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Homesteaders Act
greatest act ever passed

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew

The 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 in 1863.

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
Delbert Trew is a freelance writer and retired rancher. He can be reached at 806-779-3164, by mail at Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002, or by e-mail at trewblue@centramedia.net. For books see DelbertTrew.com. His column appears weekly.

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This page last modified: November 9, 2010