An Abundance of Nebraskas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Another issue complicated Stephen Douglas’ drive to organize the Nebraska Territory and it gives me occasion to correct an error I have made here previously. Douglas’ original bill would not have organized the Indian country entire, just the large portion of it between Iowa, Missouri, and the Rocky Mountains. Thus his virtual repeal, in both versions, would only have overthrown the Missouri Compromise in those lands and not the future Dakotas, Montana, or parts of Wyoming and Colorado. The Dixon Amendment, by contrast, applied to both the entirety of the Missouri Compromise lands and to “any other Territory of the United States.”

Douglas’ boundaries still presented a few problems. His proposal to extend Missouri’s southern border westward would divide lands in Indian Territory (modern Oklahoma) reserved to the Cherokee. Sam Houston, who went west from Tennessee with the Cherokee and lived among them from 1829 to 1833, objected to that back in March when Douglas tried to get his bill through in the final day of the 32nd Congress. The objection still stood and to resolve it Washington briefly contemplated splitting Nebraska into three territories. One would run below the Missouri Compromise line and surely be for slavery. This provoked the usual objections in the North, and from those concerned about ejecting the Indians twice in barely a generation, and Douglas took the path of least resistance there, moving the southern boundary of Nebraska north so it ran between reservations.

Augustus Caesar Dodge (D-IA)

Augustus Caesar Dodge (D-IA)

The other division in Nebraska centered on the two illegal settlements, one of Iowans opposite Council Bluffs and one of Missourians around Fort Leavenworth. Practicality and politics intersected here. The transplanted Iowans hopped the Missouri river to live in free soil West Iowa, not slave West Missouri. Placing them under the more numerous Missourians would come dangerously close to forcing slavery on people who did not want it. Likewise, the great distances meant that their settlements could easily turn into a forgotten backwater.  The Iowans also suspected that the treaties extinguishing Indian title to Nebraska land skewed heavily southward, freeing up much land west of Missouri and little west of Iowa. Furthermore, the more populated land in the southern section of the territory would draw potential railroads there instead of through the Platte Valley. Through their illegal delegate, the Iowans convinced Iowa’s Augustus Caesar Dodge to take up their cause and he persuaded Douglas.

Instead of one Nebraska, or three, Douglas revised his bill to create two. The more northerly one retained the original name and the southern portion took the name Kansas. Douglas did not say so much, but nearly everyone took the implication from division that Nebraska would come into the Union free and Kansas enslaved. It fit the pattern of past divisions and restored to Douglas some of the ambiguity he lost to Dixon, Phillips, and F Street. While the law voided the Missouri Compromise on paper, the facts on the ground would only change the practical outcome slightly by reserving Kansas to slavery. What would the Slave Power demand thereafter? A slave state north of Nebraska, surrounded by freedom on all sides? Not likely.

With the territory split and an amendment on slavery written by Phillip Phillips and approved by F Street, Douglas again had what he thought he had at the beginning of the week of January 16, 1854: a bill that could pass the Senate.

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