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.

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