October 14, 2010

Homestead of America National Monument, Beatrice, Nebraska

Today we left Kearney and cruised past Lincoln and down to Beatrice, NE which is home to the Homestead National Monument of America. This National Park Service unit hold what was one of the very first homestead claims filed after the Homestead Act of 1862 went into effect, homesteaded by Daniel Freeman.

They have been restoring the tallgrass prairie to how it looked when Daniel Freeman filed his claim in 1862
Freeman was a land surveyor and knew the area very well and thus came in on the first day available to file a claim for the "perfect site", 160 acres which included woods, water, and open prairie. Most people who homesteaded actually didn't know what they were getting into and claimed land site-unseen.

This tiny cabin hosted 12 people! The kids slept in the 3-foot high loft.
In summer, you imagine everyone was outside working on improving their homestead. How they dealt with winter, I have no way to imagine, but it could not have been fun. Notice, no fireplace, only a tiny little woodstove for heat and cooking. They could have only cooked for 2 people at a time on it, so mom must have been cooking almost constantly to feed everyone.

The kitchen AND bedroom downstairs. That's it. The toilet is under the bed.
Basically what a homesteader had to do is walk into a land office in the region they were interested in and they would show you a list of available lands, a map, and a written description of the site. Then you claimed it. The vast majority of the people never saw it before they took it and most were unprepared for what lay ahead and too poor to have the necessary equipment to live comfortably.

They had to pick up to four 40 acre squares that were adjacent to each other. This could result in a large square of 160 acres, a line, or even a T-shaped block. They would prefer it if water was available and wood was also great. But, the best lands were taken first, so many people did not have that option and moved out onto prairie or desert with no wood or water. Or, in the case of the Pacific Northwest, they were forced to clear enormous old-growth forests just to have a plot to grow some crops.

Compared to the mixed-grass prairies we saw in South Dakota, you can see why this is called Tallgrass Prairie
Then, you had to "prove up" your land by building a home and growing crops and making other "improvements". Then you had to live on the land for 5 years before you would recieve the deed to the land. In a prairie landscape devoid of wood or water, they relied on prairie sod for their home, buffalo chips for their firewood, and worked tirelessly hauling water for miles and catching rain/snow until they could dig a well.

More than half of all claims failed. But, in the end, some 270 million acres of land, mostly in the midwest and Pacific states was transferred. Obviously, the fertile lands of the Great Plains were most successful, while claims in the Desert Southwest and Rockies failed. When a claim failed, it reverted back to government hands. The museum showed the % of each state that was claimed. The majority of the states in the Great Plains, as well as, large chunks of California, Washington, Oregon, and Montana were claimed. Nevada had by far the least, which is why it remains 95% owned by the federal government.

The deep and thick roots of prairie grasses make plowing the soil extremely difficult
Can YOU imagine the incredible work involved building your home from sod, or digging a trench and covering it with canvas until you could build a better shelter years later? How about having 4, 5, or even 8 kids in a two-room cabin? How about digging a well, hunting your food, and trying to grow crops in sub-optimal growing areas.
This creek and this burr oak forest (rare in Nebraska) made this an ideal homestead site for Freeman
It was amazing the exhibit they had with people from homesteads in various places struggling to make it. They had these images of people freezing in North Dakota, a man drying rabbit meet on sticks in the Arizona desert, a family in the boreal forests of Alaska, building sod houses, planting corn in dust, and so forth. It was an amazing photo documentation.

The west was certainly a tough landscape. But, the real challenges came to the Native Americans who saw their best hunting, farming, and gathering lands taken. Who were displaced onto reservations, until land speculators decided to take the reservations and move them even further out.

Hilina enjoying playing with the fluff of milkweed pods
There is a reason the majority of reservations today sit on some of the worst lands in the country. The badlands of South Dakota are not the primarily lands for the Lakota Souix! It was the prairies full of buffalo and the Black Hills full of timber and game. But, today, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is among the poorest places in the country. The good stuff was taken.

It is a story of American triumph and immense sorrow...But, it is still one of the most important stories America has to tell and this Homestead National Monument tells it well!

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