Free land! 160 acres of prime farmland to any man who wanted it! Who could resist such an offer? To millions of Americans stuck in crowded, dirty cities, many of them recent immigrants, it was the chance of a lifetime.
The Homestead Act of 1862 has been called one of the most important pieces of legislation in the history of the United States. Signed into law by Abraham Lincoln after the secession of southern states in the Civil War, it turned over vast amounts of public land to private citizens. Between 1863 and 1974, over 270 million acres, or 10% of the area of the entire United States, was claimed and settled under the Homestead Act.
Why would the government give away free land? The idea began long before it was ever signed into law. As early as the 1780s, Thomas Jefferson had proposed a similar plan, and support grew in the 1840s among newspaper editors, politicians, and railroad companies. Many in the industrialized north hoped that homesteading would reduce poverty by luring people away from overcrowded cities. Newspaper editor Horace Greeley urged “Go West, young man, go West and grow with the country.”
Many Americans in the 19th century believed in Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States had a God-given duty to expand westward and tame the continent. The government saw homesteading as a way to push America’s boundaries further west, while creating landowners and eventual wealth.
The Homestead Act was one of the most significant and enduring events in the westward expansion of the United States. By granting free land it allowed nearly any man or woman a chance to live the American dream of owning their own land. A homesteader had only to be the head of a household and at least 21 years of age to claim a 160 acre parcel of land.
Settlers from all walks of life, including newly arrived immigrants, farmers without land of their own from the East, single women, and former slaves came to meet the challenge of “proving up” and keeping this “free land”. Each homesteader was required to live on the land, build a home, make improvements and farm for five years before they were eligible to “prove up”. When all requirements had been completed and the homesteader was ready the take legal possession, the homesteader found two neighbors or friends willing to vouch for the truth of his or her statements about the land’s improvements and sign the “proof” document.
A total filing fee of $18 was the only money required, but sacrifice and hard work exacted a different price from the hopeful settlers. The railroads and promoters painted the West as paradise, with advertisements that promised perfect soil, abundant rain, and guaranteed success. Of course, the truth was often much different. The land could be harsh and unforgiving. Clearing forests and raw prairie by hand was hard work. The weather could be extreme. Locusts and grasshoppers destroyed crops, as did hail and wildfires. In some areas, the Indians who had inhabited the land for centuries violently resisted the flood of settlers. Many of the hopeful homesteaders who boarded the trains back east, headed for paradise, proved unable to accept the challenge and soon moved on. For those who persevered, years of backbreaking labor, with often nothing but failure or a lonely grave as their reward, awaited.
Still, many did succeed in carving a new life out of the wild land for themselves and their families. They overcame hardships, learned to adapt, and built not only cabins and barns, but communities that eventually grew into some of our greatest cities.
Settling a new land could be both exciting and lonely, and the homesteaders needed to be resourceful people. Homesteads were often far from town, far from the next neighbor, and far from family and friends. Despite the distances often involved, neighbors helped fill the void. People cooperated to build barns and repair fences, they delivered each others’ babies, celebrated births and mourned deaths together. They socialized with picnics, dances, quilting bees, and barn raisings.
Once they had established themselves, the homesteaders joined together to create communities. Most homesteaders placed a great value upon education, and schoolhouses were often the first public buildings erected. One family might donate the land, while others pitched in to help with construction. Early schools were usually simple one room affairs, where children in several grades learned together, the older students helping the younger ones with their lessons. Most teachers were young single women, often from local homesteads themselves.
Homesteading changed the face of America. Not just our landscape, but also our culture and industry. The Homestead Act began an agricultural revolution. For thousands of years, people relied on animals and their own muscles to work the land. But between 1860 and 1910, steam and gasoline engines took over the burden. Homesteaders created a huge new market for farming implements.
Two inventions from the 1830s revolutionized farming. In 1831, Cyrus McCormick introduced the first successful horse-drawn reaper (top photo), which could cut as much grain in one day as ten men. In 1837, John Deere developed a steel plow (bottom photo) tough enough to break the hard prairie sod. Soon their companies, and others, were mass producing new farming equipment. The law of supply and demand tied the agricultural West and the industrial East together, making each dependant on the other.
Daniel Freeman has been recognized as America’s first homesteader, filing his claim to 160 acres of land in southeast Nebraska near the present town of Beatrice shortly after midnight on January 1, 1863. The last citizen to file a homestead claim was Kenneth Deardorff, a 29 year old Vietnam veteran, who homesteaded on land in southwest Alaska in 1974. The Homestead Act expired in 1976 in the lower 48 states, and in 1986 in Alaska.
Daniel Freeman and his family prospered, becoming prominent Nebraska citizens, and today their original farm is the Homestead National Monument of America. The monument includes the Homestead Heritage Center, where visitors can watch a film on the homesteading experience and see displays on the Homestead Act and how it changed America.
Exhibits include pioneer artifacts, oral histories, and many photographs of early settlers. The impact of the Homestead Act on Native Americans is also recognized, with displays on how the westward movement displaced them from their traditional lands.
Adjacent to the Heritage Center are several acres of tallgrass prairie that have been restored to the time of the first homesteaders. A mile from the Heritage Center, the carefully preserved Freeman School was a center of education for prairie children from 1872 until 1967. During its long history, the school was also a meeting place for the First Trinity Lutheran Church, the polling place for Blakely Township, and a gathering place for many debates, socials, and clubs. Today visitors can slip into a desk and get a feel for what it was like to be a pioneer schoolchild, or step to the front of the classroom and see things from a teacher’s perspective.
The nearby Education Center houses early farming equipment, a display of barbed wire, and the cabin George W. Palmer built in 1867, which was home to his family, including ten children, until 1895. The one room cabin was sold to Lawrence and Ida Mumford Epard, who lived in it for nearly 40 more years!
The Homestead Act of 1862 was a pivotal event in American history and was responsible for much of our nation’s growth, and there is no better place to learn about this important time in our history than at the Homestead National Monument of America.
The Homestead National Monument of America is located four miles west of Beatrice, Nebraska, on State Highway 4. From the U.S. 77 and U.S. 136 intersection in downtown Beatrice, take U.S. 136 approximately 1½ miles west, turn right onto Nebraska Highway 4 and follow the signs.
There is room for any size RV to park at the Heritage Center, but parking at the Education Center would be for smaller RVs only, and the Freeman School only has room for conventional cars and pickup trucks.
The Homestead National Monument of America is open Monday – Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and Saturday – Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 5 p.m. Outdoor trails are open from dawn to dusk. Homestead National Monument of America is a No Fee park. Admission, parking, and special events are all free of charge.
The Heritage Center and Education Center are wheelchair accessible. Wheelchairs, assisted listening devices, and special assistance are available upon request at both facilities. Service animals are welcome. For more information, call (402) 223-3514 or visit the park’s website at https://www.nps.gov/home/index.htm
Thought For The Day – I’m not lazy, I’m just very relaxed.