Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

MORTON, J. STERLING (1832-1902)

Born in Adams, New York, on April 22, 1832, Morton grew up in Monroe, Michigan, and was educated at the University of Michigan. He migrated to Bellevue, Nebraska Territory, in 1854 and served as clerk of the Nebraska Supreme Court. In 1855 he became editor of the Nebraska City News and was twice elected to the legislature. Morton, a Democrat, was secretary of the territory from 1858 to 1861, and was briefly acting governor.

The Civil War brought an era of Republican domination and political defeats for Morton, who came to concentrate upon his newspaper work. He championed rural development, emphasizing tree planting on the prairies, and made his Nebraska City farm a place for forestation and agricultural innovations. Upon his initiative, the state board of agriculture in 1872 established Arbor Day as an occasion for planting trees. In time, Arbor Day would be widely observed. In 1886 Morton, mindful of environmental change, urged the Nebraska State Historical Society to create an "arboreal bureau" which would compile information on orchard and forestation projects. A "biography of all the planted trees in the state," he said, would "lift into view valuable facts and render humanity a vast service."

A libertarian, Morton opposed railroad regulation, protective tariffs, and prohibition. As secretary of agriculture in Grover Cleveland's second administration, he stressed frugality and civil service while the scientific and marketing functions of the U.S. Department of Agriculture grew. In the monetary struggle of the 1890s, he backed the gold standard but failed to prevent William Jennings Bryan from committing the Democratic Party to free silver.

Morton later established The Conservative, a newspaper that heralded his political perspective. Although Nebraska would gain renown for conservative Republicanism, no one better exemplified this conservative heritage than Democrat J. Sterling Morton. However, his environmentalism was his more prominent legacy. He died at the home of his son in Lake Forest, Illinois, on April 27, 1902.

See also IMAGES AND ICONS: Tree Planting and Climate Change.

Harl A. Dalstrom University of Nebraska at Omaha

Olson, James C. J. Sterling Morton. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1942.

Winslow Davis, Kate. "Neighbors to the Mortons." Nebraska History 53 (1972): 15–34.

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