2012 Symposium - theme

Symposium logo


March 28-30, 2012

University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Nebraska Union, 14th & R Streets, Lincoln, Nebraska





2012 will be a "Year of Sesquicentennials" in the Great Plains. UNL's Center for Great Plains Studies and the Homestead National Monument of America will host a 2012 Symposium on the impact of this historic year on the subsequent development of the region.

One set of sesquicentennials will mark the 1862 passage of four pieces of landmark legislation: (1) the Homestead Act; (2) the Morrill Act; (3) the Pacific Railroad Act; and (4) the act establishing the US Department of Agriculture. This framework of federal laws reflected the national government's vision for the subsequent development of the region, and it fundamentally shaped the society and culture of the Great Plains.

One consequence of the 1862 legislation was land re-distribution: the federal government granted public land to prospective farmers, to land-grant colleges and public schools, to railroad corporations, and to others. So too,  the federal government took an active hand in promoting agriculture: the Cooperative Extension Service and the research programs of the Department of Agriculture helped shape the kind of agriculture practiced in the Great Plains.   

Another sesquicentennial will mark launch of organizing efforts to span the continent by railroad.  The Union Pacific, when its tracks connected to those of the Central Pacific, reduced New York-to-California travel time from thirty-five days (via Panama) or ninety or more days (via Cape Horn) to about ten days. But an equally important consequence of the railroad building was the creation of a dense network of lines within the Great Plains. From the characteristic design of the region’s towns (with their “T” street layout where “Railroad Street” is the crossing of the “T”) to the nature of agriculture and commerce, railroads played an influential and shaping role in the development of the Great Plains. Indeed, the scholar David Wishart has asserted that  "No other North American region was so fundamentally shaped by the railroads.”

Still another sesquicentennial will mark the 1862 Dakota Conflict in Minnesota. Cheated by traders and denied protection and food by Indian agents, angry Dakotas revolted, killing hundreds of Minnesotans. Dakotas were punished in equal measure and forcibly removed to Crow Creek, Dakota Territory. Less known is how the conflict ruptured Lakota/Yanktonai (Sioux)-white relations throughout the Upper Missouri region. U.S. Army campaigns staged from this area in 1863-1865 by General Alfred Sully succeeded in punishing some of Little Crow’s Dakota combatants, but were equally significant for inadvertently provoking hostilities with Lakotas and Yanktonais, already feeling pressed by the intrusion of whites headed for the gold strikes. These conflicts destroyed trust and destabilized cooperative relations, with consequences continuing down to the present.   

The Center for Great Plains Studies and Homestead National Monument of America will hold a symposium in March, 2012, to recognize the importance of these laws and events and to identify and evaluate their role in shaping the Great Plains. How did the federal vision for the region drive regional development in some directions while foreclosing it in others? How did these historic laws and the unfolding policies that implemented them shape the culture, economy, environment, demography, history, and politics of the Great Plains? How do they continue to have relevance today?