A Visit to Nebraska Yields Connections With History

By Travel Writers

March 22, 2014 8 min read

By Kathryn Lemmon

How is American folk legend Wild Bill Hickock connected to the modern-day space shuttle? What national program signed into law by Abraham Lincoln is commemorated in Nebraska? The answers to these and other questions can be found in surprising Nebraska.

Rock Creek Station near Fairbury, Neb., holds a unique place in history as a crossroads of the California and Oregon trails and the short-lived Pony Express mail service. It was at Rock Creek that a young man named James Butler Hickok (later Wild Bill) and his accomplices killed three men. It can be tough to separate fact from fiction regarding Wild Bill, but Rock Creek is considered the place where his larger-than-life legend began.

His saga continues into the Kansas territory, where he switched sides and became a lawman. True to his name, Wild Bill was not destined for old age. He was shot in Deadwood, S.D., at age 39 during a poker game. He held black aces and eights, still famously known as the Dead Man's Hand.

Thanks to an old photograph found in the state archives in Sacramento, Calif., we know precisely how Rock Creek Station looked back in the day. Stations such as Rock Creek were the highway rest stops of the time. Animals needed food since travelers couldn't carry all the feed required for the journey, and the stations provided a much-needed break on the road west. Without them, early homesteaders and pioneers might never have reached their destination.

Development of the area as a state historical park began in 1980. The station still welcomes travelers, although few arrive in covered wagons. Rock Creek is still remote, open and quiet. The Sacramento image shows the log structures, a stagecoach and a man on horseback. The visitors center has a film and displays to view. Outside, well-worn wagon ruts made by oxen, horses and prairie schooners are still visible and thought-provoking.

Interestingly, the first man shot by Wild Bill at Rock Creek Station was David McCanles. His great-great-grandson is retired NASA astronaut Bruce McCandless II. (The spelling was altered.) As a space traveler he's a colorful character in his own right.

Wild Bill and two others were tried and acquitted in the small town of Beatrice, currently home to the Black Crow restaurant that offers a diverse lunch and dinner menu. One of their specialties is the best bread pudding I've ever tasted. The pressed-tin ceiling, once hidden and now restored, reveals the heritage of the building.

Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act in 1862, and it continued in effect until Ronald Reagan was president. The last person officially awarded a land grant was Kenneth Deardorff for his property in Alaska. He received the paperwork in 1988.

Nebraska is home to the national monument since the first homestead claims were filed there just after midnight on Jan. 1, 1863. The Heritage Center opened in May 2007. Their film, "Land of Dreams," is an excellent introduction to homesteading that includes the Native American perspective.

In a nutshell, the act provided free land in exchange for "proving up" the property. Settlers were required to build a dwelling and clear the land, among other things.

The dream of ownership brought people from around the world for a chance to stake a claim, but in the end a large percentage of homesteaders were unsuccessful. Poor-quality land for farming, harsh weather conditions and even grasshoppers were to blame.

Homesteading was not limited to the far western areas. Florida, Alaska and Michigan were part of the program. Thirty of the 50 states had homestead lands at some point during the time from 1863 to 1986.

In addition to the Homestead Monument and Rock Creek Station, history-lovers can visit the Lewis and Clark Center, also in the far southeastern corner of Nebraska, near Nebraska City. I've encountered Lewis and Clark from Illinois to Oregon. I'm no expert, but I am beginning to feel as if these gentlemen are distant relatives or long-lost friends. Nebraska offered another opportunity to delve into Bill and Meriweather's Excellent Adventure.

"Incredible" is too mild a word to describe their expedition. The phrase "you can't make this stuff up" comes to mind. It took a Native American woman, Sacagawea, to assure their success, and she had a baby to tend at the same time.

On a bluff overlooking the Missouri River, the Lewis and Clark Center focuses on the scientific discoveries made during the journey. Here visitors can contemplate the size of a keelboat sitting on the grounds. Small boats set against very big rivers — enough said. A map on the lower level highlights the enormity of their task. Maybe it was a good thing they didn't know exactly what lay ahead for them. Their ability to adapt and persevere never ceases to amaze.

WHEN YOU GO

For more information, visit www.visitnebraska.gov.

 Rock Creek Station State Historical Park near Fairbury, Neb., provides visitors with history about this part of Nebraska. Photo courtesy of the Nebraska Tourism Association.
Rock Creek Station State Historical Park near Fairbury, Neb., provides visitors with history about this part of Nebraska. Photo courtesy of the Nebraska Tourism Association.
 The Heritage Center at the Homestead National Monument of America is located in Nebraska because that's where the first homestead claims were filed in 1863. Photo courtesy of the Nebraska Tourism Association.
The Heritage Center at the Homestead National Monument of America is located in Nebraska because that's where the first homestead claims were filed in 1863. Photo courtesy of the Nebraska Tourism Association.
 The Freeman School at the Homestead National Monument of America in Nebraska shows visitors how people lived who crossed the country in covered wagons. Photo courtesy of the Nebraska Tourism Association.
The Freeman School at the Homestead National Monument of America in Nebraska shows visitors how people lived who crossed the country in covered wagons. Photo courtesy of the Nebraska Tourism Association.

Kathryn Lemmon is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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