Chimney Rock and the state capitol’s Lincoln Monument may be among the most well-known of Nebraska’s monuments, but Jeff Barnes wants to be sure residents learn about the state’s 300 “hidden” historical markers.
Among those are the more than 60 original markers along the Oregon Trail and multiple obscure military fort memorials, Barnes said.
Barnes has traveled extensively to locate these hidden treasures and wrote a book about his discoveries — “Cut in Stone, Cast in Bronze: Nebraska’s Historical Markers and Monuments, 1854-1967.”
He now travels the state to discuss what he found and help Nebraskans find monuments on their own. He recently was at the La Vista Public Library, where he shared some interesting facts about how many markers are overlooked, why Sioux Quartzite boulders often were used as markers and how the Lincoln Monument came to be.
The state has so many obscure or hidden markers because older monuments were placed privately by individuals unlike the more recent ones, which are located by the state, Barnes told the library audience.
“Local communities and organizations recognize the history that was to be found in Nebraska and they put it upon themselves to do that marking themselves,” Barnes said. “The other thing that I really loved about these people — they weren’t interested so much in tourism, as in the history that they were recording and preserving.”
Barnes defines hidden markers and monuments as ones in which GPS coordinates couldn’t easily be searched online. He’s identified nearly 300 of these loosely documented monuments. Some are “in the middle of nowhere” because people used to place the monuments exactly where the historical event took place, he said.
Today’s historical markers are typically along highways that point toward where historic events took place like, he said.
“It’s very convenient to have those around the highway. But back then, people would put the historical markers where the history happened, so sometimes you’re gonna find them on hilltops or forests and fields, some pretty awkward spots that it’s not going easy for traffic to get to,” Barnes said. “Those are the ones that I really wanted to find, report and give a little information on why they were located there.”
Barnes said that Nebraska has 62 original markers from the Oregon Trail. These markers help show people the exact spots that settlers traveled. Some of the markers were placed at gravesites or where popular shops were located, like the Fort John monument in Gering that memorializes a popular trading post along the Oregon Trail.
Military fort monuments are rich in history and can be found all over Nebraska, Barnes said. Some examples include Fort Garber, which can be found in Comstock; Fort Butler, which is in Hebron; and Fort O.K., which is located in Grand Island.
Fort O.K.’s monument is decorated with a cannon that was given to early settlers in 1865 to help protect them from Native American attacks. Even though the cannon was never used, this monument is the only one in Nebraska that has an artifact from the time of the monument, Barnes said.
Many historical markers in Nebraska, especially the older ones, are Sioux Quartzite boulders, an inexpensive way to mark an area. Many boulders were found in fields, which farmers were more than willing to give up. However, these boulders don’t match up with Nebraska’s geological history, Barnes said.
“It kind of begs the question, well, what the heck are these boulders doing here,” Barnes said. “Well, 10,000 years ago, glaciers came from the North and picked up the boulders from Minnesota and dragged them to the south. Then when the glaciers melted, it left them right in place.”
While Barnes discussed the overlooked markers, he also shared interesting facts about the state’s more well-known monuments, like the Lincoln Monument at the state capitol.
After Lincoln became the capital, a group came together to organize the building of a memorial to commemorate the president. Originally, the group asked the city of Chicago if Nebraska could build a copy of its Lincoln memorial. When Chicago refused, Nebraska commissioned sculptor Daniel Chester French and architect Henry Bacon to construct Lincoln’s own, original memorial, Barnes said.
“People absolutely loved the sculpture,” he said. “Not just the city of Lincoln, but throughout Nebraska and even across the country. In fact, there was a group in Chicago that asked if they could copy the memorial. As you might imagine, they got turned down.”
Due to the success of this Lincoln monument, French and Bacon then went on to help design the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., Barnes said.
Barnes said he took advantage of the COVID-19 shutdowns to explore the state in search of these historical monuments.
“It freed up the roads for me, and nobody was out driving,” he said. “The hotels were really cheap and gas was really cheap. I got probably half the book done and all of the research done in the summer of 2020.”