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

Friday, September 17, 2010

Constitution Day - Citizenship Day

Homestead National Monument of America is honored to host a United States Citizenship and Naturalization Ceremony on Constitution Day, September 17, 2010.The remarks below were shared with another group of new citizens by Park historian Blake Bell and are fitting to be shared again.

Nearly 234 years ago an assembly of individuals living on the Eastern shores of the North American continent gathered to shed their titles as subjects and declare their independence as free men. They believed in the radical notion that people were entitled to rights that could not be disputed nor deprived by any other man or government.
This declaration, however, was not limited to a select few who happened to be born of a certain nation, no, independence in this country was declared to the citizens of the world. The document was an open invitation to all who dreamed of liberty and freedom. Traditional boundaries could not prevent those seeking equality, because these natural rights cannot be contained by imaginary borders. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is something all people should be able to enjoy.

It is fitting that we gather today at Homestead National Monument of America for this event, because Abraham Lincoln, who so believed in the principles of the Declaration of Independence, extended another invitation to the citizens of the world seeking to participate in the American Dream when he signed the Homestead Act of 1862. All peoples regardless of gender, ethnicity, or nationality were invited to stake their claim and declare their independence.

But what is the American Dream? It is not something tangible; instead, it is a spirit that has burned forever in the minds of free thinking people, finally released upon the world on that momentous fourth day of July in 1776 and written down for posterity. This spirit can mean many things to many people but it is grounded in the fundamental idea of freedom! It is the force behind individuals seeking to actively participate in the direction of their political, economic, social, and personal lives. This spirit has manifested itself differently since becoming the governing force of our country 234 years. Every generation since the birth of this country has had individuals who sought to limit, confine, and designate who can and cannot be free, fortunately for us; you cannot limit, confine, or designate a spirit of this magnitude.

Waves of our ancestors have flowed into this country at different times and they have built a great nation around this spirit. Peak immigration years coincide with peaks in applications for land under the Homestead Act. This is not a statistical coincidence; it is evidence of the penetrating affects of the American Dream. The resulting effect can be attributed to the successes of our nation; standing as a clear testament to the resolve and determination these new citizens demonstrated.

Today, you take your place as citizens of the United States of America; you are taking the first steps to becoming part of the legacy that has made this nation great.

Abraham Lincoln believed there was only one criterion to become a citizen of the United States and that was believing in the moral sentiment that all men are created equal. He said, “That is the electric cord written in the Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, and it will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.” It was 152 years ago when Abraham Lincoln said those words, and today your actions give testimony to ALL that love of freedom still exists in the minds of individuals throughout the world!

On behalf of the National Park Service…. Welcome and Congratulations!!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Annie Moore, First Immigrant

 “In 1892, she was the first foreigner to arrive at Ellis Island.  By 1893, she was an American mystery.”  This are the words of Jesse Green in his 2010 article titled Immigrant Number One. In my research of the history of the naturalized citizen process I ran across this story about the first immigrant to enter the United States through the famed Ellis Island.  According to the article called Ellis Island published in the 2008 edition of The World Almanac and Book of Facts, “Ellis Island was the gateway to America for over 12 mil immigrants between 1892 and 1924.”
The Statue of Liberty as seen from Ellis Island.

Betty Johnson
Southeast Community College

 This is a story, not about a person who achieved greatness, but rather a person that by becoming an ordinary citizen achieved her family’s ultimate dream, American citizenship. I would like to take this opportunity today to acknowledge Annie Moore, an immigrant, and a run of the mill American citizen. Because Ms. Moore represents the American dream she is worthy of our acknowledgement and respect.

Annie Moore made the long trip from Ireland to the United States in 1892.  Can you imagine such a journey over one hundred years ago; it must have been a long, hard trip. Annie made her way to Ellis Island aboard the S.S. Nevada with her two brothers, Anthony and Phillip. The three Moore children were coming to the U.S. to meet their parents and older siblings, a brother and sister (Green, 2010).

How the tale goes, the Moore children understated their ages.  Many speculate they did this to lower their cost for the trip.  Regardless of why, Annie’s age was reported to be 15 at the time of the trip, in fact the day they landed at Ellis Island was supposedly her 15th birthday. Later it was discovered that she had actually turned 17 several months earlier (Green, 2010).

Imagine being left behind in your homeland while part of your family traveled to a far off, foreign land.  Then you follow, by taking a long hard trip, months later; a young child yearning to be reunited with her parents.  But, there is much more to her story. 

Annie Moore just happened to be the first passenger to depart the S.S. Nevada, which made her the first immigrant to be welcomed through the brand new Ellis Island facility.  Can you imagine the excitement?  She was about to be reunited with her family and then to find out that she, by luck, was part of something special!  With the grand opening of Ellis Island happening, many dignitaries were on hand to welcome the ship’s passengers.

A representative of the Treasury Department, the agency tasked with oversight of the immigration process at that time, from Washington, D.C. was on hand.   A chaplain welcomed Annie and blessed her. And, to continue the pomp, the Commissioner of Ellis Island handed her a gold liberty coin (Green, 2010), ten dollars, a lot of money for the times.

Annie became a legend that day in 1892, when she stepped foot onto Ellis Island, a legend that quickly faded into obscurity. After arriving in the United States, and becoming a naturalized citizen, Annie began her days as an American.

Elllis Island today. The door through which Annie would have entered the United States can be seen in the mid picture.

Like all of us, she went about her business of living her life.  A few short years after arriving on Ellis Island, Annie met and married her husband, the son of a German baker, Joseph Augustus Schayer, Gus for short. Over the next several years Gus and Annie gave birth to 10 children, six boys and four girls. As happened to many families during that time period, five of the Shayer children died before reaching adulthood.

Annie’s life was not sensational.  It was similar to many of that era, hard and difficult. She, herself passed away at the young age of 50, from what has been reported as heart failure. After living her life in obscurity a short distance from Ellis Island right there in New York City (Green, 2010).

Once Annie left the ship that day in 1892, she left behind the pomp and slipped into anonymity.  In Jesse Green’s (2010) words she became an Annie that “was not the kind of hero American stories are made of.”

Today I have taken the opportunity to acknowledge that Annie Moore is an American that is worthy of praise. Not because she was a great American, but rather because she is representative of the American dream and the American way of life.  She was one of us, albeit the first to come through Ellis Island, but, at the end of the day, one of us, an American who was given the opportunity to go about living her life. After hearing Annie’s story, hopefully you share my admiration for her, not because she was a great person, but rather for what she represents to us and to our country.


Ellis Island. (2008). The World Almanac and Book of Facts

Green, J. (2010, May 17). Immigrant number one. New York, 43, 16, 38-43. 

Friday, September 3, 2010

Foundations of the Homestead Act

The Homestead Act was designed to give away the public lands held by the government to private individuals.  This, it was thought, would provide individuals the opportunity to improve their position in life and stimulate the economy.  Homesteading initiatives had been a source of debate in the halls of Congress for decades prior to the famous 1862 bill.  Congressional leaders, on both sides, agreed that the land was not being effectively utilized; however, they disagreed on how it needed to be distributed. 

Many questions about plans and motives of lawmakers can be asked but one question, often overlooked, is why did Congress get to decide what should or should not be done with these lands?  To understand this and the resulting Homestead Act we must look back to the development of the country and the wording of the Constitution.

by Blake Bell. Historian
Homestead National Monument of America

Administration of public lands may seem like an expected function of our modern government, but in 1787 a central authority allowed to accumulate seemingly limitless amounts of land required constitutional affirmation.[1]. Therefore, written in Article 4, Section 3, Clause 2, of the Constitution, authority was given to the federal government to “dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States”; this is better known as the Property Clause.  This, combined with the Supremacy Clause, Article 6, Section 2 of the Constitution, which states, “This Constitution, and the laws of the United States… shall be the supreme law of the Land,” withstood every challenge to congressional administration of public land.

Federal control of public lands was perceived by early statesmen as a means to pay off the national debt [2].  They planned to sell public land and use the profits for this purpose.  However, settlers and speculators were pushing further into the frontier taking possession of the land before the government had put it up for sale [3]. The government and their officials were essentially powerless to prevent the unauthorized settlement of land that had yet to be surveyed.  Efforts to put a stop to these practices led many legislators to consider giving the land away.  Provisions to give the land away, supporters argued, would prevent unauthorized occupation of land and, more importantly, alleviate rising social ills like poverty, unemployment, and overcrowding that was stressing industrialized cities.  

So what does all this mean to the Homestead Act?  Well, the Homestead Act was the result of a combination of factors including constitutional law, legal precedent, geography, public demands, economics, and the United States desire to expand.  The history of the Homestead Act does not start in 1862; instead this legislation was the end of a deeper history in which the foundations were laid in the late seventeenth and first half of the eighteenth centuries. 

[1] When Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory he was worried that he would need an amendment to the Constitution in order to authorize the acquisition.   

[2] Paul Gates, History of Public Land Law Development (New York: Arno Press, 1979), 387.

[3] Ibid., 392-93.