Omaha: A Gateway to the West

Map of Omaha City, Nebraska

Map of Omaha, Nebraska in 1866. Taken from the David Rumsey collection, this map shows Omaha 12 years after its incorporation in 1854. Nebraska would go on to become the 37th state in the year following this map's creation.

Omaha is a town on the Western bank of the Missouri River in Eastern Nebraska. Incorporated into the Nebraska Territory in 1854, the city was a crucial stopping point for many an individual and families heading to the west on several trails including the Oregon Trail, California Trail, and Mormon Trail. Many of these groups, such as the Mormons, came on foot, by horseback, or by covered wagon while others were passengers aboard paddle and steamboats that stopped in the area, allowing for many distinct groups of people to move to the city. Until the late 1880s to 1900s, Omaha was still considered to be a frontier town, a stopover point after crossing the Missouri River.

The area of Omaha was known to contain the Oto around the late 1600s and Ponca and the Omaha tribes around 1770 ( The name Nebraska also comes from the Oto language meaning “flat water” ( While not much is known about the founding of the Omaha tribe, the authors of the book Upstream Metropolis believe that the city of Omaha was founded in the southern reaches of the "home area of the Omaha people" (11). They also assert that the word 'Omaha' can mean one of three things: "against the current", "those [people] going against the wind or current" or "upstream" (10). The oral tradition of the name is that one part of the tribe moving west had gone downstream, following the Ohio River. The Omaha followed the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers upstream (

The Missouri River was very well-traveled by many different fur traders and Indian Tribes. One of the first successful expeditions of this area was done by the Lewis and Clark Expedition which passed through this area in mid to late July of 1804 and passed back through in mid-September of 1806. This was the first of many assessments done by the US Government to see the fertility and ability to settle land along the Missouri River. Though not directly polluting lead, the Lewis and Clark expedition used lead containers to hold gunpowder. This was in order for the gunpowder to not get wet and when the gunpowder was used, lead bullets could be made from the container. Even since one of the earliest American expeditions to the western portion of the United States, lead and the area around Omaha were already linked. Another expedition to have come through the Omaha area was the Maximillian-Bodmer expedition which came through Bellevue in 1833 and 1834 (

Omaha was home to many different groups, such as the Mormons. The Mormons used the city as their "winter quarters" between 1846 and 1860. The Upstream Metropolis authors state that by the end of 1846 "3,483 people resided at Winter Quarters, and eventually the place had some eight hundred dwellings, ranging from well-built structures to rude dugouts in the bluffs" (32). This settlement was the foundation from which the city of Omaha grew.

The founding of the city of Omaha created many environmental issues, most of all, the destruction of the native prairie environment. Only 1% of the prairie grassland extent remains in the United States due to the land-use change to agricultural uses and transportation routes to the west. Also, settlement of areas like Omaha only increased tensions between Native Americans and the United States and resulted in their eventual removal from their traditional lands to reservations. The Omaha and Oto tribes signed a treaty in 1854, allowing themselves to be moved to reservations. Unfortunately for the Oto, they eventually were moved to Oklahoma, while the Omaha reservation is near modern-day Macy, Nebraska.

“The Oto & Missouria.” n.d. Nebraska Studies. Accessed December 9, 2019. 

“The Maximilian–Bodmer Expedition.” n.d. Welcome to The Maximilian–Bodmer Expedition | The Maximilian–Bodmer Expedition. Accessed December 9, 2019.

Larsen, Lawrence H, Barbara J Cottrell, Harl A Dalstrom, and Kay C Dalstrom. Upstream Metropolis: An Urban Biography of Omaha and Council Bluffs. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Pr., 2007.

Omaha City Map 1866