Nebraska Territory and Statehood
The earliest migrants to the Nebraska Territory were primarily those of European origin. Some of these individuals emigrated from other parts of the United States, others directly from Europe. In some cases entire ethnic enclaves came to farmlands owned by railroads. In other cases, migrants came to work the railroads or acquire farmland of their own. Labor opportunities in Omaha opened the doors to a diverse migrant population. In the rural areas single ethnicities often formed communities. At the time of settlement Czechs outnumbered other groups in the present-day counties of Butler, Colfax, and Saline. Polish migrants formed communities in Sherman County, and Swedish migrants helped to found Polk County.7 The numbers of inhabitants in the territory continued to grow, and this growth led to debates about statehood. On March 1, 1867, Nebraska entered the Union as the 37th state, after only twelve short years as a U.S. territory.
European migration to Nebraska had slowly decreased by the end of the nineteenth century. In 1909 the Great Western Sugar Company opened its doors to production in Scotts Bluff. After several years of production, the company had outgrown its factory in Ames, Nebraska. Sugar beet production in the United States resulted from tariffs imposed by the U.S. government in 1897 on imported sugar. Initial production and experimentation had begun around 1895.
Frustrated by the economic, political, and social situation in late nineteenth-century Mexico, Mexican laborers began to seek employment in the United States, as a dictatorship that had lasted 31 years left many Mexicans poor and landless. In the first years of the twentieth century the Porfirio Diaz dictatorship in Mexico began to unravel, and by 1910 the Mexican Revolution was underway. Individuals looking for better economic and living conditions, and those desiring to escape political conflicts, trickled into Nebraska to work on the railroads and sugar beet fields. Recruited by the railroad and sugar beet companies, they worked alongside the European migrants. In 1920 the Great Western Sugar Company brought more than 13,000 laborers to the region.8 By 1926 handbills and advertisements in the Spanish language had helped to bring in additional workers to the state. Many Latinos, primarily of Mexican origin, left the fields and returned to Mexico after the end of the Mexican Revolution. Others remained and continued to work, and some became U.S. citizens.
However, the Omaha race riot of 1919 and the ensuing depression of 1921 prompted xenophobic and racist tensions within the state. The race riot which was fueled by the lynching of a black man accused of raping a white woman resulted from the fear that black and Latino workers would replace the white workforce. Hoping to avoid the unionization of shops during the depression, employers recruited these groups to act as strikebreakers. Compounding the issue, returning World War I soldiers found it nearly impossible to secure employment. During the depression of 1921 the focus shifted toward Mexicans working in the agricultural sectors of the state. U.S. immigration officials conducting raids across the state and the country forcibly deported thousands of Mexicans back to Mexico. Economic conditions fueled the imagination and prompted the public sentiment that Mexicans deprived natives of jobs. This led to the mass deportation of individuals unable to document their arrival in the United States prior to 1921.9 Many Mexican Americans also suffered deportation because immigration officials could not always, or did not care to, separate Mexican Americans from Mexican nationals. The policy of raiding and deporting Mexican nationals continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
In 1940 President Franklin D. Roosevelt was preparing for war with Japan and Germany. Receiving funding from Congress, he embarked on the construction of ammunition depots, military training facilities, and bomber barracks. Primarily located in the Midwest as a security precaution, many war-related production plants ended up in Nebraska. Airfields and ammunition depots appeared in Grand Island, Hastings, Harvard, Fort Robinson, and everywhere in between. By the end of the war the population in Hastings had gone from
15,000 to approximately 23,000. Whites made up most of the workforce in these plants, but a significant number of minorities were also part of it. Although Mexican Americans contributed to the arms effort at the depots, their numbers are not known. During World War II many Mexican Americans were conscripted into military service.
By 1942 agricultural workers had disappeared from the fields, as many took positions in the defense industries. As a consequence, in 1942 the Mexican and U.S. governments entered into an agreement to provide manpower to the United States under the Emergency Farm Labor program.10 This program provided 6-month-long renewable employment contracts to guest workers, and it eventually evolved into the Bracero program, which ended in 1964.