The motto for the State of Nebraska used to be: “Where the West Begins.” The state now prides itself in the University of Nebraska and its athletic teams, two fine medical schools, and a world-class zoo – just for starters. But it is still a place where two cultures meet. There are the metropolitan areas of Omaha and Lincoln. Then there are the wide open spaces of the sand hills in the central and western part of the state. Finally, there is everything in between.
It can make genealogical research interesting and challenging.
I want to begin with some figures that will give a researcher some perspective. According to the 2000 Census, Nebraska had a population of 1,711,263. The most populous county in the state is Omaha’s Douglas County with just over 517,000 citizens. Located in the midst of the sand hills in the western part of the state, Arthur County had a 2010 population of 460. The largest county in area in the state is Cherry County. Just shy of 6,000 square miles, it is larger than the State of Connecticut. Connecticut has more than 3 million residents. Cherry County had a 2000 population of 6,148.
The earliest counties were formed in the mid-1850s. Being close to rivers and water made the settling of Burt, Buffalo, Cass, Dakota, Dodge, Douglas, Gage, Johnson, Nemaha, Otoe, Pawnee, Richardson, Washington, and York Counties easier. Morrill County in 1908 and Deuel County in 1909 were the last to be organized.
In the 1970s, just after the 1967 Nebraska centennial, counties were encouraged to start their own historical societies. Subsequently, genealogical societies have formed in a number of counties and areas.
The size, population, and location of the area where your ancestors lived can make a difference in how to research. There is an old saying that genealogists often repeat: “Don’t assume anything.” Just because an ancestor lived in one place doesn’t mean that information can’t be found somewhere else.
After the Nebraska State Historical Society (NSHS), Douglas County is probably one of the best places to research. It has both a historical society and a genealogical society actively promoting history and research. The Douglas County Historical Society (DCHS) is located in the northern part of Omaha at Fort Omaha. Its archives’ holdings include numerous area newspapers, including some high school newspapers. It also has birth, marriage, death, naturalization records and city directories.
The Greater Omaha Genealogical Society uses the W. Dale Clark Library in downtown Omaha as a home base. The library has a number of old newspapers, including some for Council Bluffs, Iowa, on microfilm in its genealogy section. It also has birth listings and over 100,000 obituaries before 1977 on file. It has a marriage license index for Douglas County marriage records and marriage records for Hall and Dodge Counties. The Greater Omaha Genealogical Society has several ongoing projects including transcribing marriage indexes for Brown, Cass, Dodge, Hall, Rock, Sarpy, Thurston, and Wayne Counties.
Note – Nebraska didn’t start keeping birth and death records until 1905. The state wasn’t admitted to the registration area until 1920. That said, Lincoln and Omaha did start registering deaths before 1900. There may be something on file, or there may not be.
The next group that needs to be mentioned is the Nebraska State Genealogical Society (NSGS). Its holdings, including family genealogies, are located at the Beatrice Public Library, which has an online catalog. The NSGS is working with ancestry.com on digitizing military outpost reports, the 1885 Nebraska Census, and state newspapers.
Lincoln also has an active genealogical society, Lincoln-Lancaster County Genealogical Society (LLCGS) website has indexes for Lancaster County marriages, and old mortuary, naturalizations, and cemetery information. The group continues to work on naturalization and newspaper indexes, gathering obituaries, and they have started to index probate records. They have an 8,000-volume library in conjunction with the Ella Johnson Crandall Memorial Library at Union College located at 48th Street and Prescott.
If family research is in other parts of the state, it can get interesting. The courthouses in the counties with the smallest populations have only a handful of employees – usually involving a treasurer, a clerk and recorder, and a court official. There may be a local historical or genealogical society. If there is a museum, it probably has very limited hours. Many counties and towns now have websites with local information that can be found using a search engine (such as Google or Bing). This may help in tracking down individuals who know what resource materials are available in the county and how they can be accessed. U.S. GenWeb is another good source for local information.
Do not assume that small towns don’t have libraries. Many towns with a population of 1,000 or so have libraries, often with a shelf or two of books relating to the county and a librarian willing to help.
Areas with slightly larger populations, roughly more than 5,000, may very well have a genealogical society and a historical society. Frequently these organizations’ participants may be a good source of information or know where information may be located.
A number of the larger counties, with populations of approximately 10,000 or more, are hiring curators for their local museums. In addition to memorabilia from the county, the museum may also have local county, town, and family histories and collections; early school, court and business records; old newspapers; and photograph collections. The museums should have more regular hours and be more user-friendly.
I, personally, enjoy visiting the smaller courthouses and historical museums. The staff has more time, and you never know what nugget is there waiting to be found. It might be local school yearbooks or an informal survey someone took. What is contained there also provides insight into the town or community. Although the various sources may contain some of the same information, they may also contain a unique item that the others do not. Don’t assume anything.
I also encourage researchers, whether they live in the area or not, to join a local society. Most societies and museums rely heavily on volunteers. They publish newsletters to let members know what is going on and they strive to make their facility and its offerings the best they can, working to preserve the history and records of the area.
Navigating the various areas of the State of Nebraska can be a challenge. Nebraska is a place where the West began. People had to adapt to where they lived. Experienced genealogists at RecordClick know the state and can help you develop a research strategy, look for a specific piece of information, or help you understand how things worked when your ancestor was living in Nebraska, whether it was in the city, the country, or someplace in between.
Douglas County Historical Society
Greater Omaha Genealogical Society
W. Dale Clark Library
Nebraska State Genealogical Society
Beatrice Public Library
Lincoln-Lancaster County Genealogical Society
Bennett Martin Public Library