Nebraska’s landscape stretches from the arid Sand Hills in the west to the low rolling hills and fertile farmland along the Missouri River, which forms the eastern border with Iowa and Missouri as well as a small portion of the northern border with South Dakota. The Platte River cuts through the state, starting in the southwest corner and emptying into the Missouri near Omaha. Much of Nebraska’s geography can be accurately described as a vast prairie land of the Great Plains, though this hides much of the diversity in landscapes that partly explains its nickname ‘Where the West Begins.’ Nebraska is in many ways a bridge between fertile farmlands of the Midwest and semi-arid high steppe of the Rocky Mountain foothills. Nebraska’s name comes from a word in the language of the Oto tribe meaning ‘flat water.’ The name was first used in 1842 to reference the Platte River and was given to the territory upon its creation with the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. From before the time the first wave of homesteaders made their way across the state in the 1860’s, Nebraska was the stage upon which many important characters in the history of the American West made an appearance: Explorers Lewis and Clarke and Native American heroes Crazy Horse and Red Cloud among them. The Mormon and Oregon Trails crossed this land. Nebraska achieved statehood shortly after the Civil War, on March 1st, 1867, so the question of Nebraska becoming a Free or Slave state was never put to the test.
Nebraska’s agricultural sector is a very large part of its economy and the state is a national leader in beef, corn and soy production. Other important industries of note within the state are telecommunications, information technology and insurance. The per capita personal income of the state is 23rd, just below Florida and above Vermont. Education standards in Nebraska are above that of neighboring states, with a positive Educational Index, and relatively higher levels of funding for elementary and primary schools. University tradition in the ‘Cornhusker State’ is very strong, and contributes to relatively high in-state enrollment. Despite this, the state is one of those suffering from Rural Flight which has affecting much of the Midwest and Great Plains states. The largest ancestry group in the state is German, at 38.6% (2004 estimates). Nebraska has the largest percentage of Czech-Americans in the U.S., comprising approximately 4.9% of the total population. Omaha is the largest city and economic hub of the state, lying on the west bank of the Missouri River, and together with Council Bluffs, Iowa, makes up a large metropolitan area. Lincoln is the capital of the state and the 2nd largest city. In presidential elections, the state has been a Republican stronghold since the 1940’s. The lone exception during this time was the support it lent to Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. In 2004, George W. Bush carried the state with 65.9% of the vote to win the state’s 5 electoral votes.