Robert Wilkinson Furnas (1824-1905) was born on a farm near Ohio in 1824, the son of William and Martha Jenkins Furnas. A twin, his brother died in infancy and his sister, Mary Elizabeth, died at the age of eighteen. He was orphaned at the age of twelve when both of his parents died of cholera.
Furnas was then reared in the home of his grandfather Furnas. He received a very limited formal education and worked in a general store, apprenticed in the tinsmith’s trade, and wound up working as a printer for a newspaper company. He moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and opened his own book and job printing business and published several periodicals. While there, he married Mary E. McComas and the two raised eight children.
Returning to his hometown, he published the local newspaper for a short time. He moved on to the clock, watch, jewelry and notion trade and served as the village clerk and deputy postmaster. When the railroad came to his town, he gained employment as railroad and express agent and conductor. He then left that job to move west.
Furnas was one of the early territorial pioneers who came to Nebraska from Ohio in 1856. Shortly after arriving, he began the publication of the Brownville Nebraska Advertiser, one of the most influential early newspapers in the territory. He continued as editor and publisher until 1867. In the same year that Furnas came to Nebraska, he was elected to the council branch of the territorial legislature, serving four consecutive years. Because of his background, he was elected by the territorial legislature to be the public printer, printing the laws and journals of the fourth session of the legislature. During his first session he was the author of the first common school law for Nebraska and also the law creating the territorial, now state, Board of Agriculture.
At the breakout of the Civil War, Furnas was commissioned as a colonel of the territorial militia by governor J. Sterling Morton and later re-commissioned by acting governor A. S. Paddock. In 1862, he was appointed and commissioned by President Lincoln as colonel in the regular army and commanded three regiments of Native troops in Indian Territory. He resigned his command and returned to Nebraska to organize the Second Nebraska Cavalry.
After the expiration of his term of service Colonel Furnas was honorably discharged. Without his knowledge, he was appointed by President Lincoln, agent for the Omaha Indians, Winnebago and Ponca tribes in northern Nebraska. During his time as agent, he actively tried to improve the living conditions of those tribes. His actions would result in his dismissal by President Andrew Jackson.
Furnas returned to Nebraska and revived his newspaper business and later started farming. He entered politics and was elected governor in 1872. He was instrumental in creating the State Board of Agriculture and served as its first president and later as its secretary for approximately two decades. As secretary, he was responsible for planning and arranging for the Nebraska State Fair held annually in September.