Most of the 33 million schoolchildren in this country today have never set foot on a farm. In fact, only two of every 100 Americans now live on a farm, and less than 1 percent of the 300 million people in our country claim farming as their occupation.
But many of us can trace our heritage to parents, grandparents or great-grandparents who spent their lives on a farm. About 93 million Americans living today are the descendants of homesteaders who filed claims under the Homestead Act, according to historians at the Homestead National Monument of America, located near Beatrice, Nebraska.
My wife and I are among them. My maternal grandfather left his boyhood home near Springfield, Illinois, in the early 1900s to homestead 160 acres of prairie in western Nebraska. My wife’s great-
grandfather brought his family to the United States from Germany in the 1880s to claim a homestead in northeastern Nebraska. Her grandfather later claimed his own homestead in South Dakota.
Beginning in 1863, the words “free land” became a siren call for landless U.S. citizens, freed slaves and hundreds of thousands of European immigrants after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act. The act, which 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 or her claim for at least five years, has been called the most important act ever passed for the benefit of the American people. It ultimately helped create the most productive agricultural economy the world has ever seen.
The lure of free land prompted millions of Europeans to immigrate to the United States in the years following the Civil War. Some left their homelands because of crop failures and economic depression. Others sought political and religious freedom, or to escape constant warfare. They came from Germany and Czechoslovakia, from Sweden and Norway, from England and Russia.
Between 1870 and 1900, more than two million immigrants had settled on the Great Plains. You can still find their descendants living in places like Denmark, Kansas; Bruno, Nebraska; New Holland, South Dakota; Bismarck, North Dakota; and Glasgow, Montana.
Drive through the rural United States today, and you’ll see tidy farmsteads with neatly painted homes, grain bins, barns and equipment sheds. Lush fields of corn and soybeans thrive under sprinkler irrigation systems, and cattle grow fat in pastures and feedlots. But imagine that same countryside a century or more ago, when homesteaders made the arduous journey west in a horse-drawn wagon.
Once they arrived at their destinations, the first obstacle they faced was to build a home. In forested states, plentiful trees could be cut to build a cabin. But as the agricultural frontier advanced into the vast, treeless tracts of the western High Plains, settlers were forced to make do with the resources at hand. And that often meant building a “soddie” from plowed strips of buffalo grass, or excavating a dugout in the side of a hill.
Sometimes homes were built one stage at a time. When she was small, my mother and her family lived for a time in a “basement house,” a single room excavated from the ground and covered with a temporary roof until the cash was available to complete the aboveground part of the house.
New homesteaders quickly discovered it was backbreaking work to ‘bust’ the native sod with a walking plow hitched behind a team of oxen or horses. And after the fields had been plowed and planted, settlers still faced the perils of drought, hailstorms, prairie fires, blizzards, relentless wind and swarms of locusts.
Most early settlers planted corn. Settlers in Kansas soon discovered that sorghum was better adapted to an arid climate. Eventually, many farms across the High Plains would be planted to hard red winter wheat.
The hardships and loneliness of prairie life proved too much for many homesteaders, and about 60 percent of approximately two million claims made under the Homestead Act were abandoned. Still, some 783,000 claims totaling 270 million acres were successfully “proved up.” They included 151,600 homesteads in Montana; more than 118,000 in North Dakota; approximately 100,000 each in the states of Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma and South Dakota; and nearly 90,000 in Kansas. Hundreds of thousands of additional homesteads were claimed in states reaching from Alabama to California, from Arizona to Alaska.
The homesteaders who struggled to survive a century ago would scarcely recognize the agricultural powerhouse our country has become. Farmers in the United States each year now produce more than $200 billion of cattle, hogs, poultry and eggs, grains, fruit, vegetables, and dairy products.
The Homestead National Monument of America is located on the original homestead claim of Daniel Freeman, who filed his claim January 1, 1863, and is considered America’s first homesteader. The monument is open to visitors and includes an 1867 cabin and a school built in 1872. It is located west of Beatrice, about 40 miles south of the state capital of Lincoln.
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