Friday, December 31, 2010

U. S. Land Laws

The Homestead Act of 1862 was just one of many laws passed by the United States to transfer land from the public domain into private ownership. Below are just a few of those other laws:

SALE LAWS – The sale of public lands at auction was the first general means of disposing of the public lands. The Congress under the Articles of Confederation first provided for sale in the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Land Ordinance of 1787 [Northwest Ordinance]. Under the Constitution the first sales act came in 1796, with changes enacted in 1800, 1803, and 1804. The Act of April 24, 1820, became the major sales act until repeal in 1891. Lands were offered at public sale to the highest bidder under the 1820 law at a minimum price of $1.25 an acre. There was no limitation on the acreage that could be purchased by an individual. None of the laws had residence or cultivation requirements.

MILITARY BOUNTY LAND LAWS – To reward those who had served in the nation’s armed forces; it was the practice of the federal government before the Civil War to give veterans public lands in reward for their service. The amount of land provided and how it could be taken differed under the numerous military land bounty acts. The practice was discontinued with the Civil War; however, veterans were given concessions under the homestead laws.

PREEMPTION LAW – Preemption allowed for settlers who built a residence and improved public lands to purchase claims at minimal price for public lands prior to the lands being offered at public sale. The first preemption law was enacted in 1799, after which, Congress continued to enact preemption laws of temporary nature from time to time. A permanent preemption law came with the passage of the Act of September 4, 1841. This legislation permitted an individual to settle and cultivate up to 160 acres of land and to then purchase that land within a specified time after either survey or settlement at $1.25 per acre. It was repealed in 1891.

SCRIP – By definition, scrip is a certificate which allowed the recipient to select a specified number of acres from the public domain. There were numerous types of script, among them being Agricultural College Scrip, Supreme Court Scrip, and Sioux Half-Breed Scrip. Conditions as the use of each type of scrip varied, as did the acreage given

DESERT LAND LAW – The Act of March 3, 1877 provided for the entry of 640 acres of irrigable public land. Claimant had to construct an irrigation system but no residence required. At the end of three years, land could be patented after payment of $1.25 per acre. In 1890 acreage for entries was reduced to 320 acres. Provisions of the act were at first extended to only the states of California, Nevada, and Oregon, as well as the territories of Arizona, Dakota, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. The law was extended to Colorado in 1891. This settlement law is still “on the books.”

DONATION LAWS – In an effort to encourage Anglo-American settlement of certain territorial acquisitions, Congress offered grants of lands to individuals who were already in possession of lands or were willing to immigrate to the areas of concern. Donation acts were passed for Florida in 1842 and 1844, Oregon and Washington in 1850 and 1853, and New Mexico in 1854. Most of the laws required residence and cultivation.

ENLARGED HOMESTEAD LAW – This legislation provided for 320 acre homesteads on semi-arid public lands designated as not susceptible to irrigation. Residence and cultivation were required. Enacted on February 19, 1909, the law was an act first extended to Arizona, California, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. In 1910 the law was amended to include Idaho and in 1915 South Dakota was brought under its provisions. It was repealed 1976.

GENERAL SEVERALTY LAW – The primary purpose of the act of February 8, 1887, also known as the Dawes Act and the General Allotment Act, was to provide Indians living on reservations with individual freeholds, or allotments. A little-known provision of the law, Section 4, however, provides allotments to Indians who occupied public lands. These public domain allotments were administered in a manner similar to the other public land settlement laws.

FOREST HOMESTEAD LAW – The Act of June 11, 1906 opened entry lands chiefly valuable for agricultural purposes within national forests to entry under the Homestead Law. Entries limited to 160 acres. It was repealed 1962.

RECLAMATION ACT LAW – The Newland Act of June 17, 1902 provided for federally funded irrigation projects. Lands within the projects were subject to the basic provisions of the Homestead Law. Individuals limited to overall ownership of 160 acres. In effect, the homestead provisions of this act were repealed with the Homestead Act in 1976.

STOCK-RAISING HOMESTEAD LAW – The last major settlement law, enacted December 29, 1916, this act provided for 640 acre entries on public domain classified as chiefly valuable for grazing and forage crops. Residence and certain improvements required. Passage of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934 made this ineffectual. It was repealed in 1976.

TIMBER CULTURE LAW – This 1873 legislation offered 160 acres of public land to an individual willing to plant 40 acres of trees for ten years. Later amendments changed planting and time requirements. Residence on the claim was not a requirement. The act was of little success. It was repealed in 1891.

[This information came from a document published by the Bureau of land Management in March, 1992: “A Few of the Major Public Land and Mineral Laws” by James Muhn, Denver, Colorado.]

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Western Railroads

A study of railroads in America can be said to be a study of the 19th century itself. The railroads carried heavy loads faster, and over longer distances, than any previous means of transportation. As railroads were built across the United States, they opened up wide farming and ranching areas. Cross-country migrations which took 4-6 months by wagon were reduced to trips lasting just four days. Railroads tapped rich forest and mineral resources, and brought better health to people by hauling a greater variety of perishable food than had ever before been available. Railroads connected the West to the East; towns sprang up along the tracks, and cities grew where rail lines met. Cattle were driven to the railheads of Missouri and later Kansas, creating towns in the process. Towns the tracks missed withered and sometimes died. Railroads promoted tourism, and enabled early legislators to justify the creation of the first National Parks. Railroads also had an enormous impact on the arts, in folk songs, storytelling, paintings, and popular culture during the 19th century.

Adapted from an article by Mike Corns

The epic story of the construction of the first railroad to run from coast to coast began in the 1840s, with the acquisition by the United States of vast new western lands as a result of the war with Mexico. But the individual states and regions argued among themselves about which route was the most desirable, causing a deadlock in Congress which lasted throughout the 1850s.

By June 1861, a railroad was a necessity for the over 300,000 inhabitants of California. The moneyed interests of the state decided to act on their own, and formed the Central Pacific Railroad Company in San Francisco. These same interests were able to push through the transcontinental railroad bill in Congress on June 20, 1862. With the Southern states out of the Union, a route along the 42nd parallel was chosen for the railroad, running from Omaha, Nebraska along the Platte River and through Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Nevada to San Francisco. The Central Pacific Railroad was chosen as the company to build over the Sierras. Congress gave them 10 to 20 square miles of public land plus up to $48,000 in loans for every mile they completed. Congress incorporated the Union Pacific Railroad Company to build west from Omaha, and gave them a right-of-way of 400 ft. and 20 sections of land (12,800 acres) for each mile of road in existing states, and 40 sections (25,600 acres) for each mile of road in U.S. Territories.

Ground was broken for the Union Pacific at Omaha on December 2, 1863 and the Central Pacific broke ground on January 8, 1863 at Sacramento, California and many long years of work commenced. Finally on May 10, 1869 with the telegrapher's message, "1, 2, 3, Done!" the golden spike had been driven home at Promontory, Utah, completing Americas' first transcontinental railroad, the Union Pacific/Central Pacific.

The first transcontinental railroad was only the beginning, however. Within thirty years the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, the Northern Pacific, the Southern Pacific, the Great Northern, and finally the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific railroads had been completed. In addition to the six transcontinentals, scores of regional feeder lines also came into being. Roads such as the Texas Pacific, the Missouri Pacific, the Denver and Rio Grande Western, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, and the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific became equally important in opening the American West. A person wishing to relocate to the West need not resign him or herself to leaving family, friends and civilization behind, for the railroads were civilization. It is no wonder that within just a few years the railroads carried as many people to new lives in the west as had taken the Oregon Trail in thirty years. William Tecumseh Sherman said in 1883: "I regard the building of these railroads as the most important event of modern times, and believe that they account fully for the peace and good order which now prevail throughout the country, and for the extraordinary prosperity which now prevails in this land."

The railroads changed the whole complexion of the West. Where once between the Mississippi and the Pacific only a handful of trading posts, mining towns, and forts now existed cities and towns. "The Great American Desert," as the plains of Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas had once been described, now became dotted with farms and ranches. The railroads not only provided the means to get there, but also an easy and affordable way to ship the goods to the market places back east.

For many people the railroads themselves became important employers and economic factors. Many end-of-rail towns, such as Cheyenne, Wyoming, became important rail junctions where locomotives were serviced, cars could be maintained, freight classification yards operated, and crews were changed, and travelers rested and ate. Other places grew from small towns into great cities as a result of the railroads. Denver, for example, had been a mining town and probably would have become a ghost town after the ore had played out if not for the entry of the rails. Soon after the arrival of the railroad, warehouses, stores and factories were built, and Denver became the great city of the Rocky Mountains.

Of course there is another side of the story to the construction of the railroads. American Indians, who contrary to Hollywood's version had looked upon the early wagon trains with more curiosity than maliciousness, now found their entire lifestyle threatened by the "iron horse." Often passengers shot buffalo from moving trains just for sport. The rails scarred Indian hunting grounds. Within a little more than a decade, Indians were relocated on reservations, and their once vast hunting grounds became farms, towns, ranches and cities.

By 1890 the United States Census Bureau determined that there was no longer a western frontier, since all parts of the west had been explored and settled. By 1900 there were 260,000 miles of track in the U.S. Gauges and time zones had been standardized, air brakes and automatic couplers installed, locomotives improved, rails strengthened, and Pullman and dining cars added. Not only were there regular railroad lines, but also interurban transit between cities and trolley lines, elevated railroads and subways within cities. America was a nation on rails everywhere one looked by the end of the 19th century, a century of steam and rails which united West and East more quickly and efficiently than any other single factor.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Canadian Homestead Act

The Canadian Homestead Act is more commonly called the Dominion Lands Act which is short for it’s official name: An Act Respecting the Public Lands of the Dominion. It passed in1872 and was in use until 1918. It aimed to encourage the settlement of Canada's prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchwan, and Manitoba. It was modeled on the U. S. Homestead Act of 1862. The Act's purpose was to encourage settlement by European and American pioneers, as well as settlers from Eastern Canada.

by Gene Finke

The act also launched the Dominion Lands Survey, which laid the framework for layout of the prairie provinces that persists to this day. The Dominion Land Survey was the method used to divide most of Western Canada into one-square-mile sections for agricultural and other purposes. It was based on the layout of the Public Land Survey System used in the United States.

The Canadian Homestead Act gave 160 acres for free to any male farmer who agreed to cultivate at least 40 acres and to build a permanent dwelling within three years. The only cost to the farmer being a $10 administration fee. This condition of “proving up the homestead” was instituted to prevent speculators from gaining control of the land.

An important difference between the Canadian and U.S. systems was that the Canadian system allowed the farmers to buy a neighboring 160 acres for the same $10 registration fee. This allowed most farms to quickly double in size. This was especially important in the arid areas of the prairie provinces where a farm of 160 acres was not large enough to be successful.

Manitoba wheat field
The Canadian Homestead Act did not immediately cause a great migration into the prairie provinces. Large-scale immigration to the prairies did not begin until 1896. The first version of the act limited the free land to areas more than 20 miles from a railway. It was very difficult for farmers to show a profit if they had to transort their products by wagon for 20 miles or more and therefore settlement was slow in the beginning. In 1879 the exclusion zone was shrunk to only 10 miles from the tracks and in 1882 it was finally eliminated.

The act went through many changes and amendments and was finally done away with in 1918 when a new system was set up designed to help World War I veterans settle more easily. Then in 1930 Parliament passed the Natural Resources Transfer Acts, turning over the control of public lands and resources in the prairies provinces to the provincial governments and thus relinquishing its right to legislate in these fields. Overall about 480,000 square miles of land were given away by the government under the Canadian Homestead Act.

For more information:
"Homesteading"in The Canadianen Encyclopedia
"Canadian Homestead Act" at E-How
"Dominion Lands Act/Homestead Act" in The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan

Friday, December 10, 2010

Homestead Success Was the Exception… Not the Rule

The Homestead Act of 1862 has had a dramatic impact on our past, present, and future lives. The history of homesteading extends into so many other aspects of history across both space and time. The magnitude of the impact homesteading had on the United States and the rest of the world makes it easy to look upon the history with reverence, often overlooking the hardships many claimants endured. Unfortunately, the majority of homesteaders were unsuccessful in their attempt to prove up their claim. The reasons for failure are numerous; cited most often was poor planning, uncooperative weather circumstances, and poor soil conditions. As a historian, I consistently read stories about failed claimants, and for the most part, they are similar to each other. However, on occasion I come across stories and letters that stand out from the others; stories that truly puts their difficulties in perspective, and I would like to share a couple I recently read.

The first one was written by a newspaper reporter, William Allen White, as he watched refugees coming back east from western Kansas. This article appeared in the Emporia Gazette, June 15, 1895.

There came through Emporia yesterday two old-fashioned “mover wagons” headed east. The stock in the caravan would invoice four horses, very poor and very tired; one mule, more disheartened than the horses; and one sad-eyed dog, that had probably been compelled to rustle his own precarious living for many a long and weary day.

A few farm implements of the simpler sort were in the wagon, but nothing that had wheels was moving except the two wagons. All the rest of the impedimenta had been left upon the battlefield, and these poor stragglers, defeated but not conquered, were fleeing to another field, to try the fight again.

These movers were from western Kansas--- from Gray County, a county which holds a charter from the state to officiate as the worst, most desolate, God-forsaken, man-deserted spot on the sad old earth. They had come from the wilderness only after a ten years hard, vicious fight, a fight which had left its scars on their faces, had beat their bodies, had taken the elasticity from their steps, and left them crippled to enter the battle anew.

For ten years they had been fighting the elements. They had seen it stop raining for months at a time. They had heard the fury of the winter wind as it came whining across the short burned grass, and their children huddling in the corner. They have strained their eyes watching through the long summer days for the rain that never came. They have seen that big cloud roll up from the southwest about one o’clock in the afternoon, hover over the land, and stumble away with a few thumps of thunder as the sun went down. They have tossed through hot night’s wild with worry, and have arisen only to find their worst nightmares grazing in reality on the brown stubble in front of their sun-warped doors.

They had such high hopes when they went out there; they are so desolate now--- no not now, for now they are in the land of corn and honey. They have come out of the wilderness, back to the land of promise. They are now in God’s own country down on the Neosho, with their wife’s folks, and the taste of apple butter and good cornbread and fresh meat and pie—rhubarb pie like mother used to make--- gladdened their shrunken palates last night. And real cream, curdling on their coffee saucers last night for supper, was a sight so rich and strange that it lingered in their dreams, wherein they walked beside the still water, and lay down in green pastures.

These next two entries are letters that came from the wife of a homesteader writing back to her family. Her name is Mary Chaffee Abell and these two letters were written during the winter of 1874-75.

[Mary Abell to her father, Nov. 21, 1874]

We’ve been obliged to tell the children that Santa Claus will not come here this year, everybody is so poor, and need food and clothes so much it won’t pay him to bring any playthings. I shall try and sell butter to get them some candy. I have aches and pains somewhere all the time, and with all am cross and nervous. If I was only where I could run home once or twice a year and get a rest, but I am here and here I must stay, how long?

[Mary Abell to her mother, Feb. 16, 1875]

Your two kind welcome letters have been received. I am sorry you worry about me so, but can’t blame you. I am not as bad as I was in that coldest weather because I can sit up more, but I have no strength to do anything and the least little thing tires me all out. Baby has been quite sick for three days, and he is so heavy that the lifting and care of him has quite used me up. The weather here is colder than with you, for with the cold is a fierce north wind which will freeze man or beast that happen to be out. The children had to wear their hoods at night. My eyelids froze together so I picked off the ice, the tops of the sheets and quilts and all our beds were frozen stiff with the breath. The cold was so intense we could not breathe the air without pain.

The homesteading story is full of hardship, worry, and pain. The Act benefitted countless people when we look at the agricultural and industrial foundation laid by or because of homesteaders during this era, but it is important to remember that success was the exception… not the rule.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Homestead Simulates Nature’s Solution, Fire

Homestead National Monument of America recently performed a prescribed burn on a portion of the restored tall grass prairie. I have been in and around areas that have conducted controlled burns, but I never took the time to learn about why this needed to be done. I began investigating the history of prescribed fire and its benefits to a tall grass prairie ecosystem and I would like to share that.

The tall grass prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. We have lost over 99% of all tall grass prairies in North America due in large part to agriculture and the construction of our vast infrastructure. In less than 200 years Euro-American society nearly destroyed what had been maintained for millennia by nature and the Native American Indian. Nature provided grazers, like the bison, along with droughts and fire to preserve this fragile environment. American Indian’s would routinely set fire to the prairie in order to attract the bison because bison were attracted to fire; bison sought the remnants of a burned prairie because it provided a nutritious meal. All of these natural efforts created a thriving ecosystem that covered over 250 million acres in the United States.

Fire on the prairie, however, became a hazard in the 19th and 20th centuries. The United States had expanded throughout the prairie and the plains and farmers transformed the vast tall grass prairies into crop fields. Tall grass prairies had been absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil for centuries, making it perfect for growing large quantities of crops. The combination of farmers clearing the land, towns and cities being built, along with railroads and highways spreading throughout the area, the once thriving tall grass prairie rapidly disappeared.

Today the existing tall grass prairie comes to us mostly through restoration efforts. State and National initiatives have brought back a small amount of this once flourishing ecosystem. Yet, restoration efforts are always fighting an uphill battle to control the delicate balance of these bio-systems. Natural resource specialists are constantly battling an onslaught of invasive species and noxious vegetation. Nature’s solution, fire, has become the tool of choice to limit and control harmful intrusions while stimulating the growth of native grasses. By simulating the natural conditions that had allowed the tall grass prairie to thrive, we can manage and maintain the little bit that we have left.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Homestead Assists with Oil Spill Cleanup to Conserve Resources

The third week in September began like most other weeks at Homestead National Monument of America. Monday was spent cleaning the Palmer-Epard Cabin and the Freeman School and Tuesday I worked on various projects while providing visitor services at the front desk of the Heritage Center. Wednesday was different though. I received an email from the National Park Service Emergency Incident Coordination Center asking if I was available to go to Gulf Islands National Seashore the following Monday as a responder to the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. After speaking to the Chief Ranger and Superintendent it was agreed that I should definitely do what I could to help.

by Jason Jurgena
Museum Curator
Homestead National Monument of America

The Gulf Islands National Seashore, which is made up of twelve units, is partially located in both Mississippi and Florida. These units have a diversity of plants, animals, and marine life, as well as sites of historical and cultural value within their boundaries. The mission of the National Park Service (NPS) includes preserving these resources for future generations. During the three weeks that I worked on the project I was at the Perdito Key, Fort Pickens, and Santa Rosa units in Florida.

Tar balls from Bayside
When I arrived it had been exactly five months since the the drill rig Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank, killing 11 crewmembers and leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico from an uncapped well. I wasn’t there during the early cleanup efforts and therefore can’t really say what conditions were like. When I arrived the beaches looked superficially clean, but upon closer inspection I could see many marble sized tar balls on the surface. I also saw, during my time there, that some larger tar balls were still just under the surface and some crews were working in waist deep water because they were finding them there as well. Fortunately, by the time I arrived, wildlife with oil on it was no longer being found but we continued to keep watch for oiled, distressed, or dead wildlife.

Before I arrived, more than 600 NPS employees from more than 135 different parks and units had participated in coordinating and assisting with the cleanup efforts. While I was there I worked closely with many U.S. Fish and Wildlife (FWS) employees also there in response to the spill. Many other agencies have staff involved in these efforts such as the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement but in my time at the incident I worked mainly with FWS and other NPS employees.

Sandshark cleaning the sand of tar balls at night.

My role in the project was that of Resource Advisor. What that meant was that it was my job to work with the cleaning crews while they were at the park to make them aware of what plant and animal life was in the area, how to recognize it, and how to best protect it. When I was working on the day shift my job would start before the sun would come up when I would speak to the work crews before they disembarked the busses and continued until all personnel and every last piece of equipment was off the beach at the end of the day. Due to the time of year, work could not begin in the morning until the beaches had been checked to be sure no sea turtle hatchlings were still making their way to the water. During the time I was on the night shift to monitor the mechanical cleaning of the beaches I would see both the sunset and sunrise. Other natural resources that need to be protected are the plant life that facilitates the formation of sand dunes, which in turn provide habitat for many of the animals living in this ecosystem. Also there are endangered shore birds such as the Piping Plover that nest on these beaches and in these dunes. Areas of sensitivity would be marked so special care could be taken while working in or near these areas.

Due to my background in archeology I was also there to protect archeological sites and areas of historical significance. I would generally work in areas where there were known archaeological sites so that these resources could also be protected for future generations. I was also there to monitor all work being done near these areas in the event that a new archeological discovery was made.

Turtle nest
 So far I have made it sound like the Resource Advisors are there to protect the park’s natural and cultural resources from the workers who are there to clean it up and I want to make it clear that this is not the case. I found it to be a partnership and once the workers were aware of the park’s resources they did everything they could to help protect these resources. Most of the workers on these crews live in the area and consider these beaches to be their own. I witnessed many occasions where the foreman had to tell workers to take a break or to have lunch because the workers would have continued cleaning all day if they could. I haven’t heard how long the cleanup efforts will continue but if I am requested to go back again in the coming months I would be happy to do whatever I can to help.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Why the World Requires a Bread Basket

Field where the Bread Basket of the World begins
 The economics of homesteading is difficult to quantify in precise numbers, but late in the nineteenth and early twentieth century agriculture was a primary source of U.S. wealth. The United States is called the “Bread Basket of the World.” This simply means that the grain belt of the country provides grains and grain-based products to all corners of the globe. Previously, I had written about the increase in transportation and agricultural technologies that made physically moving the grains around the world possible, but what were some other forces at work that turned the Great Plains into an agricultural giant? The focus here is to begin thinking about what was happening in the United States and the world, and why did the world require a bread basket?

The United States, torn by the Civil War, was busy piecing the country back together during the 1860’s. During this time the government was trying to populate the western portion of the country by removing the American Indian and offering this land to individuals willing to live on and work the land. While agricultural production increased in the first decades following the Civil War, it took some time for the technology and population on the Great Plains to begin producing a surplus. During the 1860’s agricultural exports averaged a modest $182 million a year. The grain belt was just being born.

Grain belt of the Great Plains
By the 1870’s the grain belt was being settled rapidly, railroads were connecting cities to the farthest reaches of the Great Plains, and agricultural colleges were being built to supply the increased demand for applied technologies. Between the decades of 1870 to 1890 nearly 2 million new farms, double the total number that had existed in 1860, spread throughout the middle of the United States. One million new farms were being created every decade until the 1920’s when expansion finally reached a plateau.

I can only speculate on what factors allowed for the United States to emerge in the 20th century as the world’s leading agricultural superpower. European agricultural production would have been crippled during World War I and World War II as crop fields were turned into battlefields. The explosion of the world’s population that began around the beginning of the 20th century increased demand for agricultural products.

The timing of the Homestead Act is important because by the time these other key events began the agricultural infrastructure of the United States had been established and American farmers were in a position to contribute a large supply to the increasing demand. This is a complex issue that will require more extensive research, but there are some interesting questions to be asked about this history that have relevance to our present society.

The addition of the new farms directly led to an increase in production, but the population was growing as well, so surpluses were being consumed and profits grew proportionally to the number of farms. In order to become the “Bread Basket of the World”, a world market is required. So where did this market come from? Here, I do not pretend to know the answers. The U.S. was seeing the number of farms increase, and the production of those farms was increasing, in the decade of 1910-20 agricultural exports skyrocketed to an average of 1.9 billion annually.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Homesteaders Used Indian's Natural Medicines

Long before our time, American Indian healers, or also known as medicine men, were planting and harvesting plants and herbs on the prairies for medicinal (medical) purposes. Many of us have been prescribed medications for various disorders or illnesses throughout our lives, or have decided to take some natural remedies or dietary supplements for various different reasons.

by SuAnn Saathoff
Southeast Community College

I have taken herbal supplements, without much thought, I will admit, as to the how or why we’ve come to use them, or how we know they work. But, plants and herbs have been used for centuries for their healing properties and continue to be used today. I’m going to tell you a little about the history of the use of medicinal plants and herbs by the American Indians, as well as some of the different plants that are native to Nebraska and the different ways they have been or are being used in medicine.

American Indians used their knowledge of plants and herbs to make not only food or clothing, but medicine to cure people of a lot of the same illnesses we have today. Ginseng, aloe, echinacea, ginkgo, these are products you will find on the shelves of your local supermarket or drug store, but they are medicinal products that have been used to treat a variety of illness for centuries. Kinscher in his 1992 book entitled, Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie, stated his study “documents the use of 203 native prairie plant species, used as medicine by Indians, settlers, and doctors.” The Indians of the region made the greatest use of these plants, by using 172 of these species (Kindscher, 1992).

Kindscher (1992) goes on to say, “Many of these plants were also used by doctors from the time of first settlement (the 1830s in the earliest areas) until the 1930s, Medicinal plants have played a major role in the health and healing system of the Indians” and continue to play a role in medicine today. “Although no exact figures are available, it is estimated that 40 percent of the prescription drugs now sold in the United States contain at least one ingredient derived from nature.”

Above is a little bit of background into how important the prairie resources of plants and herbs were to the Indians, settlers, and to us today. Now let’s examine the different ways the plants and herbs were used to deliver medicine.

According to Keoke and Porterfield in their 2005 book, American Indian Contributions to the World, “In order to develop plant-based drugs that worked, they (Indians) needed to understand the different effects that plants had on humans.” Giving a patient too little medicine would not cure the illness, and too much might result in death (Keoke & Porterfield, 2005).

Have you ever stopped to think how many different medicines they’ve [Indians] used in trial and error situations, to cure a certain ailment or illness you might have, before they came to the prescription your doctor has just prescribed for you?

There were many different ways in which plants and herbs were used in order to deliver the medicine. Medicine men or women would dry, grind, or crush roots, leaves, or barks, into oils or powder and would make them into salves/creams, suppositories, pills or medicine they could inject under the skin. They would also boil certain plant leaves, or roots and make tonics or teas to drink (Keoke, Porterfield, 2005).

According to Gilmore in his publication, Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region, some plants were broken into short pieces, and attached to the skin by moistening one end, and then lit on fire and allowed to burn down to the skin. Smoke treatments were also performed by lighting certain plants or herbs on fire and using the aroma or smoke to heal certain injuries or illnesses.

Now that we have looked at some of the different ways plants and herbs were used to make medicines let’s learn about some of the plants native to Nebraska and their medicinal uses.

The plant, purple coneflower, or better known today as, Echinacea, “was universally used as an antidote for snake bite and other venomous bites, stings and poisonous conditions” (Gilmore, 1918). When you have a cold, you might use a vapor rub that contains mint to clear your nose. But you could also take Echinacea, as it helps with infections caused by viruses like the common cold or flu, and is said to also help boast your immune system. This plant, native only to North America, was also the medicinal plant most widely used by the Indians of the prairie. (Kindscher, 1992)

Purple coneflower was also used to treat intestinal worms, by being brewed into a tea. Or the roots were rubbed downward on swollen arms or legs to reduce the swelling (Kindscher, 1992). Another popular medicine comes from tree bark. The bark from an American black willow was used as a pain reliever, because of the salicin (Keoke & Porterfield, 2005). Salicin is the main ingredient in aspirin, which is used for pain relief, as well as an anti-inflammatory.

These are just a few of the different uses types of plants or herbs and how they have been used, or continue to be used. These plants, and others not discussed, have been used for centuries for their healing properties and continue to be used today.

Today we have learned how American Indians used their knowledge of plants and herbs to make medicines to cure people of a lot of the same illnesses we have today. And I’ve also told you about some of the different ways in which plants and herbs were used to deliver medicine. Long before our time, American Indian healers, or also known as medicine men were planting and harvesting plants and herbs on the prairies for medicinal purposes. So, next time you are picking up a prescription or a dietary supplement, imagine that this medicine could have been used centuries ago for the same reason you are using it today.


Cowen, R. (1990). Medicinal plants of the prairie. Science News, 137(14), 221. Retrieved from Health Source – Consumer Edition database.

Dandelion much more than a pest [Sunrise Edition]. (1995, June 18). Omaha World - Herald, p. 3F. Retrieved from Nebraska Newsstand.

Gilmore, M. (1919). Uses of plants by the Indians of the Missouri river region. Bureau of American Ethnology, Thirty-Third Annual Report 1911-1912, Washington Government Printing Office.

Kindscher, K. (1987, May). Edible wild plants of the prairie: An ethnobotanical guide. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.

Kindscher, K. (1992, October). Medicinal wild plants of the prairie: An ethnobotanical guide. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.

Keoke, E.D., & Porterfield K. (2005). American Indian contributions to the world. Medicine and health. NY: Facts On File, Inc. Retrieved from NetLibrary.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Homestead Native American Experience

Kevin Locke, named Tokeya Inajin in Lakota, meaning “The First to Arise,” and renowned player of the Northern Plains flute, narrated the prayer in the video below. The poem was shared with attendees of the Native American Experience at Homestead National Monument on July 17, 2010. The event was both an acknowledgment of Indian participation in the homestead experience and a tribute to participants in the 2010 Special Olympics held in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Homestead's Artist-in-Residence: Homestead Prairie Gleanings

By Judy Thompson
2010 Artist-in Residence
Homestead National Monument of America
Cottonwood Cows:  While at the Homestead, I encountered triple digit temperatures.  The hot, humid prairie offered little relief from these extreme conditions except for the few sparse cottonwoods scattered throughout the landscape.  Many times on the prairie, trees became personalities which were known throughout the area for their distinct ability to give shade to both man and beast.

I am a visual artist who is fascinated with the beauty and history of the Great Plains.  Through my watercolor landscapes, I attempt to capture not merely a likeness of my subject, but also a “sense of place.”  The Artist-in-Residence Program provided me with the unique opportunity to explore the history of the homesteaders while being immersed in the native tallgrass prairie.   My goal was to create a series of watercolor paintings depicting the prairies during the time of the first homesteaders.  My time at the monument included researching existing photos and records, as well as taking my own photos, and creating onsite sketches of the park environment.  These references were used to create compelling compositions of the homestead era.

Distant Harvest:  In my research, I came across many accounts of how the homestead life affected children.  For some children, moving to the prairie was an exciting adventure. However, many children soon realized that prairie life meant isolation.  Future dreams of careers as teachers, doctors, etc., were kept in check by their ability to receive education, and by the expectation for them to stay and work the family farm.   "Distant Harvest" speaks to the many sacrifices made by homesteader children.

Of the many interpretive themes of the Homestead National Monument, I am particularly interested in the change of ecosystem from the native tallgrass prairie to cultivated farmland.  I am also inspired by the individuals and families who seized the opportunity to settle the West through the Homestead Act.  My hope is to put these themes together into a series of watercolor paintings which will tell a visual story of this revolutionary event in our nation’s history.

Prairie Impressions:  Speaks to the colors and mystique of the prairie landscape.  Subtle colors and textures give a peaceful mood to the flowering, flowing grasses.

In October of 2010, I am scheduled to give a solo exhibition in Brookings, South Dakota.  I want to entitle my show “Prairie Gleanings” and will include pieces of work from my time on the prairie at the Homestead National Monument.

Trail's End: The perils of homesteading were great. Many who tried were stopped by disease, lack of food, natural disaster and poor planning. Hopes, dreams and lives were often shattered. The prairie landscape was inviting yet hostile to those who tried to tame it. However, through time, it is the natural prairie which survives.

Uninterrupted time to observe, draw, and paint a subject is an artist’s dream.  The Artist-in-Residence Program provided me with the exciting opportunity to experience the prairie in a very personal way and challenged me to capture the beauty of the prairie through watercolor. During my time in residency, I created an art journal (sketch book) of plants, animals, landscapes, and skyscapes discovered at the park. I included in this journal my impressions, ideas, and notes.  This journal will provide me with artistic inspiration for years to come. 

Editor’s note: Judy was in residence August 1 through 15, 2010.

Artist website:

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Importance of Water in the Homestead Experience

I read a quote by Bernard Frank, deceased journalist and writer, in which he claimed, “You could write the story of man’s growth in terms of his epic concerns with water”. Initially, I passed this off as an oversimplification of human history; however, I began to contemplate man’s “epic concerns” with water, and consider the implications this had on past events. The ability to obtain and control fresh water sources has been one of the key features of civilization from antiquity through the present. This was especially true to homesteaders who decided to stake their claim in the semi-arid regions of the Great Plains.

Humans have a few basic needs in order to survive; food, air, shelter, and water. Histories of homesteading often focus on food production and the primitive shelters that settlers were living in; while water, and its acquisition, often remains a tertiary focal point unless it was lacking as it was in the 1930’s. I can only assume the former are more appealing because sod houses and tar-paper shacks are more visually engaging or crops are the measurable products of a farmer’s painstaking efforts.

The link between crops and rain is so intertwined that the two seemed to have reached a causal relationship, thus we overlook the importance of water for human and animal consumption.
Homesteaders ideally sought land that was situated near a water source. Quarter sections that had a stream or pond on them were ideal because the worry for water was immediately nullified. As lands began to be distributed and homesteaders moved farther west, water sources became less abundant.

This caused two problems. One, the homesteader had to expend a great amount of time and energy traveling to and from a water source. Once they arrived they were limited only to amounts they could efficiently carry back with them. Secondly, they were limited to only a certain number of animals they could supply adequate amounts of water for. Combining wasted energy and limited animal stock; homesteaders could be crippled by efforts to maintain fresh water supplies.

This problem was alleviated for many homesteaders when they discovered the abundant ground water that existed under the majority of the Great Plains. The aquifer, named the Ogallala Aquifer, provided the much needed fresh water homesteaders were seeking. Initially the aquifer served two purposes.

First, and most importantly, homesteaders now had access to fresh water without having to waste the time and energy seeking out fresh water supplies. This provided for more time that could be spent trying to improve their claims. Increased time in the fields allowed for expanding farms; expanding farms provided for larger production; more production increased the chances of a homesteader being successful.

Secondly, homesteaders were able to provide fresh water to livestock. Increased amounts of livestock provided an abundant, renewable food supply. Byproducts from livestock were important to the success of homesteaders as well. Hides provided for clothing and blankets and waste made excellent fertilizer.

It would be difficult to overstate the important role water played in the success, or failure, of homesteaders. A homesteader’s ability to prove up their claim, and really, life and death, hinged on their ability to maintain a fresh water supply. I do not know if Bernard Frank’s quote is applicable to all of human history, but there certainly appears to be a bit of truth with respect to the history of homesteading in the United States.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Homestead's Artist-in-Residence: This land, not some other

Mel Mann pictures shows how Cub Creek is a high bank creek, approximately 35 miles long, traversing Gage and Jefferson counties, NE, and meandering through the original Freeman land patent, now Homestead National Monument. In keeping with the mission to educate the public, Beatrice Middle School students assist the park rangers with monitoring water quality.

Mel Mann captured the harmony of the whispering water and over-head blind of burr oaks in this photo while shooting at the park as an artist-in-resident. While not the same scene the Freeman's witnessed over a hundred and forty years ago the scene does offer the same moment of dappled quietness.

Mel Mann's next photo is of the south boundary of the park, Freeman's Osage-orange hedgerow. The tree native to Texas was used to contain live stock. Vigorous pruning was needed to shape the trees into a living fence. Both an exotic plant and an important cultural artifact, the Osage-orange covers about five acres of the park.

White-tailed deer can be found year around on the prairie. The park conducts an montly deer count with 12 being counted in September. Last February there were over 100 counted.

Read more about Mel Mann's artist-in-residence experience by opening the link.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Celebrating President Woodrow Wilson

Since 1951, the arrowhead has been the official logo of the National Park Service. The Sequoia tree and bison represent natural resources, the mountains and water are emblematic of scenic and recreational values, and the arrowhead shape represents historical and archeological resources.

Woodrow Wilson knew the answers to very important questions. What does a world at war need? To where does a nation turn in times of war?

by Luke Phillips
Southeast Community College

Today we live in a connected world and a country at war and can enjoy the benefits of Wilson’s remarkable insight. As I researched Scotts Bluff National Monument I noted Woodrow Wilson’s involvement in the process of preserving the area. I found this to be a curious sidetrack for a man attempting to bring peace to a world at war, so I continued my research to find out why he did so. Having learnt of the praiseworthy achievements of President Wilson, today I show you that he is worthy of ongoing esteem.

He can be admired for many things which he did, but today we will focus on his role in creating world peace in the aftermath of WWI and the creation of the National Park Service which has ensured a lasting comfort for all Americans who have lived in war-ravaged times.

Wilson is most often remembered because of his involvement in creating peace after WWI. It was a defining moment in the history of our world that has had continuing impact. He was a pacifist and thus reluctant to involve the U. S. in WWI (McNeese, 2000).

The war began in 1914 and quickly escalated to include many European countries (McNeese, 2000). The US remained neutral but was compelled to join the war in 1917 as Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare against merchant ships (Wilkinson, 2010). Wilson asked the House of Representatives to declare war April 2, 1917, but only in hope of peace. He delivered his Fourteen Points speech January 1918. By the time a ceasefire was declared on November 11, 1918, Wilson’s Fourteen Points were well known by international leaders (McNeese, 2000).

The Fourteen Points threshed out the details of peace and established a “general association of nations… under specific covenants.” Many were compromised in writing the Versailles Treaty (Fourteen Points, 2009). In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed by both sides which officially ended the war and established the League of Nations. The resulting peace was much fairer than the allies wanted because of Wilson’s leadership (McNeese, 2000).

His fourteen points created the League of Nations (McNeese, 2000). The League of Nations was Wilson’s lofty effort at sustaining world peace. World peace is something that we desire but have not yet achieved. Wilson accurately envisioned peace as an ongoing effort. Jackson David quotes Wilson’s attitude towards peace in his 2009 USA Today article Both President and Nobel Laureate: “Mankind has not yet been rid of the unspeakable horror of war… But it is the better part of wisdom to consider our work as one begun. It will be a continuing labor.”

He envisioned the League providing a means to work at peace diplomatically. The League was an abandonment of the traditional balance of power model. Traditionally, war was avoided by maintaining fairly equal alliances. The failure of this system brought about WWI and ensured that many countries would be involved for many years. The League of Nations was modified after WWII and became the United Nations (McNeese, 2000). For his admirable efforts in closing WWI and establishing the League of Nations, Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1919 (David, 2009).

Wilson should also be admired for recognizing that Americans at home during wartime need National Parks. He founded the National Park Service which had maintained national treasures for our enjoyment ever since. Throughout recent history we can observe increased focus on NP during wartime (Jarvis, 2001).

T. Jarvis, in his 2001 article Stress Value points out that “we have seen again and again… at times of great stress and universal crisis, Americans flock to their public parks in huge numbers.” The parks provide “active recreation” and “passive contemplation of nature, scenery, or other aspects of our cultural heritage.”

Wilson ratified the Organic Act August 25, 1916 which created the NPS (Winks, 1997). President Lincoln protected the Yosemite Valley in 1864 during the Civil War, and from 1872 on many areas were named NP’s (Jarvis, 2001; Winks, 1997). The act provided funding and the organization’s mandate which has remained unchanged to this day. It provides for the conservation of areas of national worth - while funding access for the public to enjoy them (Winks, 1997). Many Presidents have followed suit. Lyndon Johnson added 64 sites to the NPS during the Vietnam War (Jarvis, 2001).

Wilson was wise to learn from the example of Lincoln, and time has proven his actions to be of incredible worth to Americans in time of war and uncertainty. It is amazing that Wilson was able to achieve this while also working for world peace.

Today I have recognized the achievements of President Wilson and shown you that he is worthy of ongoing esteem. He should be commended for his role in creating a fair peace through the Versailles Treaty and the establishment of the much needed League of Nations, and also for the creation of the NPS in such a critical time in US history. Pay tribute to President Wilson, for he knew what the world and his country needed in a time of war.

David, J. (2009, December, 9). Both president and Nobel laureate. USA Today.
Fourteen points. (2009). Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition, (1).
Jarvis, T. (2001). Stress value. Parks & Recreation, 36(12), 2.
McNeese, T. (2000). The age of progress. St Louis, MO.: Milliken.
Wilkinson, S. (2010). Killer U-boats. Military History, 27(3), 26-34.
Winks, R. (1997). The National Park Service Act of 1916: ‘A contradictory mandate?’. G. Wright, (Ed.). Retrieved from

Friday, October 1, 2010

Butterfly Monitoring at the Homestead National Monument

 I am lucky enough to have spent my spring, summer, and early fall this year

Gorgone checkerspots

monitoring the butterflies at the Homestead National Monument near Beatrice, Nebraska.  There are so many types of butterflies—all beautiful and intriguing—that it is difficult to identify them all. 


by Barbara Guenther, Friends of Homestead Volunteer

Lately, there have been millions of Silver Spotted Checkerspots. So many that I have finally learned to know them by heart! We’ve also had many beautiful Monarchs spreading their wings over the expanse of the natural prairie flowers and grasses here. There are numerous Gray Cooper Butterflies, millions of Sulphurs of all colors flitting around, Fritillaries of all colors and designs, Red Admirals that started early in the spring and have since reduced in number, Buckeyes with large “eyes” on their wings, beautiful Painted Ladies, and Skippers of all sorts; Swallowtails, Gossamer-Winged, Hickory Hairstreaks—so many.

It’s indescribable, actually, the multitude of colors and shapes of the butterflies flying back and forth between the prairie flowers, hanging by twos or threes off of the colorful blooms.

Gray hairstreak

Nearly every week, through the Nebraska heat and cool weather, I have driven out there to capture their images on film so I can get help identifying them from the wonderful rangers at the Homestead. I have taken pictures with sweat running down into my eyes or clutching my sweater closer around me for warmth. But, the experience has been exciting and something I look forward to each week.

Brown winged yellow butterfly 

Now, the time for monitoring is winding down and I will miss my weekly trips to enjoy the nature and beauty of the butterflies and the natural prairie. While trekking across the prairie, I have stopped to commune with a deer and have had a wild turkey run across the path ahead of me. The birds and other insects here also abound and grace us with their beauty and diverseness.

Clouded sulfur
But, I will look forward to monitoring the butterflies again next season. I am so glad that I have had this opportunity to help monitor the kinds of butterflies and the times of the season that the varied butterflies enjoy their visit before flying off to other regions.

I hope that you, too, can someday visit the Homestead and see all the exhibits at the Education Center and the new Heritage Center that inform visitors of the population of these parts of the country by immigrants—important people in the settling of America—striving to start a new life in this new country, and that you take a walk through the prairie while you are here, enjoying every aspect of the Homestead National Monument.

I will include some pictures that I have taken so you can enjoy and that perhaps will entice you to visit the Homestead National Monument.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Homestead Spelling Bee

“Cat,” the first word of the spelling bee, was enunciated clearly and slowly by the pronouncer. And Homestead National Monument’s first old fashioned spelling bee began.
The entry way to the Freeman School.

The words spelling bee are thought to originate from the age-old-custom of people gathering to help each other out, to socialize, or both. Examples of bees include: barn-raising bees, corn-husking bees, spelling bees, and quilting bees.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the etymology of the word bee to 1769 in the Boston Gazette: “Last Thursday about twenty young Ladies met at the house of Mr. L. on purpose for a Spinning Match; (or what is called in the Country a Bee)”; other examples include: in 1809 “Now were instituted quilting bees and husking bees and other rural assemblages” ; in 1830 “I made a bee; that is, I collected as many of the most expert and able-bodied of the settlers to assist at the raising”; and in 1876 “He may be invincible at a spelling bee.”

Scripps National Spelling Bee website challenges the notion of bee as in bee-hive-type-social gathering to suggest scholars today think the word bee may have origins in the Middle English word “bene.” Bene is a prefix for well or an adverb for to perform. No matter the etymology, Scripps thinks the first use of the American term spelling bee was probably around 1875 or earlier.

Homesteaders prized education and encouraged their children in the 3Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. One of the ways pioneer children learned these lessons was through recitation. A typical school day would include both reciting and spelling. After studying the assigned reading the student would join the teacher at the recitation bench and recite the memorized reading. Later students would line up for the spelling match.
The pronouncer reads the rules to the spellers.

Competitors in Homestead’s first spelling bee did not follow the rule of the next contender spelling a word missed by the person before them, known as “turned down.” But did have an eventual winner of the bee, which in one-room-school house terms was known as the “head mark” - or the student that “turned down” each person before them became the best speller or “head mark.”

Words for the Homestead contest were selected from the McGuffey’ Spelling Book first published 1879 with Worcester’s Pocket Dictionary, published in 1872 by Brewer and Tileston, as the back-up list if all words from McGuffey’s were exhausted. Worceter’s dictionaries were known to concentrate on the British spellings and pronunciations of words as opposed to Webster’s approach of Americanizing spelling and pronunciation.

Participants listen intently to the spelling of a word by Lauryn Rieken. For another view click on the link.
One charming story of Webster’s youth describes how he held spelling bees at his home in the evenings after school. Noah assumed the role of pronouncer and insisted on American spellings such as h-a-r-b-o-r instead of English spellings such as h-a-r-b-o-u-r. Spellers had 10 seconds, counted down by the other spellers, to spell their word aloud. Once the bee was won, the future lexicographer and author of the American speller, Noah would teach the other children how to remember the spellings of words by drawing pictures on the pine walls of the family kitchen (Bailey, 2001).

While no pictures were drawn on the walls of the Freeman school during Homestead’s first bee there were plenty of digital pics being snapped by proud parents and the photographer from the Beatrice Daily Sun co-sponsor of the event. Coverage of the event can be read at: Spellers Flock to Homestead.

Congratulations Spellers!

We would like to congratulate the winners of the 1st Annual Labor Day Weekend Old-Fashioned Spelling Bee! They are as follows:

  • Under 7 years old: Kolbe Villa
  • 7-11 years old: November Schuster
  • 12-15 years old: Isaiah Friesen
  • 16 and older: Barb Rieken

Bailey, C. (2001, March). The spelling bee. Child Life, 80, 2, 4.

Bee. (1989). Oxford English Dictionary.

Bene. (n.d.). Unabridged. Retrieved from

Noah Webster History. (n.d). Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society. Retrieved from

Origin of the term spelling bee. (n.d.) Scripps National Spelling Bee. Retrieved from

Sample lesson plans (1900s). (2010). Blackwell Museum. Retrieved from Northern Illinois University College of Education

Worcester, Joseph Emerson. (2010). The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition, published by Houghton Mifflin Company. Reference Answers. Retrieved from