Books, Bibles, and Boosters: Colleges on the Urban Frontier of Nebraska Territory (1854-1867)
Wilhite, Ann L.
MA (Master of Arts), History
MA (Master of Arts), History
MetadataShow full item record
The story of early Nebraska has often been told. It is the story of a rural frontier: of sod houses, cow chips, grasshopper plagues, and sun-bronzed farmers. Forgotten is that Nebraska in the beginning was also an urban frontier. Before the prairie sod was plowed, towns such as Brownville, Nebraska City, and Omaha were platted. These Missouri River ports became hubs of economic and social activity and centers of culture, providing not only opportunity and sophistication, but also continuity with a life left behind. This thesis describes Nebraska's urban frontier in its first decade, concentrating on the symbols of culture and continuity: the city and the college. It is a story that cannot be told without the church; for the bearers of the banner of Christ were among the most prominent of culture- bearers in the West.That Nebraska Territory was part of an urban frontier should not be surprising. Americans generally have lost sight of their urban past in attempts to find national identity in the virtue and individuality of the yeoman farmer. In actuality, settlement on the North American continent has always included cities. As Professor Bohn U. Reps recounted in his book, Town Planning in Frontier America, urban planning began in December 1492 when Christopher Columbus erected a primitive military outpost on Santo Domingo. Whether Spanish, French, or British—colonists in the New World brought the seeds of civitas and urbanity. Europeans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries commonly assumed that civilized life meant urban life. The economy, politics, and culture of seventeenth-century England, for instance, centered in its cities. That New England's first inhabitants also focused on urban communities was only natural. Settlement began in 1620 with a town——as it had done thirteen years before when Britons planted their first American colony on the James River. From Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay, crowded and discontent colonists dispersed to Gloucester and Salem on Cape Ann and eventually to Wethersfield, Hartford, and Windsor on the Connecticut River. These three river towns in turn sent out new groups, resulting in the founding of ten additional communities.The urban pattern of settlement had begun. Agriculture remained a major occupation; yet, many colonists preferred city life. Towns provided companionship, economic opportunity, protection against Indian attacks, and continuity with the past. They continued an already established pattern of living. In addition, they represented refinement. Etymologically, "city" and "civilization" have a common root, as do "urban" and "urbane." Pioneers clearly felt that cities—as centers of commerce, culture, and communication——constituted a civilized state.Nebraskans in the Territorial years shared this view. They were not Natty Bumppos in a barbaric wilderness. They were predominantly Easterners who continued to look eastward as they acclimated westward. Images and symbols became important to both survival and prosperity. What better image could a young, raw society project than that of a land of cities? Cities nurtured culture—and the symbol of highest culture was the college.The story of Nebraska's nascent years has been written primarily from accounts of contemporaries: newspapers and periodicals, letters, diaries, legal records. Whenever possible, the flavor and immediacy of their words have been retained. Precision in the use of terms, such as "city," has seemingly been sacrificed. Yet, what actually is a city? The everyday concept is "a large locality." Historians and sociologists, however, have recognized the need to define "city" other than quantitatively. Lewis Mumford, author of the comprehensive City in History, attempted to summarize the city sociologically as "a geographic plexus, an economic organization, an institutional process, a theater of social actions, and an esthetic symbol of collective unity." Professor Robert S. Lopez of Yale University also has rejected any definition or classification based solely upon numerical figures. To do so would reduce many historical centers of creativity and action—such as medieval Paris and London or Calvin's Geneva—to mediocrity as rural communities. He, therefore, has identified four types of urban settlement: the stockade city with its kernel population, the agrarian city of landed elite, the market city of merchant leaders, and, finally, the industrial city. Ultimately, what the many definitions have in common is what urban theorist Max Weber recognized: "namely that the city consists simply of a collection of one or more separate dwellings but is a relatively closed settlement."As Dr. C. Howard Richardson confirmed, most early Nebraska residents lived in compact settlements. About 70 percent of the pioneer houses recorded by government land surveyors or estimated from other sources in 1856 and 1857 were located at townsites. The remaining 30 percent were dispersed within rural hinterlands.^ Therefore, in this thesis the eastern region of Nebraska Territory has been considered urban and its nucleated settlements as cities. In keeping with mid-nineteenth- century usage, the terms "city," "town," and "community" are used synonymously. The reader is urged to remember that the American urban vision in the 1850s was only beginning to include industry. Also, attaching the word "city" to a western settlement more often indicated hope and process than a demographic verity.The term "college" or "university" likewise expressed hope. The modest used "seminary"; the pretentious, "university." In reality, few of these embryo institutions offered more than what we would now recognize as upper elementary or secondary education courses. Retaining the imprecision of mid-nineteenth-century usage, and allowing for stylistic variety, this thesis has— except when specific institutions are named—used "college," "university," "school," "literary institution," and "institution of higher learning" interchangeably.The research and writing of "Books, Bibles, and Boosters" has required the diligence of many late hours, the services of many libraries, and the patience of many people. I particularly appreciate the understanding of Creighton University faculty and of family and friends who have endured my preoccupation and reclusiveness.For specific appreciation I single out the library staffs of the Nebraska State Historical Society, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Nebraska Wesleyan University and the Nebraska Methodist Conference Archives, Omaha Public, Midland Lutheran College, Grinnell College, Brown University, Boston Public, Chicago Theological Seminary and the Hammond Library, Garrett Biblical Institute, the American Baptist Historical Society, the Iowa Historical Society, the State Historical Society of Colorado in Denver, and the Illinois Historical Society.Above all, I thank Dr. Orville H. Zabel for his inspiration and guidance, Dr. Robert A. Schanke for his encouragement and criticism, Dr. Allan M. Schleich for his indulgence and kindness, and Dr. Charles S. Wilhite for his support and love.