After 1861 an important variant of the overland trails system, the Nebraska City-Fort Kearney Cutoff, passed nearby, over which freight was transported from the Missouri River to western forts and mining camps. The region's first settlements were road ranches supplying trail travelers. Permanent towns and villages sprang up in the late 1860s and early 1870s as farmers came to claim land under the Homestead Act of 1862.
In 1880 the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad extended its line from York to Grand Island, platting Bradshaw on land purchased from Jesse and Mary Bradshaw Richards and giving the village Mary Richards's maiden name.
A major event in Bradshaw's history was the June 3, 1890, tornado that destroyed the village, killing twelve and injuring sixty. By 1900 Bradshaw had been rebuilt and tallied a population of 365. In that year 354 railcars of cattle and hogs and 672 railcars of grain were shipped from Bradshaw. In the twenty-first century agriculture remained the economic mainstay for Bradshaw and the surrounding region.