Saturday, December 26, 2009

Homestead Records Groundbreaking Genealogy Research

As you all know, Homestead National Monument of America (HOME) does a lot of things that are easily visible to the public. First and foremost the rangers at the park interpret the significance of the Homestead Act and its influence on the shaping of this country to public through exhibits, tours, and presentations. There is also the preservation of the restored tall grass prairie, preservation of the historic Palmer-Epard cabin and Freeman School, and the many special events organized by the monument. But one of the most important, and least visible, projects that HOME is working on is the Homestead Land Records Project which is now in its tenth year.

Paul Abbott (standing) with FamilySearch, instructs volunteers Don and Marilyn Vickers on the use of the dCamX camera at the National Archives and Records Administration.

The legislation creating Homestead National Monument of America in 1936 charged the Secretary of the Interior with making the newly created unit of the National Park Service a “repository for literature applying to settlement” resulting from the Homestead Act of 1862. Accordingly, the monument has since 1999 pursued the goal of making to homestead records available to its visitors and staff for research purposes.

Homestead records are fantastic resource for historical and genealogical information. Along with the legal description of the land and the name of the person filing the claim there can often be found information about a homesteader's date and place of birth, the names of children that lived on the homestead, naturalization information about immigrant homesteaders, notations regarding military service, the types of crops planted on the homestead, trees cleared, fences built, wells dug, the value and kinds of homes and other buildings on the site, and more. If the person filing the claim died and a widow or heirs completed the claim, a date of death is given and relationships are explained. The case files preserve materials of considerable historic and genealogical significance. For instance, the file of Charles Ingalls, father of Laura Ingalls Wilder, includes documentation that his family left their homestead during the winters of 1881-82 and 1882-83 so the children could attend school.

The entire collection of federal homestead records contains an estimated 30 million archival documents. All of these records are currently stored at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C. The records exist only in their original paper form. They are printed on acid-based paper and stored in their original acid-based paper envelopes. As are all original documents, they are subject to natural deterioration as well as the dangers of fire and water damage. The records are available to the public but are organized in such a manner than a researcher must know the legal land description of the homestead they wishes to see. No name index to this collection currently exists and due to the size of the collection NARA had no plan in place to microfilm or digitize the collection.

The Homestead Records Project has evolved over time. The first incarnation of the project involved a plan for the acquisition of the homestead records by HOME from NARA. It was determined that this would not be feasible due to the amount of climate controlled space the documents would require and the fragility of the documents themselves. Next, it was decided that records would be microfilmed and made available for public access and research at HOME. This stage included the completion of a pilot project in 2006 in which approximately 60,000 documents from the Broken Bow, Nebraska US Land Office were microfilmed and made available for research at HOME. As plans for microfilming another Nebraska land office’s records were being worked out it was decided that digitization technology had reached a stage where it was a viable access and preservation alternative. The current stage in the projects involves the digitizing of the land records and making them available online. The Broken Bow, Nebraska land office records were digitized first since the process is easier to digitize microfilm than it is to digitize fragile paper documents. A pilot project began in 2009 to begin photographing over 300,000 documents from the Nebraska City/Lincoln US Land Office. As of the writing of this blog article this pilot project is 40% complete with an expected completion date sometime in July, 2010.

It should be made very clear that this project could never have moved forward to the point where it is now without the partnerships of several other organizations. From the very early stages of the project the University of Nebraska’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities has been involved with the planning and implementation of the pilot projects and continues to be a valuable partner in this endeavor. Volunteers from FamilySearch are currently in the NARA collections center tirelessly photographing the documents from the Nebraska City/Lincoln US Land Office. After a group of images is indexed it is sent to to be made available on their website. And, of course, the partnership with NARA allows for access to the collections and workspace in which to photograph the documents. In the coming years HOME, along with these valued partners, hope to digitize the remaining homesteading records from Nebraska and other states. These records will be uploaded to as they become available.

Historians, amateur genealogists, and the public have free access to this database through computer terminals in the lobby of the Heritage Center at HOME. This access will also be available at NARA, FamilySearch’s Family History Centers, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Access to the records can also be obtained through by subscription.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Enjoying the Natural Resources in the winter at Homestead National Monument of America

“What a bleak boring, place, I’ll come back in the summer to walk the trails,” is a comment that I regularly hear while working with visitors during the winter months. This is my opening to explain the beauty and adventure that the walking trails at Homestead National Monument of America offers during every season.
Cross country skiers at the Monument
Contributed by Jesse Bolli, Resource Management Specialist
at Homestead National Monument of America

True the winter months don’t offer you the opportunity to see the kaleidoscope of colors that the prairie offers in the summer when the wildflowers are at their peak, but, it is a great opportunity to learn about the mammals of the Monument.

According to a 2004 survey Homestead is home to at least thirty-one different mammals. Winter is a great time to observe mammals. Okay, so not all are easy to see but winter does help for some. Without the cover of herbaceous plants in the woodland the white-tailed deer are easy to spot. As many as 93 have be count on the Monument at once. That still does not guarantee that you will see one.

Mammals that you won’t see in the winter include the bats. Four different species were identified during the 2004 study. It is great fun to watch them at dusk during the campfire programs on Saturday nights in the summer, however, during the winter the Big Brown Bat hibernates, most likely in a cave or other underground structure, the Eastern Red Bat may migrate south or hibernate in hollow trees or leaf litter, the Northern Long-eared Bat hibernates in caves and research still needs to be done to figure out what exactly the Evening Bat does during the winter. Woodchucks and thirteen-lined ground squirrels are the only other animals that hibernate at the Monument. Most of the mammal species remain active all winter long including: white-tailed deer, eastern cottontail rabbits, red squirrels, coyotes, red foxes, armadillos, beavers, muskrats, minks, least weasels, mice, shrews, moles, and voles.

A few however, like the striped skunk, raccoons, opossums, and badgers sleep or enter states of of torpor during bad weather.

So now you are aware that at least 31 species of mammals occur at the Monument why can’t you see any of them? First you need to be patient, observant and quiet. Still many of these species are rather hard to find so I encourage you to use signs to help tell the story. Scat and tracks can take a gray winter walk to a new level.

My three year olds daughter’s favorite book at the time is Who Pooped in the Park by Gary Robson. The book takes you on a walk through Yellowstone National Park, on the trip they have many encounters with fierce animals such as the gray wolf, badger, grizzly bear and mountain lion; however, they are not scary because they are encounters of the “poopy” kind.

On that next warm winter afternoon or after the next snow I encourage you to see who pooped in the park while enjoying the trails at Homestead National Monument of America. While I cannot guarantee that you will see a white-tailed deer or any other mammal, I can guarantee tracks and scat.


Bowers, N., R. Bowers and K. Kaufman. 2004. Mammals of North America. Houghton Mifflin, New York, NY. 352 pp.

Harvey, M. J., J. S. Altenbach and T. L. Best. 1999. Bats of the United States. Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Arkansas. 64 pp.

Robbins, L. 2005. Inventory of Distribution, Composition, and Relative Abundance of Mammals, including Bats a Homestead National Monument of America. Missouri. Technical Report NPS/HTLN/HOME/ J6370040013. 19 pp.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Homestead Act Quilt

Homestead Act Quilt

Made by Homestead National Monument Volunteer Rhonda Eddy

This quilt was donated to the park for the 2007 Dedication of the Heritage Center. Mrs. Eddy hand-quilted the top in a similar fashion as pioneers by using a large hoop and spending many hours working on her lap. It took nearly six months to complete. Different colors of thread were used just as a thrifty pioneer would have. Pioneers used what was available.

The quilt is rich in symbolism about homesteading. It began with a pattern, and took on a new life as her creative mind starting filling in meanings.

• 13 pieced star blocks to represent the 13 original colonies

• Flying geese represent immigrants moving west to settle the country

• Large pine tree represents the tree claims many homesteaders used in conjunction with the Homestead Act

• Criss-cross quilting represent the plowed furrows and fences built on the homesteads.

• A horseshoe was replaced with a plow because of the requirement that a homesteader must plow a minimum of 10 acres to prove up on their land.

Several enhancements were made to the quilt pattern. To emphasize the importance of the Homestead Act, the outline of all 30 homesteading states were sewn into the design. States are hidden throughout the quilt as well as along a border that was added to accommodate them.

Quilters interested in quilting Homestead Act quilt squares for sale at the Monument bookstore can contact Ranger Susan Cook at  (402) 223-3514.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Homestead Reading: List Three

Homesteading is uniquely American and much has been written about it. It is sometimes difficult to know where to begin learning about the Homestead Act of 1862 which transformed the Great American Desert into the breadbasket of the world. The following three lists of 24 books might be a good place to start. It was compiled by Todd Arrington. He was the historian at Homestead National Monument from 1998 until 2008. The first two lists are non-fiction and the third is fiction.

List Three

A Lantern in Her Hand
By Bess Streeter Aldrich

"When A Lantern in Her Hand came out in 1928, critics took little notice, but people everywhere soon discovered it. By the end of 1919, even as the Great Depression set in, Bess Streeter Aldrich's novel was in its twenty-first printing. Now translated into over twenty languages, A Lantern in Her Hand has outlasted literary fashions to touch generations of readers. It is the classic story of a pioneer woman. Bess Streeter Aldrich knew what she was writing about. Her protagonist, a strong-minded pioneer woman named Abbie Deal, was modeled on her own mother, who in 1854 had traveled by covered wagon to the Midwest. In A Lantern in Her Hand, Abbie accompanies her family to the soon-to-be state of Nebraska. There, in 1865, she marries and settles into a sod house of her own. The novel describes Abbie's years of child-raising, of making a frontier home able to withstand every adversity. A disciplined writer knowledgeable about true stories of pioneer days in Nebraska, Bess Streeter Aldrich conveys the strength of everyday things, the surprise of familiar faces, and the look of the unspoiled landscape during different seasons. Refusing to be broken by hard experience, Abbie sets a joyful example for her family - and for her readers." (from Publisher’s Note) Published in 1995 by University of Nebraska Press.

Spring Came on Forever
By Bess Streeter Aldrich

"Acclaimed for her 1928 novel A Lantern in Her Hand, Bess Streeter Aldrich became one of the most widely read interpreters of the prairie pioneer experience. In 1935, she published her masterpiece, Spring Came on Forever, a novel of two Nebraska pioneer families from settlement to the 1930s. Elsewhere an artist of the romance, here Aldrich turns romance on its head. The heroine is Amalia Holmsdorfer, one of a band of German immigrants who settle on the prairie. From her late teens to her mid-eighties she confronts and defeats the forces of nature and society that discourage or ruin others. Her life might be a modest triumph but for one detail: she married the wrong man. Quickly paced and precisely drawn, this novel is Aldrich's greatest tribute to the complexity, humor, endurance, and intelligence of the people who settled the prairie. Whatever its sentiments, it has as many cutting edges as a buzz saw." Published 1985 by Bison Books

A White Bird Flying
By Bess Streeter Aldrich

"Abbie deal, the matriarch of a pioneer Nebraska family, has died at the beginning of A White Bird Flying, leaving her china and heavy furniture to others and to her granddaughter Laura the secret of her dream of finer things. Grandma Deal’s liter aspirations had been thwarted by the hard circumstances of her life, but Laura vows that nothing, no one, will deter her from a successful writing career. Childhood passes, and the more she repeats her vow the more life intervenes. Laura is at the center of a new generation of Deals in Bess Streeter Aldrich’s worthy sequel to A Lantern in Her Hand." (from back cover) Published 1998 by University of Nebraska Press.

My Antonia
By Willa Cather

"An enduring literary masterpiece first published in 1918, this hauntingly eloquent classic is an inspiring reminder of the rich past we have inherited. Willa Cather's lustrous prose, infused with a passion for the land, summons forth the hardscrabble days of the immigrant pioneer woman on the Nebraska plains, while etching a deeply moving portrait of an entire community. As Jim Burden revisits his childhood friendship with the free-spirited Antonia Shimerda, we come to understand the sheer fortitude of homesteaders on the prairie, the steadfast bonds cultivated there, and the abiding memories that such vast expanses inspire. Holding the pastoral society's heart, of course, is the bewitching Antonia, whose unfailing industry and infectious enthusiasm for life exemplify the triumphant vitality of an era."

"In Willa Cather's own estimation, My Antonia, first published in 1918, was "the best thing I've ever done." An enduring paperback bestseller on Houghton Mifflin's literary list, this hauntingly eloquent classic now boasts a new foreword by Kathleen Norris, Cather's soulmate of the plains. Infused with a gracious passion for the land, My Antonia embraces its uncommon subject - the hardscrabble life of the pioneer woman on the prairie - with poetic certitude, rendering a deeply moving portrait of an entire community. Through Jim Burden's endearing, smitten voice, we revisit the remarkable vicissitudes of immigrant life in the Nebraska heartland with all its insistent bonds. Guiding the way are some of literature's most beguiling characters: the Russian brothers plagued by memories of a fateful sleigh ride, Antonia's desperately homesick father and self-indulgent mother, and the coy Lena Lingard. Holding the pastoral society's heart, of course, is the bewitching, free-spirited Antonia Shimerda." (Publishers note) Published 1995 by Mariner Books.

O Pioneers
By Willa Cather

O Pioneers!, Willa Cather’s first novel, is the classic American story of pioneer life as embodied by one remarkable woman and her singular devotion to the land. Alexandra Bergson arrives on the wind-blasted prairie of Nebraska as a young girl and grows up to turn her land into a prosperous farm. In this moving story, Cather conveys the physical realities of the landscape as well as the transformation of the frontier more faithfully and perhaps more fully than any other work of fiction has. " (from back cover) Published 1995 by Mariner Books.

Giants in the Earth
By O. E. Rolvaag

"The classic story of a Norwegian pioneer family's struggles with the land and the elements of the Dakota Territory as they try to make a new life in America." [Synopsis] "The fullest, finest, and most powerful novel that has been written about pioneer life in America." [Nation] Published 1999 by Harper Collins.

Free Land
By Rose Wilder Lane

"In the late 1880s, when adventure lay in the conquest of the prairies, David Beaton and his bride came to Dakota to claim three hundred acres of grassland. Rose Wilder Land tells of their struggle to survive with such force that Free Land has become a classic frontier novel. The young couple experience cyclones, droughts, and blizzards that isolate then for days in their sod shanty and endanger their livestock. The simple pleasures of home cooking, horse trading, and socializing interrupt work, here described in its wealth of variety. In every detail, Free Land comes to life because Lane grew up in the time and place of which she writes. The book embodies her belief that “living is never easy, that all human history is a record of achievement in disaster, and that our greatest asset is the valor of the American spirit.” (from back cover) Published 1984 by Bison Books.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Homestead Holiday Traditions German Style

Homestead National Monument remembers the holiday traditions of people who lived on the Great Plains during the homesteading period with decorated trees and tabletop displays featuring ornaments and hand-made crafts that reflect the spirit of hopefulness, forbearance, [and longing for home-holidays passed] which typified settlers of the West. According to Superintendent Mark Engler “The Winter Festival of Prairie Cultures brings to life the traditions of the homesteaders who came here to settle the United States.”
The Winter Festival of Prairie Cultures begins the month long celebration with Die Singenden Wanderer (Singing Wanderers), a men's choir which sings in both German and English. The songs are more often than not light hearted and lively, sharing the significance of time-honored German beliefs and customs. The choir takes pleasure in carrying this spirited singing to the community and other venues such as Homestead, including numerous performances at the German American Society in Omaha. “We were born in Germany and in the United States. Regardless of our birthplace, we are all proud to be Americans, while are still carrying on the customs and traditions of the German language and culture” stated Harold Chester, the choir’s Pressewarte (Press Agent).

“What better way to share culture than through song” asked Mark Engler? “Homestead Monument is very excited to host such a group especially in such a predominantly German settled area.” While listening to the German songs visitors can enjoy the decorations from many countries including Germany.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Homestead Reading: List Two

Homesteading is uniquely American and much has been written about it. It is sometimes difficult to know where to begin learning about the Homestead Act of 1862 which transformed the Great American Desert into the breadbasket of the world. The following three lists of 24 books might be a good place to start. It was compiled by Todd Arrington. He was the historian at Homestead National Monument from 1998 until 2008. The first two lists are non-fiction and the third is fiction.

List Two

Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: the Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War by Eric Foner

"Since its publication twenty-five years ago, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men has been recognized as a classic, an indispensable contribution to our understanding of the causes of the American Civil War. A key work in establishing political ideology as a major concern of modern American historians, it remains the only full-scale evaluation of the ideas of the early Republican party. Now with a new introduction, Eric Foner puts his argument into the context of contemporary scholarship, reassessing the concept of free labor in the light of the last twenty-five years of writing on such issues as work, gender, economic change, and political thought."

"A significant reevaluation of the causes of the Civil War, Foner's study looks beyond the North's opposition to slavery and its emphasis upon preserving the Union to determine the broader grounds of its willingness to undertake a war against the South in 1861. Its search is for those social concepts the North accepted as vital to its way of life, finding these concepts most clearly expressed in the ideology of the growing Republican party in the decade before the war's start. Through a careful analysis of the attitudes of leading factions in the party's formation (northern Whigs, former Democrats, and political abolitionists) Foner is able to show what each contributed to Republican ideology. He also shows how northern ideas of human rights--in particular a man's right to work where and how he wanted, and to accumulate property in his own name--and the goals of American society were implicit in that ideology. This was the ideology that permeated the North in the period directly before the Civil War, led to the election of Abraham Lincoln, and led, almost immediately, to the Civil War itself. At the heart of the controversy over the extension of slavery, he argues, is the issue of whether the northern or southern form of society would take root in the West, whose development would determine determine the nation's destiny."  (Amazon product description) Published in 1995 by Oxford University Press

Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas After Reconstruction
By Nell Irvin Painter

"In 1879, fourteen years after the Emancipation Proclamation, thousands of blacks fled the South. They were headed for the homesteading lands of Kansas, the ‘Garden Spot of the Earth’ and the ‘quintessential Free State, the land of John Brown’…Painter examines their exodus in fascinating detail. In the process, she offers a compelling portrait of the post-Reconstruction South and the desperate efforts by blacks and whites in that chaotic period to ‘solve the race problem’ once and for all." –Newsweek (from back cover)

“What makes this book so important, is…(that it) is the first full-length scholarly study of the migration and of the forces that produced it…Most previous students have focused on nationally recognized black leaders; (Painter) calls for attention to the black masses.”-David H. Donald, New York Times Review (from back cover) Published in 1992 by W.W. Norton & Co.

Letters of a Woman Homesteader
By Elinore Pruitt Stewart

"In 1909, Elinore Pruitt Stewart and her young daughter set out for a ranch in Burnt Fork, Wyoming, where an acre can be had for $1.25 and a bit of determination. Stewart’s letters create a colorful account of her new life on the prairie, the eccentric characters who inhabit it, and the community they build together."

"Complete with the original N.C. Wyeth illustrations, this charming chronicle fully reveals a woman whose willpower is outweighed only by the greatness of her heart. Letters of a Woman Homesteader is an unsurpassed classic of American frontier life."  (from back cover) Published in 1998 by Mariner Books

Old Jules
By Mari Sandoz

"First published in 1935, Old Jules is unquestionably Mari Sandoz’s masterpiece. This portrait of her pioneer father grew out of “the silent hours of listening behind the stove or the wood box, when it was assumed, of course, that I was asleep in bed. So it was that I heard the accounts of the hunts," Sandoz recalls. "Of the fights with the cattlemen and the sheepmen, of the tragic scarcity of women, when a man had to ‘marry anything that got off the train,’ of the droughts, the storms, the wind and isolation. But the most impressive stories were those told me by Old Jules himself."

“A realistic biography, a rare find. On putting down this book one feels that one has read the history of all pioneering.” – New York Times Book Review (from back cover)

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West
By Dee Brown

"First published in 1970, this extraordinary book changed the way Americans think about the original inhabitants of their country. Beginning with the Long Walk of the Navajos in 1860 and ending 30 years later with the massacre of Sioux men, women, and children at Wounded Knee in South Dakota, it tells how the American Indians lost their land and lives to a dynamically expanding white society. During these three decades, America's population doubled from 31 million to 62 million. Again and again, promises made to the Indians fell victim to the ruthlessness and greed of settlers pushing westward to make new lives. The Indians were herded off their ancestral lands into ever-shrinking reservations, and were starved and killed if they resisted. It is a truism that "history is written by the victors"; for the first time, this book described the opening of the West from the Indians' viewpoint. Accustomed to stereotypes of Indians as red savages, white Americans were shocked to read the reasoned eloquence of Indian leaders and learn of the bravery with which they and their peoples endured suffering. With meticulous research and in measured language overlaying brutal narrative, Dee Brown focused attention on a national disgrace. Still controversial but with many of its premises now accepted, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee has sold 5 million copies around the world. Thirty years after it first broke onto the national conscience, it has lost none of its importance or emotional impact." (from review) Published in 2007 by Holt Paperbacks.

Growing Up with the Country: Childhood on the American Frontier
By Elliott West

"Historians have paid little attention to the lives and contributions of children who took part in westward expansion. In this major study of American childhood, now available again in paperback, Elliott West explores how children helped shape--and in turn were shaped by--the frontier experience. Frontier children's first vivid perceptions of the new country, when deepened by their work, play, and exploration, forged a stronger bond with their surroundings than that of their elders. Through diaries, journals, letters, novels, and oral and written reminiscences, West has reconstructed the lives of the children who grew to become the first truly Western generation." (from the publisher) Published in 1989 by University of New Mexico Press.

Bad Land
By Jonathan Raban

"Jonathan Raban ambles and picks his way across the Montana prairie, called "The Great American Desert" until Congress offered 320-acre tracts of barren land to immigrants with stardust in their eyes. Raban's prose makes love to the waves of land, red dirt roads, and skeletons of homesteads that couldn't survive the Dirty Thirties. As poignant as any romance novel, there's heartbreak in the failed dreams of the homesteaders, a pang of destiny in the arbitrary way railroad towns were thrown into existence, and inspiration in the heroism of people who've fashioned lives for themselves by cobbling together homes from the ruined houses of those who couldn't make it. Through it all, Raban's voice examines and honors the vast open expanses of land and pays homage to the histories of families who eked out an existence." ( review) Published 1997 by Random House.

Rachel Calof’s Story
By Rachel Calof

"In 1894, the 18-year-old Calof, a Russian Jew, was shipped to the U.S. to marry an unknown man and stake a homesteading claim with him in North Dakota. She later set down her memories of that time in fluid prose that occasionally reveals a biting sense of humor. Although her circumstances were often pathetic, Calof never is. She writes matter-of-factly about her 12'x 14' dirt-floored shanty, her husband's unappealing family and their unsanitary living arrangements. Each winter, her husband Abe's parents and brother would join them in their home in order to save fuel-an arrangement revealed only on her wedding day. There are pleasurable moments here too, like an impromptu supper of wild garlic and mushrooms (Calof does a taste test to see whether they are poisonous-"It didn't burn or taste bad, so I swallowed it"). Childbearing is particularly difficult: Calof seems to be constantly pregnant, and her superstitious mother-in-law keeps her secluded after the birth of her first child until she begins to hallucinate about demons. An epilogue by Calof's son, Jacob, picks up the courageous author's story in St. Paul, Minn., in 1917, while an essay by J. Sanford Rikoon on the phenomenon of Jewish farm settlements provides fascinating background." (from Publishers Weekly) Published in 1995 by Indiana University Press.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Homestead Reading: List One

Homesteading is uniquely American and much has been written about it.  It is sometimes difficult to know where to begin learning about the Homestead Act of 1862 which transformed the Great American Desert into the breadbasket of the world.  The following three lists of 24 books might be a good place to start. It was compiled by Todd Arrington. He was the historian at Homestead National Monument from 1998 until 2008. The first two lists are non-fiction and the third is fiction.

The Sod House Frontier
By Everett Dick
“From first-hand sources-letters, diaries, old newspapers, reminiscences, old documents-the author has put together a complete account of how the prairie farms managed life: how the men farmed; how the heroic women cooked, kept house, did their washings, bore their babies and  brought up their children; how the houses were built; what the Indians did and were; how the winters were lived through.” (from back of book)
Published in 1989 by University of Nebraska Press.

Conquering the Great American Desert
By Everett Dick

"Professor Dick covers the century in which the Great Plains was transformed from an aboriginal society of nomadic Indians to a society of prosperous farms and cities." (from book foreword)
Published in 1975 by the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Photographing the American Dream
By John Carter
"Dugouts and sod houses were the only shelter for homesteaders in the 1870s and '80s on railroad and government land grants of the Nebraska plains. Twenty years later, there were frame houses, farm machinery, even automobiles and an emerging Main Street here and there. S. D. Butcher, a self-confessed pioneer failure who, happily, was successful at photography, recorded it all. In this vibrant collection of Butcher pictures from the University of Nebraska files, we see, for the most part, family portraits with farm and ranch backgrounds, but there are also schoolchildren, skating parties, rodeos, pretty cowgirls, and pelts nailed to the barn door. Carter's text, and quotes from regional authors, retrace the story of heartland America. The high quality of the reproductions from antique glass negatives helps make this a superb portrait of a bygone time." (from a Publishers Weekly review)
Published in 1985 by University of Nebraska Press.

Photographing Montana
By Donna M. Lucey

"Photography Montana showcases more than 150 photographs of life in Montana from the 1890s through the 1920s. Evelyn Cameron’s work portrays vast landscapes, range horses, cattle round-ups, wheat harvests, community celebrations, and wildlife of the high plains. Her vivid images convey the lonely strength of sheepherders and homesteaders and track the growth of Terry, a small town on the Yellowstone River. Her family portraits are priceless glimpses into the past, capturing the endurance, pride and hope of those she photographed. It was the 1991 winner of The Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association Award for Best Nonfiction Book." (from back of book)
Published in 2000 by Mountain Press Publishing Company.

Homesteading: A Montana Family Album
By Percy Wollaston

"As a grown man Percy Wollaston almost never spoke of the homestead where he grew up-until, in 1972, nearing the age of seventy, he wrote this book about his childhood years. Lured by the government’s promise of land and the promotional literature of the railroads, six-year-old Percy Wollaston’s family left behind their home in North Dakota in 1909, heading West to “take up a claim.” They settled near Ismay, Montana, where they attempted to carve a successful homestead out of the harsh plains. In compelling, plainspoken language, Wollaston tells of his pioneer family’s everyday existence-constructing a sod house, digging a well, trapping and hunting, courtships and funerals, an influenza epidemic, and a superstitious Irish neighbor. He also recalls the events of the world beyond Ismay, from the sinking of the Titanic to Prohibition to World War I, as well as the first signs of the town’s demise during the Great Depression. …Homesteading is a rich and vivid look, seen through the eyes of a hopeful young boy, at the forces that shaped the destiny of a family, a town and the American West. " (from back of book)
Published in 1999 by Penguin.

Land in Her Own Name: Women as Homesteaders in North Dakota
By H. Elaine Lindgren

"Land is often known by the names of past owners. “Emma’s Land,” Gina’s quarter,” and “the Ingeborg Land” are reminders of the many women who homesteaded across North Dakota in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Land in Her Own Name records these homesteaders’ experiences as revealed in interviews with surviving homesteaders and their families and friends, land records, letters and diaries. These women’s fascinating accounts tell of locating a claim, erecting shelter, and living on the prairie. Their ethnic backgrounds include Yankee, Scandinavian, German and German-Russian, as well as African-American, Jewish and Lebanese. Some were barely twenty-one, while others had reached their sixties. A few lived on their land for life and “never borrowed a cent against it”; others sold or rented the land to start a small business or to provide money for education." (from back of book)
Published in 1996 by  the University of Oklahoma Press

Women of the Northern Plains: Gender and Settlement on the Homestead Frontier, 1870 – 1930
By Barbara Handy-Marchello

"In Women of the Northern Plains, Barbara Handy-Marchello tells the stories of the unsung heroes of North Dakota's settlement era: the farm women. As the men struggled to raise and sell wheat, the women focused on barnyard labor--raising chickens and cows and selling eggs and butter--to feed and clothe their families and maintain their households through booms and busts. Handy-Marchello details the hopes and fears, the challenges and successes of these women--from the Great Dakota Boom of the 1870s and '80s to the impending depression and drought of the 1930s. Women of the frontier willingly faced drudgery and loneliness, cramped and unconventional living quarters, the threat of prairie fires and fierce blizzards, and the isolation of homesteads located miles from the nearest neighbor. Despite these daunting realities, Dakota farm women cultivated communities among their distant neighbors, shared food and shelter with travelers, developed varied income sources, and raised large families, always keeping in sight the ultimate goal: to provide the next generation with rich, workable land. Enlivened by interviews with pioneer families as well as diaries, memoirs, and other primary sources, Women of the Plains uncovers the significant and changing roles of Dakota farm women who were true partners to their husbands, their efforts marking the difference between success and failure for their families." ( Amazon product description)
Published in 2005 by Minnesota Historical Society Press.

No Time on My Hands
By Grace Snyder

"When Grace Snyder, the matriarch of a pioneer Nebraska family, wrote these reminiscences in her eightieth year, she felt she had been blessed "by having no time on my hands." The story of her busy life begins on the high plains of Nebraska, where her parents homesteaded in 1885. She recalls her childhood in a sod house on a frontier that required everyone to pull together in the face of hostile weather, serious illness, and economic depression but that also held its full share of good times. "As a child of seven and up," writes Grace Snyder, ". . . I wished that I might grow up to make the most beautiful quilts in the world, to marry a cowboy, and to look down on the top of a cloud. At the time I dreamed those dreams and wished those wishes, it seemed impossible that any of them could every come true." But she saw all of them realized. No Time on My Hands is a remarkable chronicle of the sod house era and of Grace Snyder’s married life on a ranch in Nebraska’s sand hills. From there she finally flies above the clouds to exhibits where her quilts contribute to a worldwide revival of quilt making. Mrs. Snyder lived twenty years after the publication of these memoirs in 1963, to the age of one hundred. Her daughter, Nellie Snyder Yost, who helped to write No Time on My Hands, has added an epilogue to this Bison edition." (Amazon product description)
Published in 1986 by Bison Books.

Nothing to Do But Stay: My Pioneer Mother
By Carrie Young

"Carrine Berg came to America from Norway at the age of three, grew up in Minnesota where she went into domestic service at the age of fifteen, and saved enough money by the time she was twenty-five to board a train to North Dakota to claim a homestead for herself. A decade later she had, by her own ingenuity, doubled her landholdings and become a secure woman of property. Then, at an age when most other women would have been declared spinsters, she married Sever Berg and had six children. In this charming book, her daughter Carrie Young tells the story of growing up under the care of this remarkable woman." (from back of book)
Published in 2000 by the University of Iowa Press

Friday, November 6, 2009

Homestead's Artist-in-Residence Reminisces

My thanks to Denise for graciously giving me space to speak to all of you. I thought I’d give you a little insight into how I got to be Homestead’s first Artist-in-Residence this fall, and how I came up with the program I presented while I was there.

by Penny Musco

My family and I have vacationed at national park sites for years. In January, while visiting Everglades, Biscayne and Dry Tortugas National Parks in Florida, I was inspired to start a blog about our national parks and what I learn from them.

In the course of writing and research my posts, I happened across the National Park Service page on the Artist-in-Residence program. Hmmm… wouldn’t that be interesting, I thought. Next thing I knew, I got a call from Homestead saying my application had been accepted!

But what to do for my program? The germ of an idea came when I applied for the residency. As I searched the park’s website for information so I could write a coherent proposal, I found this article on the nineteenth-century exodus of freed slaves, who became known as Exodusters. An estimated 20,000-40,000 of them poured out of the South, most in 1879 and 1880. Kansas, with its abolitionist history, was the prime destination of these African-Americans.

This was one of the greatest migrations in American history, yet I had never heard of it. I asked many people, black and white, if they were familiar with this movement, and found only one person who was.

So naturally, I knew this HAD to be my subject!

How to present this information became my next focus. After some back and forth with the Homestead rangers, I settled on writing and performing a monologue about a white woman from New Jersey (me) telling the story of her move to Kansas with her family to become homesteaders, and how she befriends an Exoduster.        

Then I tackled the research. I must have read all or parts of around twenty books (some of them children’s books, which provide information simply and concisely), about the Homestead Act, blacks in the West, women in the West, and the Plains states in general. I took voracious notes, picking up little bits and pieces to use to give authenticity and flavor to the plot slowly evolving in my head (the tale of the 1874 grasshopper invasion I owe solely to Laura Ingalls Wilder!). The three books I relied on most were Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction by Nell Irvin Painter; In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West 1528-1990 by Quintard Taylor; and especially In Search of Canaan: Black Migration to Kansas, 1879-80 by Robert G. Athearn.

Finally, I began to write. I wrote so much than I ended up with 42 pages! If I’d kept it at that length, I’d have talked for two hours! I reminded myself that first and foremost I was telling a story, and even though the historical facts were important, the characters were what would make the narrative come alive. A few days of editing and revising yielded a much tighter, more manageable manuscript.

After that, it was just practice, practice, practice!

If I was blessed enough to have you in the audience when I performed Steal Away, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. You calmed my biggest fear—that I would be boring—by giving me your full attention as I wove a nearly-forgotten piece of history through the fictional tale of an unlikely friendship. And when one of you said to me, “I’ll never look at a sunflower the same way again,” I uttered to myself the phrase every artist longs to be able to say: They got it!

Next year you will have a different Artist-in-Residence. Who knows if it will be a sculptor, painter, photographer or even another writer? My hope is that he or she will be as enriched as I am for having been at Homestead.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Alaska Homesteading in the 1950s

The following is the story and pictures of my husband's experience in homesteading land in Alaska.  We’ve really enjoyed going over old memories through this process. We hope that this will be of some interest to your readers and followers of the Homesteading stories.

Anne Paquette

I  served in the Army during the Korean War, discharged in April of 1955 and returned to my hometown of Concordia, Ks.  I worked as an electrician and carpenter for Hood Construction.   In the spring of 1958, my Uncle Jack LaBarge from Anchorage, Alaska returned to visit family and in the course of our conversations, he asked what I had planned for the future.  "I don't know yet", I replied.   He suggested that I go back to Alaska with him.  He offered me a job working with him cleaning soot out of oil burning furnaces and a place to stay at his house.  Together, he said we could homestead a 160 acre tract of land and once it was proven up on each of us would have 80 acres and divide the land down the center, sharing a small lake located in the center of the larger plot.  As a young fellow of 25 years and a future ahead of me, I thought the whole idea would be a great adventure, so I made the decision to head north!

Alaska homestead and cow moose in a November 1958.

 Once I got to Alaska, some of the excitement began to change as I realized the cost of living was almost three times higher in Anchorage as it was in Kansas.  A bowl of soup, at the time in Kansas would have cost me 40 cents, while in Anchorage I paid close to $1.40.

Alaska Homestead Far North Furnace Cleaners

 Another factor I hadn't considered was the difference in night and day.  The night time darkness was only about 4 hours long.  The sun would go below the horizon about 11:30 pm and come up again around 3:30 am.  Despite the short  nights, the Northern Lights were beautiful.

Fishing Katchemak Bay Saldovia, AK, August 1958 

 Once I was there, we selected our Homestead site on a map.  The site was located about 15 miles north of Palmer, Alaska: about 50 miles north of Anchorage according to my recollection.  (It's been 50 years).  We hired a Bush pilot to fly us out to the site and landed on the lake.  We stepped off the measurements and drove stakes into the ground as markers.  The stakes had our name, date and description of the land stamped in a piece of galvanized sheet metal.  The plane came back to get us about four or five hours later.   We each carried a 44 magnum side arm just in case a bear or cow moose decided to attack us.

 Our next task was to acquire or build a livable shack on the plot of land and to actually live in it for two our of the five years it would take to complete the homestead requirements.  We bought a shack at an auction and had it hauled out to the site.  However, the road was soft dirt and it started to rain and the truck sunk to it's axils in mud.  We slid the shack off the truck on planks and had to leave it by beside the road until the ground froze up later. That would put us several months behind.  Our dream was slowly turning into a nightmare.  Another requirement was to clear 5 to 10 acres of land by a caterpillar and have a crop sown and show a product of food from it.  This seemed impossible from where we stood that day - up to our knees in mud and thick tundra all around us.  I also found out later that the government retained all mineral rights, so any gold, oil, uranium, etc. that you found on your land would not belong to the landowner, but would be given back to the government.  There was a 5000 lb. copper "nugget" sitting on a corner in Anchorage about four feet in diameter.  It was so pure it was green from all the copper in it.

 My uncle was a super nice guy when he wasn't drinking, but he also lived a more dangerous and rugged life style from living in the untamed territory than I cared to.  With the homesteading looking bleaker and bleaker, and the differences I was experiencing in everyday life, I started to question my previous decisions.  None the less, I stayed for a while longer.

 We had planned our application of the homestead so as to get in before Alaska became as state, as that had been the talk for quite awhile.  I was glad I stayed for the celebration that followed the announcement.  It was a very happy time in Anchorage and all of Alaska.  Anchorage had a huge celebration and a bon fire near the middle of the city.  They burned 49 tons of wood.  Almost every tavern along 4th and 5th Avenue served free drinks.

 Despite the adventure, the beauty of the state and the opportunity of owning land, when I evaluated all the facts in front of me:  winter weather, life styles, economy, etc.  I decided that if I had enough money to do what it would take to prove up on this land, I could go back to Kansa and buy 50 acres with a house on it.  So, I relinquished my claim, bought a plane ticket and flew back to Tacoma, Washington and took the next bus back to Kansas where I did just that.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Homestead one of 391 National Park Service Units

With the Ken Burns PBS documentary National Parks: America’s Best Idea currently highlighting America’s 58 National Parks maybe it is time to remember the National Park Service administers 391 Units in the National Park System

The National Park Service was created in 1916 through the National Park Service Organic Act.  It was expended over the years [see timeline] to administer National Battlefields, National Historic Sites, National Seashores, and so much more. 

Often the terms “National Park Service” and “National Park System” are used interchangeably, but there is a difference.  The National Park Service is an agency in the Department of Interior that administers the National Park System.  But the National Park Service also administers wholly or partially the following:

·         National Register of Historic Places

·         National Historic Landmarks Program

·         National Natural Landmarks Program

·         Land and Water Conservation Grants Program

·         Historic American Building Survey

·         American Battlefield Protection Program

·         National Maritime Heritage Grants Program

·         Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program

·         Tribal Preservation Program Heritage Preservation Services

·         The Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System,

.          National Trails System

·         National Wild and Scenic Rivers System

·         U. S. National Heritage Areas

·         Historic Preservation Funding Programs.

Of course, of all the things the National Park Service administers the National Park System is the one most familiar to Americans.  The National Park System consists of many different areas with many different “designations,” but they are all “equal.”  The General Authorities Act passed in 1970 and the amendments made to it through the Redwoods Act of 1978 made equal all areas of the National Park System no matter the designation. This provides equal protection to all areas of the National Park System from impairment and/or derogation of their resources.  In other words tiny little U. S. Grant National Historic Site in suburban St. Louis receives a standard of protection equal to that which the Grand Canyon National Park receives. 

Each of the 391 Units in the National Park System has a specific name or designation.  The numerous designations within the National Park System sometimes confuse people. The designations are created in the Congressional legislation authorizing the sites. The 391 Units can be grouped into several primary designations. Many names are descriptive; lakeshores, seashores, battlefields, but others cannot be neatly categorized because of the diversity of resources within them.  Below is a partial list of designations:

·         National Park: These are generally large natural places having a wide variety of attributes, at times including significant historic assets. Hunting, mining and consumptive activities are not authorized.  Currently there are 58 National Parks.  One of the least known is Congaree National Park.

·         National Monument: The Antiquities Act of 1906 authorized the President to declare by public proclamation landmarks, structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest situated on lands owned or controlled by the government to be National Monuments.  However, Congress can also create a National Monument by passing a Congressional Act as it did in the case of Homestead National Monument of America.  There are 74 National Monuments in the National Park System.  There are 25 other National Monuments administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, or the U. S. Forest Service and therefore are not Units in the National Park System.

·         National Preserve: National Preserves are areas having characteristics associated with National Parks, but in which Congress has permitted continued public hunting, trapping, oil/gas exploration and extraction.  Currently there are 18 National Preserves and several are next door to National Parks like Great Sand Dunes National Preserve.

·         National Historic Site: Usually, a National Historic Site contains a single historical feature that was directly associated with its subject. Derived from the Historic Sites Act of 1935, a number of historic sites were established by secretaries of the Interior, but most have been authorized by acts of Congress as was Lincoln Home National Historic Site.  There are 77 National Historic Sites.

·         National Historical Park: This designation generally applies to historic parks that extend beyond single properties or buildings.  One good example would be LBJ National Historical Park where there are two distinct visitor areas separated by 14 miles.  There are 45 National Historical Parks.

·         National Memorial: A national memorial is commemorative of a historic person or episode; it need not occupy a site historically connected with its subject, but sometimes do as in the case of Flight 93 National Memorial.  There are 27 National Memorials in the National Park System.

·         National Battlefield: This general title includes National Battlefield [11], National Battlefield Park [3], National Battlefield Site [1], and National Military Park [9].  This does get confusing.  For example four separate Civil War Battlefield locations are Antietam National Battlefield, Manassas National Battlefield Park, Brices Cross Roads National Battlefield Site, and Gettysburg National Military Park.  There are 24 battlefields being preserved in the National Park System.

·         National Recreation Area: There are 18 NRAs in the National Park System and 13 are centered on large reservoirs and emphasize water-based recreation.  One example of these would be Amistad National Recreation Area. Five other NRAs are located near major population centers. These 5 urban parks combine scarce open spaces with the preservation of significant historic resources and important natural areas in locations that can provide outdoor recreation for large numbers of people.  A prime example would be Gateway National Recreation Area.  There are numerous other National Recreation Areas administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the U. S. Forest Service, or the Army Corps of Engineers and therefore are not Units in the National Park System.

·         National Seashore: Ten National Seashores have been established on the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts; some are developed and some relatively primitive. Hunting is allowed at many of these sites.  There are 10 National Seashores including Gulf Islands National Seashore where some of the facilities are now just re-opening after the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina.

·         National Lakeshore: There are 4 National Lakeshores, all on the Great Lakes.  They closely parallel the seashores in character and use.  You must take a boat ride to enjoy the beauty of the cliffs at Picture Rocks National Lakeshore.

·         National Parkway: The title parkway refers to a roadway and the parkland paralleling the roadway. All were intended for scenic motoring along a protected corridor and often connect cultural sites.  At present, there are 4 national parkways in the National Park System including George Washington Memorial Parkway.

·         Other: There are other Units that have designations that have either “river,” “reserve,” or “trail” in their names like Niobrara National Scenic River, Pinelands National Reserve, and Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail.  But other units in the National Park System defy categorization.  A few examples would be: President’s Park, Rock Creek Park, Prince William Forest Park, and Catoctin Mountain Park.  There are 11 such parks in the National Park System, all located in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Homestead Myth: The Rain Follows the Plow

Suppose (an army of frontier farmers) 50 miles, in width, from Manitoba to Texas, could acting in concert, turn over the prairie sod, and after deep plowing and receiving the rain and moisture, present a new surface of green growing crops instead of dry, hard baked earth covered with sparse buffalo grass. No one can question or doubt the inevitable effect of this cooling condensing surface upon the moisture in the atmosphere as it moves over by the Western winds (sic). A reduction of temperature must at once occur, accompanied by the usual phenomena of showers. The chief agency in this transformation is agriculture. To be more concise. Rain follows the plow.
--Charles Dana Wilber, 1881, in

These four words the “rain follows the plow” were used to encourage people to move west and to dispel the rumor that the middle of America was not good for farming. In the early 1800s the area west of the 100th meridian was labeled “the Great American Desert” by Stephen H. Long, an explorer and map-maker.

Because of this desert label there was very sparse settlement in the area beyond the Mississippi River in the 1840s and the 1850s. There were isolated homesteads here and there, but not settlers in vast numbers until the late 1850s and the early years of the 1860s. After the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862 and the end of the Civil War in 1865 people moving into the trans-Mississippi  West increased.  First by the hundreds, then by the thousands, then by the hundreds of thousands. As the population increased in the Great Plains people came to recognize that the old myth of the Great American Desert was no longer true.

And those eager to boost settlement and attract business and get railroad connections wanted the rest of the country to believe that the so-called Great American Desert was not a desert after all. And this belief was widely promoted in the 1870s as a justification for the settlement of the Great Plains.

In the 1880s some areas of Nebraska and Kansas were unusually rainy. As humans had recently pushed into the area, many human-centered theories sprung up about what could be causing the increased rainfall. Some people suggested that the “iron on the lines” or the “wires of the telegraph lines” were responsible. Others thought it “the disturbance of the atmospheric circulation through the concussions of locomotives and moving trains. Much more widespread was the idea, created by conservationists, that “forests produce rains.”

Samuel Aughey, a prominent Nebraska natural scientist, looked at the tree planting data and noted that the rains began before the trees. His conclusion was that it must be settlement. “There is, however, another cause most potently acting to produce all the changes in rainfall that the facts indicate have taken place. What then is that cause?’ Aughey wrote, “It is the great increase in the absorptive power of the soil, wrought by cultivation,  that has caused, and continues to cause an increasing rainfall in the State.”

But it was Charles Dana Wilber, an author, educator, geologist and entrepreneur, who said that he could prove scientifically that rainfall was bound to increase as the farming frontier moved westward. In his influential book, The Great Valleys and Prairies of Nebraska and the Northwest, published in 1881, Wilbur wrote that the ages old symbol of the farmer, the plow was the instrument of cooperation between God, nature and man. He said, “In this miracle of progress, the plow was the unerring prophet, the procuring cause, not by any magic or enchantment, not by incantations or offerings, but instead by the sweat of his face toiling with his hands, man can persuade the heavens to yield their treasure of dew and rain upon the land he has chosen for his dwelling.” He concluded, “The raindrop never fails to fall and answer to the imploring power of prayer of labor.”

During the 1870s and early 1880s unusually heavy rainfall made these claims sound plausible, and within ten years nearly 2 million people had sunk their roots into the prairie soil.

Climatologists now understand that increased vegetation and settlement can result in increased precipitation. The effect, however, is local in scope, with increased rainfall typically coming at the expense of rainfall in nearby areas. It cannot result in climatologically change for an entire region. They also understand that the Great Plains had had a wetter than usual few seasons as this theory and settlement were both taking place. When normal arid conditions returned, homesteaders were damaged.


Libecap, Gary D. "Rain Follows the Plow:" The Climate Information Problem and Homestead Failure in the Upper Great Plains, 1890-1925." (2000): 1. Web. 11 Sep 2009.

Letheby, Pete. "Water-a Historical perspective we should remember today." Grand Island Independent n. pag. Web. 11 Sep 2009.

Schultz, Stanley K. "Which Old West and Whose?." American History 102. 2004. Web.

Editor's note: article is from the HNM archives.