Saturday, July 26, 2008

Death of an Indian Child

Homesteading meant displacement of native Indians. By the Treaty of Echota, the Cherokees had to leave their land under very dire conditions. Emory Stoops in Prairie Pioneers (p. 43), paints the final day and burial of a young Cherokee.

"Cherko, ten years old, tried to walk and do everything that his father, Josiah, could do. He kept up with his older brothers and sisters. [But] Before the party reached western Kentucky, his mother, Sekwana, had fallen many times with exhaustion and had to be placed in one of the wagons. Cherko’s crude shoes had worn out, and his feet were bleeding and cold. Others, too, were leaving red splotches in the snow. None of his family had been able to bring sufficient clothing to resist the bitter winds of winter. Rain, sleet, and snow bedeviled them by day and soaked their inadequate blankets by night."

"The day after Cherko’s mother, Sekwana, was placed in the wagon, his older brother awoke with a high temperature and coughing from the sleeping in wet, cold clothes and blankets. He, too, was placed in the wagon, but that night he “went out of his head” with high fever and died of pneumonia before dawn. He had to be buried. Burial was crude, hurried, and cruel. Some of the stronger men helped Josiah dig a shallow trench. The body, not quite cooled, was wrapped in his own wet and dirty blankets and lowered into the trench. A younger chief uttered a few words in Cherokee. The army bugle sounded march. Older men shoved wet and mucky dirt over his young face and his two-thirds grown body."

"Here he would lie, remembered only by his kin, in an unmarked, unremembered place."

Links of interest:

New Echota

Official site of the Cherokee Nation

History of the Cherokee

Constitution of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma

Trail of Tears National Historic Trail

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Why the Homestead Act?

Why did the 37th United States Congress pass the Homestead Act which was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862?

Was it because of Manifest Destiny? Manifest Destiny was a 19th century concept concerning U. S. territorial expansion that promoted the idea that it was the destiny of the United States to control North America from Coast to Coast. It was the belief it was the destiny of the United States to spread democracy, “America” culture, and the American economy over all of North America. Some believed that expansion into "uncivilized" regions would spread progress and democracy. It was convenient for all to think that they had the divine right to acquire and dominate because they had the proper economic system and the most developed culture and belonged to the most advanced race. To some people in the 19th century it was more than “destiny,” it was a “pre-ordained by Providence” for America to expand Coast to Coast.

Was the Homestead Act passed to promote big business and aid American industrial expansion? As a result of the Mexican War [1846-1848] what is now California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas, and a good portion of what is now Colorado became United States territory. To tie the existing States together with this new western territory is was deemed essential to build a transcontinental railroad. But this would mean building a railroad across the Great Plains which had been designated “Permanent Indian Territory” by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. To remedy this the Kansas-Nebraska Act was created in 1854 opening up most of the Great Plains for settlement and leaving just Oklahoma as “Permanent Indian Territory” [see the Homestead Congress blog from March 22, 2008]. The Act creating the Transcontinental Railroad was signed into law on July 1, 1862, just a few weeks after the Homestead Act was signed by President Lincoln. A railroad across the Great Plains needed customers. Was the Homestead Act created to speed up settlement of the Great Plains so the railroad would have customers? The newly expanding industries of America needed to produce and sell more. Settlement on the Great Plains would create new markets for American Industry. Was the Homestead Act created to aid American industrial expansion? Are Manifest Destiny and Industrial Expansion linked?

Was the Homestead Act designed to meet the Jeffersonian ideal of a nation of yeoman farmers? Thomas Jefferson believed the yeoman farmer best exemplified virtue and independence from corrupting city influences. He opposed industrialization. Jefferson specifically believed "Those who labor in the earth... are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people." He believed government policy should be for the benefit of the farmer. He wanted a nation of yeoman farmers.

Was the Homestead Act passed for a higher ideal—an ideal expressed in the Declaration of Independence, that all men had the right to pursue happiness? It was long presumed Jefferson's phrase meant just as it was described by U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Johnson Field in 1884: “Among these inalienable rights, as proclaimed in that great document, is the right of men to pursue their happiness, by which is meant the right to pursue any lawful business or vocation, in any manner not inconsistent with the equal rights of others, which may increase their prosperity or develop their faculties, so as to give to them their highest enjoyment.”

These Presidents of the United States believe the Homestead Act was created to facilitate this higher ideal.

Harry S. Truman, June 4, 1948: “The newcomers quickly learned their way about and soon felt at home. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided them, as well as many other pioneers, with an opportunity ….”

Lyndon B. Johnson, August 26, 1965: “Like the lawmakers in our past who created the Homestead Act….we say that it is right and that it is just, and that it is a function of government, and that we are going to carry out that responsibility to help our people get back on their feet and share once again in the blessings of America life.”

Ronald Reagan, August 1, 1983: “This promise was made real, thanks to the hard work, the dedication, and commitment….of the America people….to law’s that created opportunity; for example, historic legislation like the Homestead Act….”

George H. W. Bush, November 28, 1990: “Abraham Lincoln's Homestead Act empowered people; it freed people from the burden of poverty. It freed them to control their own destinies, to create their own opportunities, and to live the vision of the American Dream.”

George W. Bush, January 20, 2005: “In America's ideal of freedom, citizens find the dignity and security of economic independence instead of laboring on the edge of subsistence. This is the broader definition of liberty that motivated the Homestead Act, the Social Security Act, and the GI Bill of Rights.”

Abraham Lincoln, July 4, 1861: “This is essentially a People's contest. On the side of the Union, it is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men---to lift artificial weights from all shoulders---to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all---to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life. Yielding to partial, and temporary departures, from necessity, this is the leading object of the government for whose existence we contend.”

What do you think?

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Spirits of Modern Homesteading

Thanks to the amazing photographs of Solomon D. Butcher, the thought of homesteaders brings to my mind a very precise image: I see a proud but stern family: the shy daughters, dressed in the same fabric; the sons obediently lined up next to them, mom holding a baby and dad, a large brim hat in hands, looking tired but pleased by this togetherness. The conjugal bed and their cattle have been displayed in front of their dreary dugout for all to admire.

Through the seriousness of this family, I grasp the importance of this moment. This humble and nameless family knows, it seems, that a page of the American history is being written. It is witnessing gracefully the hardship of its life to the future generations.

These aged photographs could lead us into forgetting the more modern homesteaders: the ones who up to 1986 benefited from the Homestead Act in Alaska.

The recent obituaries of the Anchorage Daily News (2007) unveil these modern homesteaders and from their life story, we can recognize the early pioneers.

The love of land and of outdoor life is a must for any pioneer.

Scott McKean, (born in 1955) fell in love with Alaska and decided to make it his home… He homesteaded land in close proximity to Lake Larson near Talkeetna, where he was building a cabin of his own…. Scott loved fishing, camping and everything to do with nature. He led an adventurous life, hitchhiking across the United States several times…(Anchorage Daily News, June 13, 2007).

Like a true pioneer, Beulah Mary Colborn, born in 1921, knew the importance of postponing domestic comfort in order to develop a future income.

In the 1950s, during the territorial years, she began the homesteading process in Big Lake. Living in a wall tent, she and her husband built a sawmill, erected a two-story home and ran a service station for the local airstrip and community (Anchorage Daily News, July 20, 2007).

Beulah Mary Colborn testified that education was important for any pioneers. In addition to home schooling her own children, she was instrumental in developing the first Quonset hut school in 1960 (Anchorage Daily News, July 20, 2007).

As you can guess, traveling to their destination was easier in the 1950s. The new Alaskans used the highway en route to their land, quite unimaginable in the first days of homesteading. Dolores (Maxine Pullen) and Harvey drove up the Alaska Highway, arriving with their children and all their belongings in 1958. They crossed into Alaska on the day Alaska became a state (Anchorage Daily News, July 11, 2007).

It is easy to discover through these antique photographs, as well through these contemporary obituaries, the true spirit of the pioneers: goal oriented and hard working persons.

Editor's note: The photograph is not a picture of Mr. McKean but rather an illustration of a modern Alaskan homestead.