Morton and Wilson, Nebraska Territory’s Ghost Counties

J. Sterling Morton, for whom Morton County was named, about 1859. NSHS RG1013.PH1-6

Today many Nebraskans live in counties known by different names than they were during Nebraska’s territorial years. The first eight counties in the state were Douglas, Cass, Dodge, Washington, Richardson, Burt, Forney, and Pierce, all named for prominent political leaders. Six of these names remained unchanged, but Forney became Nemaha County, and Pierce became Otoe County. In 1855, five counties which no longer exist were set up: Greene, McNeale, Jackson, Izard, and Blackbird. Later Nebraska had a Calhoun County, a L’eau Qui Court County, and a Shorter County.  

Two other long-forgotten counties dating to territorial days were Morton and Wilson, created by act of the territorial legislature and approved January 6, 1860. Morton County was named for J. Sterling Morton, then territorial secretary; Wilson was named after a land office official. “At that time,” said the Lincoln Evening News in a January 25, 1903, review of the counties’ history, “Nebraska [Territory] included all the territory north of Kansas between the Missouri river and the Rocky mountains, extending to the British possessions. The western boundary began at the northwest corner of Kansas and extended northwestwardly along the summit of the Rockies to the British line.”  

Nebraska Territory, 1861. Rectangular outlines in the extended Panhandle indicate the proposed locations of Morton and Wilson counties.

The News said that the two counties were located about 200 miles northwest of Fort Laramie, now in the state of Wyoming, “and it is intimated that their formation was due to the ambitious projects of railroad promoters.” Both Morton and Wilson counties, on paper at least, were thirty miles wide and fifty miles long. The seat of government of Morton County was indicated as Platte City, but the law creating Wilson County did not specify a county seat.  

The News noted that Morton and Wilson counties apparently never organized, due perhaps to their proposed location several hundred miles from any of the then existing organized counties in Nebraska Territory. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor/Publications

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