After trying to capture her, city marshals arrested both Nuckolls and Grayson for disturbing the peace. Grayson was freed from the jail by an abolitionist mob and escaped to Canada, and was never heard from again. ,In 1861, there was a grand jury trial in Chicago against nine people in the “Eliza Grayson Freedom Case” under the pretense of violating the Fugitive Slave Act. After moving up from a district court to a circuit court, the case was dropped.

As a footnote, in 1860, Williamson, along with Henry Garner and Maria Garner, was kidnapped and brought to be taken to St. Louis and sold into enslavement. Williamson managed to escape, but his sister Maria and Henry were taken to St. Louis. They were found there and released after being proven to be freemen who lived in Civil Bend. The kidnappers were arrested and put in jail in Council Bluffs, but escaped before their trial.

The End of the Trail

A reflection on the Lane Trail from Alice A. Minick in 1896 said, “There is no way of arriving at a correct estimate of the number of slaves that were assisted on the Nebraska line, but it is safe to say there were several hundred. The work taught those who were held as slaves in Nebraska territory that there were on free soil, of which they soon took advantage.”

In 1859, John Brown left Nebraska for Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. There, he began the largest violent insurrection against slavery ever in the United States. He failed, was captured and hung for his efforts.

Media Manipulation

Early Nebraska newspapers openly identified as either Republican or Democrat, which was a signal for anti-slavery or pro-slavery. Their morals were obvious in what news was printed in the papers, and how they referred to enslaved and free Black people.

In 1859, the Daily Nebraskian newspaper reported that it favored slavery: “The bill introduced in [Omaha City] Council, for the abolition of slavery in this Territory, was called up Yterday [sic], and its further consideration postponed for two weeks. A strong effort will be made among the Republicans to secure its passage; we think, however, it will fail. The farce certainly cannot be enacted if the Democrats do their duty.”

An anonymous article called “Nebraska and the N—–” was printed in the Nebraska City News in 1860. Condemning Republicans for trying to end slavery in the territory, the writer asked, “Have either of you ever been injured by slavery in Nebraska?” and “Have any of you any fear that you will be injured from that source?”

These were typical of pro-slavery newspapers in this era.

Dr. George Miller started the Omaha Daily Herald in 1865. Before that he served in the Nebraska Territory Legislature and shared his pro-slavery view that slavery simply didn’t exist in the territory. Never an Abolitionist, he was an American nationalist and established the Nebraska Regiment to go fight rebel states in 1860. Today, he is remembered with a park, school and neighborhood in North Omaha named after him. His newspaper continues operating today as the Omaha World-Herald.

It was 1860 when the Nebraska City newspaper published a demand that the territory ban Black people entirely by printing, “Cannot this be kept sacred as a home for white men – a field for white labor…?”

Slaves for Army Officers

This is an 1858 image of Fort Kearny, Nebraska. There were enslaved people here when this pic was taken. Image from Wikipedia.
This is an 1858 image of Fort Kearny, Nebraska. There were enslaved people here when this pic was taken. Image from Wikipedia.

There were enslaved people at Fort Kearny near Nebraska City from 1844 to 1848, and then when the base was moved to the present-day city of Kearney, there continued to be enslaved people there from 1848 to 1863. They were owned by officers at the fort, who were assumed to be southern. Slavery there ended in 1861 when it became illegal in Nebraska. In the 1860 US Census, there were several enslaved people at the second Fort Kearny. Following is a list of known enslaved people at Army installations in Nebraska.

  1. (1820-1827) Enslaved people, names and number unknown, at Fort Atkinson
  2. (1844-1848) Enslaved people, names and number unknown, at the first Fort Kearny
  3. (1860) Mary Cheroot, age 45 from Missouri at Fort Kearny
  4. (1860) Mary Badeau, age 35 from Missouri at Fort Kearny
  5. (1860) Henry Cheroot, age 10 from Missouri at Fort Kearny
  6. (1860) Charlotte, age 26 from Missouri at Fort Kearny
  7. (1860) James, age 15 from Missouri at Fort Kearny
  8. (1860) Jane Steele, age 31 from Kentucky at Fort Kearny
  9. (1860) Israel, age 14 from Florida at Fort Kearny
  10. (1860) Jane, age 18 from Kentucky at Fort Kearny

Other Underground Railroad Sites in Nebraska

There were other stops on the Underground Railroad in Nebraska that were not on the Lane Trail. Formerly enslaved people who went north of Nebraska City towards Omaha stayed in a storehouse near the former town of Wyoming, Nebraska, more than once, and in August 1860 a brigade of 40 people, including John Brown and other anti-slavery fighters, protected a group of 19 formerly enslaved people in Salem. 

The Underground Railroad veered as far west as Table Rock, Nebraska. Several people in the city were involved in moving formerly enslaved people through the town at least twice, but many other times according to local lore. Today there are burial sites for Abolitionists who lived there in the local cemetery.

Formerly Enslaved People in Nebraska

Additionally, there were many formerly enslaved people living throughout Nebraska after the Civil War. Some of the most notable included:

  • Sallie Sylvester (1812-1920), Omaha—Oldest person in Omaha when she died at 108
  • S.J. “July” Miles (1849-1941), Omaha—Oldest surviving African American Civil War veteran in Nebraska when he died
  • Robert Ball Anderson (1843-1930) of Box Butte County—Largest Black land holder in Nebraska when he died
  • Anderson Bell (1838-1903) of Omaha—
  • Richard “General” Curry (1831-1885) of Omaha—Local political leader
  • George W. Mattingly (1841-1924) of Butler County—
  • Josiah “Professor” Waddle (1849-1939) of Omaha—Local musician and band leader
  • Lewis Washington (1800-1898) of Omaha—Abolitionist speaker and local political activist
  • John Flanagan (1791-1905) of Omaha—Oldest person in Nebraska he she died at 114
  • Phillip King (1822-1888) of Omaha—
  • Thomas Brown (1829-1923) of Omaha—
  • Edwin Overall (1835-1901) of Omaha—Local Civil Rights advocate and government worker
  • Frank Walker (1813-1915) of Omaha—Local real estate holder
  • William R. Gamble (c.1850-1910)—Local community leader
  • Cyrus D. Bell (1848-1925)—Local lawyer and political leader
  • Archie Richmond (1838-1893)—Longtime print machine operator at the Omaha Bee
  • Lizzie Robinson (1860-1945) of Omaha—Congregation starter for the Church of God in Christ
  • Ophelia Clenlans (c1841-1907) of Omaha—Local political activist and community leader
  • Joseph E. Payne (1861-1936) of Omaha—
  • John Taylor (1847-1912) of Omaha—Said to be the “only slave” in Omaha when he died

There are literally thousands of other formerly enslaved people who lived in Nebraska.

Stalemate for Statehood

“But the fact is indisputable. African slavery does practically exist in Nebraska. Our eyes can not deceive us, and if slavery is wrong, morally, socially, or politically, it is wrong to hold one slave. There is no distinction in principle between holding one human being in bondage and ten thousand.”

—William H. Taylor, legislator from Otoe County in 1855

It was 1861 before the Nebraska Territorial Legislature voted to make slavery illegal. President Abraham Lincoln made the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 to free all enslaved people in the United States, and two years later the eleven rebel states were forced to do the same by losing the Civil War. It took six years for Nebraska to become an anti-slave state. Before that, there were no fewer than 10 votes on anti-slavery legislation that did not pass.

J. Sterling Morton (1832-1902) is a revered Nebraska statesman and founder of National Arbor Day. He was also a deep racist who stood devoutly dedicated to white supremacy, for enslavement, against equality, and with the South before and after the Civil War. Summarizing his beliefs in 1865 he wrote, “It will be more manly to accept negro suffrage by legal enforcement than to humiliate ourselves by its voluntary adoption as the price of admission to the Union… We take n—–s only when forced to it by Congress and therefore are for remaining at present a territory.”

[Adam’s Note: To illustrate the pungent nature of white supremacy, Morton wrote the first school book about the history of Nebraska, used for more than 75 years to teach the state’s history. Guess what topic and which people aren’t mentioned in the 362 page book?]

For more than a decade, racism prevented the Nebraska Territory from becoming a state. Congress refused to grant statehood while the state’s constitution made African American suffrage illegal. With the end of the Civil War, on February 20, 1867, territorial Governor Alvin Saunders called a special session of the legislature to strike the word “white” from the draft state constitution. This allowed for Black Nebraskans to vote, own land, hold political office, and otherwise become citizens. President Andrew Johnson signed a proclamation granting Nebraska statehood on March 1, 1867. Nebraska was the first and only state to grant suffrage to Black men under a specific mandate imposed by Congress.

Remembering Slavery in Nebraska Today

This is a map of the estimated route of the Lane Trail in southeast Nebraska.
This is a map of the estimated route of the Lane Trail in southeast Nebraska.

Popular history records three stations on the Underground Railroad in Nebraska in Falls City, Nemaha, and Nebraska City. However, newspapers from 1855-1861 share many other locations along the route.

Between 2011 and 2016, a history teacher named Barry Jurgenson at Arlington High School researched a dozen sites related to the Underground Railroad in Nebraska. Before they started, there was one site in the state on the National Park Service Trail to Freedom, which is the official federal government list of sites related to the Underground Railroad. After their service learning project, there are a dozen sites listed. Following are a few in southeast Nebraska.

  1. Mayhew Cabin at 2012 4th Corso Street near Nebraska City.
  2. Dorrington House and Barn Site at 1601 Stone Street in Falls City. A former stop on the Underground Railroad, today the house is preserved for its historical role. The barn belonging to the Dorringtons was used to harbor formerly enslaved people traveling the Underground Railroad.The barn was burned down decades ago.
  3. Nuckolls Residence Site at Corner of 5th and Main (Central Avenue) in Nebraska City. This is the site where most enslaved people in Nebraska were held by a virulent enslaver.
  4. Barbara Ann Kagey Mayhew Bradway Burial Site in the Camp Creek Cemetery at S. 70th and P Street in Otoe County.
  5. Nebraska House Site at corner of Water Street and Steam Boat Trace Trail in Brownville. A bloody shootout happened here between kidnappers and freedom seekers. Two made it out and one was enslaved again.

Other sites in Nebraska related to the Underground Railroad uncovered by Mr. Jurgenson and his students include…

  1. Table Rock Cemetery at 9th St and Pennsylvania Street in Table Rock. Several white Abolitionists are buried here. They are presumed to have been active conductors on the Underground Railroad who ushered freedom seekers to the West.
  2. Robert Ball Anderson Burial Site in Hemingford Cemetery in the town of Hemingford. Anderson, was a successful freedom seeker who built a massive real estate portfolio in western Nebraska and was inspirational to many neighbors for generations.

In 2016, Jurgensen and three students raised $26,000 for a nonprofit organization called Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives by completing the 527-mile journey from Nebraska City to Chicago, which is what Eliza Grayson and Celia completed in 1860.

As of January 2023, the State of Nebraska offers no program or tour to help people visit the Lane Trail. There are historic markers related to the trail in Falls City and Nebraska City. There is no maker from History Nebraska or any other state-level program acknowledging the role of freedom seekers in the Nebraska Territory.

In my research, I have uncovered the stories of Edwin Overall (1835-1901), a once-enslaved man who became a conductor on the Underground Railroad in Chicago before moving to Omaha and fighting for Civil Rights. Lewis Washington (1800-1898) was a freedom seeker who became a popular Abolitionist activist speaker in New England before the Civil War, and gained new popularity in Wisconsin after the war before moving to Nebraska in 1880. Several other Nebraskans had important roles in the Underground Railroad, Abolitionist movement, and related activities nationally and in Nebraska.

Other sites I have identified as related to the Underground Railroad, slavery, and formerly enslaved people in Nebraska include…

  1. S.J. “July” Miles Burial Site at Forest Lawn in Omaha
  2. Anderson Bell Burial Site at Forest Lawn in Omaha
  3. Lizzie Robinson Burial Site at Mt. Hope in Omaha
  4. Richard “General” Curry Burial Site in Omaha
  5. Josiah “Professor” Waddle Burial Site at Forest Lawn in Omaha
  6. Lewis Washington Burial Site at Forest Lawn in Omaha
  7. John Flanagan Burial Site at Forest Lawn in Omaha
  8. Phillip King Burial Site at Forest Lawn in Omaha
  9. Thomas Brown Burial Site at Forest Lawn in Omaha
  10. Edwin Overall Burial Site at Prospect Hill in Omaha
  11. Frank Walker Burial Site at Fairview Cemetery in Council Bluffs
  12. Site of the First Territorial Capital of Nebraska located on South 9th Street between Douglas and Farnam Streets in Omaha
  13. George W. Mattingly Burial Site in David City
  14. Fort Robinson State Park in Crawford where many formerly enslaved men served in the Army as Buffalo Soldiers after the Civil War
  15. Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge near Valentine where many formerly enslaved men served in the Army as Buffalo Soldiers after the Civil War
  16. Unnamed African Americans Burial Site at Laurel Hill in Omaha
  17. Fort Atkinson State Park near Fort Calhoun where several enslaved people were held by Army officers
  18. Site of the first Fort Kearny State Park near Nebraska City where several enslaved people were held by Army officers
  19. Site of the second Fort Kearny State Park near Kearney where several enslaved people were held by Army officers
  20. Sallie Sylvester Burial Site at Forest Lawn in Omaha
  21. Ophelia Clenlans Burial Site at Forest Lawn in Omaha (Unmarked grave)
  22. Joseph E. Payne Burial Site at Prospect Hill Cemetery in Omaha
  23. John E. Taylor Burial Site at Forest Lawn

Remembering Slavery in Nebraska Today

All of this shows us that at least 50 people experienced slavery in Nebraska before it was made illegal in 1861. It also proves my point:

It’s not so much that there weren’t slaves in Nebraska, it’s that white people—including politicians, historians, government workers and teachers—have denied and neglected to see them throughout the entire history of Nebraska.

-Adam Fletcher Sasse

Today, slavery is called “human trafficking,” and it happens across the entire state. There are government task forces, nonprofits, and university programs focusing on the issue, and more needs to be done.

In 2023, Nebraska City’s main enslaver Stephen Nuckolls continues to be celebrated as the namesake of Nuckolls County, Nebraska, and of Nuckolls Square Park in Nebraska City. Rabid racist pro-enslavement politician John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) still has a town in Nebraska named for him, and many of the early pro-slavery legislators in Nebraska have counties, towns, schools and more named for them.

Meanwhile, there is no monument, placard or historical marker in Nebraska related to the role of either enslaved people or formerly enslaved people in building the state of Nebraska, including Omaha, Lincoln, Grand Island, North Platte, Valentine, or Nebraska City, as well as the dozens of other towns and counties where they lived.

Special thanks to Michaela Armetta and Ryan Roenfeld for their assistance with this article!

You Might Like…

MY ARTICLES RELATED TO SLAVERY IN NEBRASKA
Formerly Enslaved People:
Robert Ball Anderson | Anderson Bell | Edwin Overall | Josiah “Professor” Waddle | Lewis Washington |
Pro-Slavery People:
George Miller

MY ARTICLES ABOUT CIVIL RIGHTS IN OMAHA
General: History of Racism | Timeline of Racism
Events: Juneteenth | Malcolm X Day | George Smith Lynching | Will Brown Lynching | North Omaha Riots | Vivian Strong Murder | Jack Johnson Riot
Issues: African American Firsts in Omaha | Police Brutality | North Omaha African American Legislators | North Omaha Community Leaders | Segregated Schools | Segregated Hospitals | Segregated Hotels | Segregated Sports | Segregated Businesses | Segregated Churches | Redlining | African American Police | African American Firefighters
People: Rev. Dr. John Albert Williams | Edwin Overall | Harrison J. Pinkett | Vic Walker | Joseph Carr | Rev. Russel Taylor | Dr. Craig Morris | Mildred Brown | Dr. John Singleton | Ernie Chambers | Malcolm X
Organizations: Omaha Colored Commercial Club | Omaha NAACP | Omaha Urban League | 4CL (Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Rights) | DePorres Club | Omaha Black Panthers | City Interracial Committee | Providence Hospital | American Legion | Elks Club | Prince Hall Masons | BANTU
Related: Black History | African American Firsts | A Time for Burning

Elsewhere Online

MORE

These are drawings of the former slave quarters at the Mitchell House in the Florence neighborhood. James C. Mitchell was the founder of the town of Florence.
These are drawings of the former slave quarters at the Mitchell House in the Florence neighborhood. James C. Mitchell was the founder of the town of Florence.
This is from "South Platte annexation to Kansas—Morton" in the Bellevue Gazette on January 21, 1858, on p. 2.
This is from “South Platte annexation to Kansas—Morton” in the Bellevue Gazette on January 21, 1858, on p. 2.
Lewis Washington (1800-1898) was a famous abolitionist, noted lecturer and minister who moved to Omaha around 1880. In Omaha, Washington was involved in politics and community leadership. He is buried at Forest Lawn. Public domain image.
Lewis Washington (1800-1898) was a famous abolitionist, noted lecturer and minister who moved to Omaha around 1880. In Omaha, Washington was involved in politics and community leadership. He is buried at Forest Lawn. Read the article here »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s