A claim was staked to establish Tekamah as a town in October 1854. On March 14, 1855, Tekamah became an incorporated city by an act of the first territorial legislature of Nebraska.
A peculiar method produced the town's name. According to the diary of Colonel B.R. Folsom, who worked with the original townsite company, Tekamah was literally chosen by the luck of the draw. When the decision had been reached to make the location a settlement, a problem arose in naming it. It was agreed that each of the exploration parties should write their favorite name on a slip of paper and drop it into a hat. The first name drawn out would then become the official name of the community. The first name drawn was "Tekamah."
A surveyor, William Byers, contributed the name. An Indian translation defines Tekamah as meaning "big cottonwoods," and this is appropriate due to the large cottonwood trees that grew along the banks of Tekamah creek and were scattered over the territory. Another translation found through research says the name "Teka-mah" comes from the Egyptian or Arabic language and means "bloody battlefield." Researchers claim that centuries ago many tribes of Indians collided with a pale-faced foe in the Tekamah valley. During the years following the settling of the area, documentation was found indicating that many exposed human bones were found. The translation in either language is appropriate as there is evidence enough for both. It is unclear which translation prompted Byers to suggest it as a contender. To this day Tekamah is a name that belongs exclusively to Burt County.
Much of the early history of Tekamah is associated with the foundation of Burt County. Tekamah was alone in Burt County for a long period of time. In turn, the surrounding area rotated around it. It wasn't until after the Civil War that settlers began locating on homesteads further west. At this time the town began to have an identity apart from the county. Tekamah become the county seat after a courthouse war in 1877.
A weekly mail route from Omaha to Tekamah was established in 1855. The first school was established in 1857, as well as the "Bank of Tekama," which was one of the famous wildcat banks that flourished in the Midwest before the Civil War. The first church was built in 1870, by Presbyterians. A newspaper, called the "Burt County Pilot," was first published on December 15, 1871. The Omaha and North Western Railroad stretching from Omaha to Sioux City reached Tekamah on August 30, 1876. A Carnegie library was built in 1912, through the cooperation of citizens and the Tekamah Women's Club.
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Historic points of interest in the area include:
- Folsom Park, which features a native rock monument marking the spot of a settlers' camp on October 6, 1854;
- Reservoir Hill, one of the highest points between Omaha, Neb., and Sioux City, Iowa; and
- Golden Spring, located 15 miles north of Tekamah, a noted stopping place for Spanish explorers and Indians.
Tekamah boasts of six historic sites. Five sites are on the National Register of Historic Places: The Tekamah City Bridge, the Burt County Courthouse, the John Henry Stork Log House, the E. C. Houston House, and the Spielman house owned by Delmar and Elaine Chamberlain.
The Tekamah Carnegie Public Library is one of the few Carnegie libraries in northeast Nebraska on the State Register of Historic Places. Library officials plan to seek national historic status. Inclusion in the registers means that the state and the federal officials consider the properties as cultural resources worthy of preservation.