Jim McKee: Wrestling over a capital | Nebraska News

Nebraska’s territorial legislature should have been busily discussing and passing legislation in 1857-58. A territorial printer needed to be appointed, there was no criminal code in existence, a homestead bill was pending and the question of moving the capital was being considered.

Douglas, just south of today’s State Penitentiary in Lincoln, was even platted and presented as a potential capital location, only to be vetoed by Gov. Mark W. Izard, who then resigned. With both houses of the legislature antagonistically divided, a simmering pot was poised to boil over.

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Nebraska’s fourth territorial legislature’s 40-day session opened Dec. 9, 1857. Although Omaha legislators were already growing weary of capital removal bills, on Jan. 6, Joshua G. Abbe of Otoe County introduced such a bill in the House. Many in the chamber saw potential passage as a possible, though seemingly unrealistic, personal physical threat.

On Jan. 7, Speaker of the Council James H. Decker, a leader of the anti-Omaha faction, had just returned from an out-of-town trip. As Decker attempted to regain the chair from Temporary Speaker Dr. W.R. Thrall, who was using the book Swan’s Revised Statutes as a gavel, was joined by Omaha members Michael Murphy, Joseph Paddock and a lobbyist who seized Decker, who was thence “thrown on the floor.” Andrew Hanscom then pushed Decker “under a table (and) a free-for-all fracas followed.” One observer even added “knives were drawn.” Members fled the chamber, leaving only a minority, which quickly adjourned the session.

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On Jan. 8, the House passed a resolution to adjourn the session and reconvene in Florence, six miles to the north, the following morning. A similar resolution was then passed in the upper house on a vote of 8-5. With the majority of both houses missing from the capital, President George Miller of Omaha said the majority actions would be invalidated unless both the House and the governor agreed to the move.

The minority, still at Omaha, elected Andrew Poppleton as Speaker Pro Tem and adjourned, though both actions were undoubtedly invalid without a quorum.

At Florence, both houses then demanded that Acting Gov. Thomas B. Cuming, Governor Izard having resigned, send all documents for discussion and possible action to their attention. Pro-Omaha Cuming promptly refused. On Jan. 11, recently appointed Gov. Wm. Richardson arrived and reiterated Cuming’s refusal, also adding his refusal to recognize the Florence session, as it was not held at the capital as required by law and urged everyone to return to Omaha and resume the legislature’s work.

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In its July 23, 1857, edition, the Pacific City Enterprise noted a railroad had been organized to build from Plattsmouth to Cedar Bluffs near Neapolis in what was then Calhoun County and now Saunders County. Since it was assumed that “Omaha would never be the center of population” in Nebraska, Neapolis, on the south side of the Platte River and 60 miles from the Missouri River, would be a natural spot. It even noted a 5- or 6-acre mound, about 40 feet above the valley, which would make an ideal capitol site. The newspaper added “houses were being erected … settlers are flocking rapidly … (and) a steam sawmill is in successful operation. … Neapolis will be called the ‘Queen City of Nebraska.’”

The Florence session “passed” a so-called Capital Act and appointed four commissioners to choose a specific site at Neapolis, a Greek word that translates as new city, on Ely Palmer’s quarter section, about 2¾ miles northeast of the Cedar Bluffs post office or 9 miles southwest of Fremont.

On Jan. 13, the governor did not formally accept anything, but reportedly “found” bills passed at Florence “left in my room yesterday.” He neither vetoed nor approved them and respectfully returned them. In Florence, a majority of both houses existed until the 40-day session quietly expired on Jan. 16, with literally nothing having been accomplished.

On Jan. 21, the pro-capital removal Bellevue Gazette editorialized that “an effort was made by an unscrupulous minority, aided by a mob, to clog the wheels of legislation … if their labor is lost and the territory remains without laws … they are not responsible for the consequences.”

A subsequent investigative committee found the majority’s actions “unwarranted and revolutionary … inaugurated anarchy … destroyed the public peace … in the House, action was precipitated by the design or folly of the Speaker (with) a premeditated design … to obtain the possession of the Chair by force … with a predetermined plan to break up and disorganize the legislature.”

In the end, because no records were kept, although they supposedly “passed” a criminal code, homestead exemption and relocated the capital, in fact, however, absolutely nothing was accomplished. Neapolis did briefly exist and in the 1850s had a few log buildings and sawmill.

In 1932, Fremont Boy Scout Troop #104 erected the hand-hammered metal plaque, as shown above, on a small concrete post, in a ditch, near later Camp Eagle and extant Camp Cedar(s), but even that last visible vestige was destroyed by vandals, though today locals still refer to the site as Capital Hill.