Robert Wilkinson Furnas (l824-1905)

Category: Agriculture, Frontier Life, Politics & Government, Commerce, Education, conservation, journalism, military
Death date: June l, 1905
Years in Nebraska: 1856 - l905
Nebraska contribution: Governor of Nebraska, founder of Nebraska Farmer magazine; university regent; organized Second Nebraska Cavalry; promoted tree planting.
National contribution: Army service, Indian agent, National Exposition committees

Robert Wilkinson Furnas, second governor of Nebraska (1873-1875),came to Nebraska in 1856. Two months after his arrival, he printed the first issue of the Nebraska Advertiser newspaper. As editor of this successful publication, Furnas promoted Nebraska, its soil, water, and agricultural possibilities, and had great influence on the development of the state.

Furnas, before coming to Nebraska at age 32, had worked as a storekeeper, tinsmith, postmaster, village clerk, train conductor, insurance agent, and as a printer, editor, and publisher in Troy, Ohio, his birthplace. In l868 Furnas edited and published the Nebraska Farmer, the first agricultural paper to be published in Nebraska.

In the fall of 1856, he was elected to the Council of the 3rd Legislative Assembly of Nebraska territory and served through the eighth session. He was the author of the first common school law of Nebraska and also the law forming a territorial Board of Agriculture.

Furnas served six years as regent of the State University. He organized the first public school board and presided over the first educational convention held in the state.

During the Civil War, Furnas was commissioned a colonel of the territorial militia. In l862 he was made a colonel in the regular army by President A. Lincoln. Furnas then organized and commanded three Indian regiments. Colonel Furnas captured the Cherokee Indian, Chief John Ross. By sending Chief Ross and his family to Washington, D.C., Furnas was instrumental in ending troubles between the government and the Cherokee nation. He was commissioned a colonel of the Second Nebraska Cavalry and served under General Sully in the campaign against the Sioux that culminated in the Battle of White Stone Hill in Dakota Territory, September 3, 1863.

Following his military service Furnas was appointed by President Lincoln as Indian agent for the Omaha, Winnebago, and Ponca tribes and served for four years. During the time he was Indian agent, the Omahas ceded a portion of their reservation in Thurston County to the Winnebagos.


Furnas was the first president of the newly organized Nebraska State Historical Society from 1878 to 1890 and served as president again from 1904 to 1905. He served as United States commissioner to the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, the New Orleans Cotton Centennial, the Chicago Columbian Exposition, and to the International Exposition in London. He was president of the American Fair Association and helped develop the Nebraska State Fair.

Furnas served as president of the State Board of Agriculture and as president of the State Horticultural Society. He promoted the planting of trees in Nebraska and during his administration as governor Arbor Day was created. He was elected to the Hall of Agricultural Achievement in l9l8 and was named to the Nebraska Hall of Fame in l980.

Furnas died at Lincoln on June 1, 1905.