July/August issue of Capper's Magazine featured an article titled
"Birth of America's Breadbasket," telling of the thousands who first
settled the Great Plains. The article quoted historians at the Homestead
National Monument of America, a museum near Beatrice, Neb., dedicated
to the first homesteaders. They came from across America and around
the world to file claims for free land under the Homestead Act adopted
Signed by President Abraham Lincoln, the act offered 160 acres of
land to any qualified homesteader who paid a modest filing fee,
built a home, planted at least 10 acres of crops and remained on
his land for five years. If you met these requirements you received
legal title to the land.
Not only is the act thought to be the most important act ever passed
by the government, it gave birth to the "breadbasket of the world."
Between 1870 and 1900, more than 2 million settlers took advantage
of this "almost free land" opportunity.
The cheap land was not a bargain in personal sacrifice. Enduring
drought, blizzards, locusts, hailstorms, poor communication and
national financial panics, about 60 percent of the 2 million plus
claims were abandoned at least once.
On the success side, about 783,000 claims were sustained, eventually
comprising 270 million acres in titles issued. Montana had the most
claims with North Dakota, Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma and South
Dakota following. Almost all states boasted claims, including Alaska.
Arriving in wagons, and in most cases without the presence of trees
for lumber, most claimants had to dig holes in the ground or build
houses of sod in order to be protected from the elements. As financial
conditions improved, small frame houses were built, many on top
of or beside the dugouts and soddies to provide for growing families.
Many early settlers earned money by picking up bleached buffalo
bones left by the hide hunters. Some had to harvest the bones before
they could plow their crop land.
The boom or bust years were caused both by nature and by the settlers
themselves as they tried to increase the production of their lands.
This greed and overproduction, along with severe drought led to
the Dust Bowl, lasting six years and bringing much suffering and
poverty to the settlers. When coupled with the Great Depression
survival was next to impossible.
The Homestead National Monument of America was established on the
claim of Daniel Freeman, filing his claim on Jan. 1, 1863, considered
to be the first legally filed homesteader. The museum grounds display
includes an early cabin and school dating back to the earliest homesteading
days. If you are ever in this area it is worth your effort to visit.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to these early settlers who set
the standard for toughness, patience, frugality and faith. This
is what built America.
© Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew"
November 9 , 2010 column