by lyle e davis
With all the economic troubles this nation has had recently, perhaps it’s time to revisit an historic idea and, perhaps, bring it back.
Remember the old Homestead Law?
It was probably one of the most important acts for the welfare of the people ever passed in the United States. It stimulated the movement of large masses of people into the undiscovered, unclaimed (other than by the government) lands of the continent.
Thousands of people flocked to these lands. Under this law any man or woman twenty-one years old or the head of a family could have 160 acres of land by living on it five years and paying about eighteen dollars in fees. For the first eighty years of United States history there were no free homesteads. The settlers were obliged to buy their land. The price was low but they were often very poor and in many cases lost their land after living upon and improving it because they had no money to pay for it.
In 1852 a party, called the Free Soil party, demanded free homesteads for the people. In 1854 the first free homestead bill was introduced in Congress by Congressman Galusha A. Grow of Pennsylvania. The people of the West and poor people everywhere were in favor of the bill. There was strong opposition to it, however.
The first Homestead Act required the settler to pay twenty-five cents an acre for his land and was passed in 1860. This bill was vetoed by President Buchanan. It was not until May 20, 1862, that the free Homestead Act was finally passed and signed by President Abraham Lincoln. The law took effect on January 1, 1863. They were also required to live on the land, build a home, make improvements and farm the land before they could own it outright. Alternatively, the homesteader could purchase the land for $1.25 per acre after having lived on the land for six months.
The first free homestead in the United States was taken by Daniel Freeman on Cub Creek in Gage County, Nebraska, about five miles northwest of present day Beatrice. Daniel Freeman was born in Ohio in 1826, and moved with his parents to Illinois in 1835. He was intensely interested in the free homestead bill from the time it was first introduced in Congress. Year after year he watched its progress and hoped for its passage and many times said that he wished to be the first man to take a homestead. When the free homestead bill was signed, Daniel Freeman was a soldier in the Union army. A few months later he was given a brief furlough and came to Nebraska to look over the beautiful country, then lying vacant, for a home. He found the place that suited him and started for the nearest United States land office, which was then at Brownville, Nebraska, arriving there December 31, 1862. The little town was thronged with settlers who had come there to take land. That night there was a New Year's Eve party at the hotel, which was attended by all.
The new Homestead Act was to go into effect the next day but as New Year's was a holiday the land office would not be open until January 2nd. Mr. Freeman was under orders to join his regiment and expected to leave the next day. He told his story and his great desire to be the first homesteader in the United States. All the others agreed that he should have the first chance and with him persuaded a clerk in the land office to open the office a few minutes past midnight on January 1st for Daniel Freeman alone.
Thus it came that Daniel Freeman made homestead entry number one and afterwards received homestead patent number one for 160 acres on Cub Creek near Beatrice. Thus Nebraska has the honor of having the first homestead in the United States.
Since that time over 1,000,000 homesteaders have followed Daniel Freeman's example, receiving over 120,000,000 acres of land as a free gift from our government. Of these homesteaders, over 100,000 have lived in Nebraska. Nothing has helped so much in the settlement of the West as its free lands. One of the songs sung everywhere after the passage of the Homestead Act had for its refrain these words:
"Come along, come along, make no delay,
Come from every nation, come from every way,
Our lands they are broad enough, have no alarm
For Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm."
Daniel Freeman served his country in the Unionarmy until the close of the Civil War, in 1865. Then he brought his bride, Agnes, and settled on his Nebraska homestead. This has remained ever since the family home. Here their seven children grew to manhood and womanhood and here Mrs. Freeman lived with children and grandchildren.
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 requirements. People interested in Homesteading first had to file their intentions at the nearest Land Office and after a check for any ownership claims, the prospector paid a filing fee of $10 to claim the land temporarily, as well as a $2 commission to the land agent.
Today, Freeman’s homestead continues to stand as the Homestead National Monument near Beatrice, Nebraska. Freeman lived on and worked the land until his death on December 30, 1908. His wife Agnes Sutter Freeman continued to live on the homestead until shortly before her death in 1931. In 1936, by an act of the United States Congress, the site of Freeman's homestead was recognized as the "first" homestead in the United States when it was designated the Homestead National Monument of America.
The national monument comprises the original homestead claim of Daniel Freeman, the Freeman School, constructed in 1872, one other historic cabin, Freeman's grave, and tree plantings. The property is administered by the National Park Service. Homestead National Monument of America is located in southeastern Nebraska, 40 miles south of Lincoln and 4 miles west of Beatrice on NE Highway 4.
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 regarding land improvement and sign the "proof" document.
After successful completion of this final form and payment of a $6 fee, the homesteader received the patent for the land, signed with the name of the current President of the United States. This paper was often proudly displayed on a cabin wall and represented the culmination of hard work and determination.
By the end of the 19th century, over 570 million acres remained open to settlement, but very little of this was usable for agriculture. As the Frontier moved west onto the arid Great Plains, the amount of land a homesteader was allowed to claim was increased to 640 acres.
In Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado, homesteading cut into the access of the large ranches to the public domain where hundreds of thousands of cattle were grazed upon the open range, a practice called free grazing. The ranchers fought back by themselves (or their cowboys) homesteading prime spots which gave access to water. At times tensions escalated into violence, conflicts called range wars, for example, the Johnson County War in Wyoming
Ironically, the Homestead Act was often used as a scam. Usually, the land that was available was in too poor a shape to farm on, especially in the middle of the plains where droughts were common occurrences. Because of hardships like these, not many families actually stayed for the entire five years.
Many corporations also took advantage of this act. They would pay people to buy the top-of-the-line property which contained an abundance of resources such as timber, minerals, and oil. Then the settlers would claim later on that they had "improved" the land. In reality, the improvements made to the land were minimal.
The Homestead Act of 1912 reduced the homestead requirement from five to three years; however, by this time most of the land in the lower 48 states had already been taken.
The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 substantially decreased the amount of land available to homesteaders in the West. Because much of the prime land had been homesteaded decades earlier, successful Homestead claims dropped sharply after this time.
Homesteading continued on a small scale in Alaska. Much of the remaining public domain was included in the National Forests or is administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 ended homesteading; the government believing that the best use of public lands was for them to remain in government control. The only exception to this new policy was Alaska, for which the law allowed homesteading until 1986.
The last claim under the Homestead Act was made by Kenneth Deardorff for 80 acres of land on the Stony River in south-western Alaska. He fulfilled all requirements of the Homestead Act in 1979, but he did not actually receive his patent until May 1988. Therefore, he is the very last person to receive the title to land claimed under the provisions of the Homestead Act.
Homestead farmers, who claimed some 270 million acres over the years, became the agricultural producers to the nation as a whole. Additionally, strong communities with a commitment to social values, education, and personal responsibility were spawned throughout the territories covered by the Homestead lands.
The economic, agricultural, and social stability generated by the Homestead Act was utterly inconceivable in other times and places -- and formed a large part of the foundation of American prosperity in the 20th century.
Mr. Freeman died December 30, 1908. This first homestead is a beautiful farm in the valley where the prairie and timber land join. The old log cabin with sod roof, which was the first home of the Freeman family, has long since disappeared.
There is a brick house and orchard, and an old freighting road, from Missouri River to the mountains runs for nearly a mile through the place, with rows of giant cottonwoods planted by Mr. Freeman on either side. On the hill at one corner of the farm, overlooking the valley and the freighting road is the grave of Daniel Freeman. It is proposed that the United States shall purchase this first homestead from the Freeman family and make it a public park to commemorate what is regarded as the most important law passed by the United States and the place where that law was first applied.
Homestead National Monument
8523 W. State Highway 4
Beatrice, Nebraska 68310
The Homestead Act - Creating Prosperity in America
Excerpted from the book, History and Stories of Nebraska, by Addison Erwin Sheldon, 1913. (now in the public domain.)
Addison Erwin Sheldon (1861-1943) was director of the Nebraska Historic Society, and wrote numerous books devoted to the history of Nebraska. Many of the photographs and illustrations in his many texts were also taken and drawn by Sheldon.
Is there enough land still owned by the US government that another Homestead Act could be enacted? Yes. The question is, is the land worth anything? Can it be developed into agricultural or other uses?
Again, the answer is Yes and Maybe.
There is plenty of land in the desert. Is there, or could there be a water source? Maybe. You’ll recall our friend, the Mormons, turned what was once a desert into some mighty fine farm land. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
There is also still a lot of land in Alaska . . . and national forest lands that could be utilized, as long as it was well planned.
In these troubled economic times, it’s one more avenue that should be explored: a way to enable families to own their own land, to work it, to make it productive, and to grow, as a family, as a community.
It’s been done before. Could happen again.