There was much excitement in October 1854 as the Nebraska pioneers eagerly awaited Francis Burt, the new territory’s first governor. That hope was felt most in Bellevue. After all, according to the Nebraska Palladium newspaper, the town of Bellevue was “destined by nature to become the metropolis of learning as well as of legis- lation and commerce in Nebraska.” Surely, Governor Burt would recognize the obvious.
He’d been appointed by President Franklin Pierce in August after General William Butler of Kentucky turned down the posi- tion. Burt was then serving as Third Auditor of the Treasury in Washington, D.C., and this seemed another political leap as Nebraska Territory (at that time) stretched from the Missouri River north to Canada and west to what became Idaho.
Burt was a Democrat who had served as South Carolina state legislator and treasurer. He was also a member of the 1832 nullifi- cation convention, nominally a dispute over federal tariffs, but in actuality a defense of slavery and a state’s right to “nullify,” or ignore, federal law.
In the lead-up to Burt’s appointment as ter- ritorial governor, local European-American settlers advocated for the cession of Native American land rights. In 1852, Missouri traders gathered at Uniontown in pres- ent-day Kansas to agitate for territorial government. That year, a Missouri con- gressman introduced legislation to create the Platte Territory, covering lands west of the Missouri River. Likewise, in 1853, an estimated 150 Iowans ferried across the river to Bellevue to elect Hadley Johnson as their territorial delegate from the still non-existent territory.
Bellevue boosters then truly jumped the gun when (on Feb. 9, 1854) Peter Sarpy, Stephen Decatur, and a host of Iowa speculators organized the Bellevue Town Co. After all, where else would Nebraska’s new metropolis appear other than the main American settle- ment where fur trade posts first appeared in the 1820s?
The Kansas-Nebraska Act that created two new American territories was signed by Pierce on May 30. The floodgates opened as the 1820 Missouri Compromise was squashed by “squatter sovereignty,” allow- ing residents of the new territories to decide on the issue of slavery. Around this same time period, the Whig Party self-destructed with mounting North-South tension, the “Know-Nothing” American Party sought to keep the country safe from Catholic hordes of German and Irish immigrants, and “Anti-Nebraskans” coalesced into the Republican Party. Meanwhile, the country marched steadily toward Civil War. It’s also worth noting that treaties ceding eastern Nebraska to the U.S. by the Omaha and Otoe-Missouria Nations were not ratified until June (after already officially establish- ing the Territory of Nebraska).
These were heady times that greeted Burt’s arrival at Bellevue on Oct. 6, 1854. But these qualms of mortal men would soon be of little consequence to the rising politician. Burt had fallen ill during his voyage and was too sick to attend the reception held in his honor, where grandiose speeches went on without him. He sought refuge at the Presbyterian Bellevue Mission House, located on what is now the east side of Warren Street between 19th and 20th avenues. That’s where Burt took his oath of office on Oct. 16, and where he died two days later.
Burt’s death marked the end of Bellevue’s ambitions, as Acting Governor Thomas Cuming’s interests in Omaha City soon became clear. Today, the name of Nebraska’s first territorial governor is commemorated by Omaha’s Burt Street (a sore consolation to those early Bellevue boosters) as well as the state’s Burt County. Bellevue remained part of Douglas County until 1857 when Sarpy County was created (Bellevue served as the county seat of Sarpy County until 1875 when Papillion seized the distinction through election).”
Territorial governors were appointed. State governors are elected. Remember to vote in Nebraska’s gubernatorial election on Nov. 6.
This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.