Nov 25, 2013

Learning about Homesteaders while in Nebraska

When John and I were in Nebraska we learned more about the
impact of the Homestead Act of 1862 on America’s Westward Movement. The video “Land of Dreams” told how the lure of free land and a better life drew1.6 million people from all over the world to unsettled parts of America.   The romanticism touted by promoters did not mention the hardships and other problems.  Homesteaders had to “Prove up” the land by building a home and planting crops.  However many had never farmed and didn’t even own farm equipment, but most toiled and survived.  
There were some who became discouraged and left. One such disenchanted soul wrote upon leaving, that the Great American Desert is “where it rains grasshoppers, fire and destruction.” About 40 percent “proved up” their land and earned a deed. Homesteaders had to make use of what they found in a land that was virtually a sea of grass. They used sod bricks for construction, buffalo chips for fuel and the ceaseless wind to pump water from the ground. Under the Homestead Act 160 acres were given to any applicant who was the head of a household and 21 years old provided that the person settled on the land for five years and then paid a small filing fee. If settlers wished to obtain title earlier, they could do so after six months by paying $1.25 an acre. 

Those who struggled to survive built a community and that meant a
school. The school also served as a community center.  I visited the Freeman School just west of Homestead National Monument’s visitor center. The Freeman School was named in honor for Daniel Freeman the first homesteader in Blakely Township, and perhaps the nation, and upon whose land Homestead National Monument of America is located and one of the people who helped to construct the school. I was surprised to learn that the Homestead Act was in effect for 123 years offering land deals in 30 states. In 1976 it was repealed in the coterminous 48 states but claims were allowed in Alaska until 1986 but the last homestead claim was filed by Ken Deardorff in 1974 for 80 acres on the Stony River in Alaska. 

Homesteaders were diverse. The National Park is actively searching for descendants of homesteaders. At the park’s educational center they had pennants honoring famous descendants of homesteaders. Included were Lawrence Welk, George Washington Carver, Whoopi Goldberg, Laura Ingles Wilder, Chet Huntley, and Willa Cather. Willa Cather was born in Virginia and was 7 when her family moved to Nebraska.  She late wrote in “My Antonia” that when people got off the train they found themselves in a sea of grass.  “There was nothing but land; not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.  I felt I left the world behind.” 

We stopped for wonderful lunch of mac and cheese at the Black
Crow in the nearby town of Beatrice topping off a great day. 

It often pays to buy a National Park Pass if you plan to visit more than one park. It allows holder of the pass and three accompanying adults to enjoy the park for free.  I think the best deal the government has ever offered is the Senior Access Pass.  For $10 if offers lifetime access to more than 2,000 sites for those 62 and older.  John says, “I never leave home without it.