Eyes of the world on Omaha 140 years ago

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June 19th, 2012

Omaha, NE – The sites of historic battles, legendary leaders and blood-soaked trails: Omaha and the Great Plains of Nebraska had the eyes of the world upon them 140 years ago.

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“Right now, we’re standing on the parking deck … of the Durham Museum, and approximately 140 years ago, this where kind of the attention of the world was focused.”

Directors of the Union Pacific Railroad on the 100th meridian approximately 250 miles west of Omaha, Neb. in October, 1866. (Photo credit John Carbutt/National Archives)

Jeff Barnes is an independent historian and author of the Great Plains Guide to Custer. For the past three years, he’s been researching early America – after the bloody Civil War had ended and the country set out to continue its expansion west. Overlooking the old Union Pacific rail yards in downtown Omaha, Barnes said Omaha was an important city in its early years. In 1872, it was not yet 20 years old, and was one of the fastest growing cities in the country.

“That was because of its location on the Missouri River, and it was also close to the Platte River route,” Barnes said, which made it an important transportation and commercial hub. “So a very, very important city.”

It was this hub that launched bloody battles and bloody hunts, including the “Great Buffalo Hunt” of 1872. Barnes tells the story of the Grand Duke Alexis, son of the Russian Czar, who came to Omaha to meet the infamous U.S. Army General George Armstrong Custer. The two traveled to North Platte to join “Buffalo Bill” Cody and begin one of the most famous buffalo hunts in history.

“Buffalo hunting for sport had become very, very popular,” Barnes said. “And the railroads made that possible.”

General Custer (left) and Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovitch Romanov (right) in Topeka, at the end of the “Great Buffalo Hunt” Jan. 22, 1872. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

“You could go from New York or Washington D.C. or from San Francisco, and come out and go buffalo hunting on the Great Plains.” Barnes said the hunting continued, even as the herds diminished rapidly from their former tens of millions. “People thought it would never disappear.”

They did, of course, disappear, and Barnes said Custer and Alexis’ hunt turned out to be one of the last large buffalo hunts on the Plains.

At the time, Custer was making a name for himself as a leader in rounding up Native Americans for the Army, and turned his attention back to the “Indian Wars.” A few years later he died about 600 miles northwest of Omaha in one of the greatest military defeats of the U.S. Army’s history: the Battle of Little Bighorn. But Barnes said that bloody tale also has its start on the Nebraska Plains.

“Everybody’s heard of Custer’s last stand in Little Big Horn,” he said. “But if you have a last stand, you had to have had a first stand somewhere, and that took place in Nebraska.”

Barnes said just outside of what is now Benkelman, Neb., on the banks of the Republican River, Custer had his first encounter with Native American tribes. He and the 7th Cavalry were attacked on June 24, 1867 by a group of Sioux warriors, led by Pawnee Killer. The battle ended with few casualties, but set the stage for Custer’s later encounters.

Barnes will share the stories of that battle and those of other historic sites along the Great Plains during a book discussion at the Omaha Public Libraries Tuesday night. He’ll continue giving talks throughout the year across the Plains states. To see his full schedule, click here.

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