Friday, December 2, 2011

Three Factors and the Homestead Act

I had no idea that one of the primary reasons the Homestead Act was initiated may have been slavery, even though I am a native of Nebraska, home state of the Homestead National Monument. How many of you thought the sole purpose of the Homestead Act was to move people to the West?

by Jamie Sumner
Southeast Community College

I wanted to understand why the Homestead Act was initiated and what made it so successful so I spoke to Blake Bell who is the Historian at Homestead National Monument, as well as, researching many books in our library here at SCC. I will explain to you how the Homestead Act came to be and how the combination of three factors made it successful. I will start with what was occurring before the Homestead Act, and then tell you about the Homestead Act itself. Then I will tell you how important the Emancipation Act and the Pacific Railway Act were to make the Homestead Act successful.

Two key presidents were leading forces for the Homestead Act. The country was at war, there was a dream of a transcontinental railroad, and the slaves were about to receive their freedom. Rose Houk (2000) explains in her handbook Homestead National Monument of America that President Jefferson paid the French for the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. This doubled the size of the United States but the land was seen as uninhabitable. Ms. Houk also describes the difficulty our government had populating the area which ultimately led to President Lincoln signing the Homestead Act.

A combination of events and people helped to drive the homesteaders west and homesteading became a solution for many problems. In Union Pacific Country, by Robert Athearn (1971), it details how the transcontinental railroad helped people move to their new homes with the signing of the Pacific Railway Act in 1862. A preliminary emancipation of the slaves was issued in 1862 in addition to the climax of the Civil War as described in Robert Goldston’s (1968) book Negro Revolution. Now that I have talked a little about what was happening in our country, I will explain the Homestead Act in more depth.

Ms. Houk tells us that the Act was actually signed on May 20, 1862 but didn’t become law until January 1, 1863. I want you to know what it actually took to become a “homesteader” according to the Homestead Act. The land was “free” but with provisions. Ms. Houk relates in her handbook, that any person could claim land by paying a filing fee between $6-$18 dollars. They had 6 months to “establish residence” and had to live there 5 years before filing for their title/patent.

This same handbook also tells us that the Homestead Act was in force through 1976 in the lower 48 states with the last official claim filed in Alaska in 1986. This was only 4 years after my high school graduation!

Many different types of people wanted a chance of new life with the promise of “free” land. In Mr. Athearn’s book Union Pacific Country, I found that immigrants from Europe and white U.S. citizens were the best known homesteaders. In Search of Canaan, also by Robert Athearn (1978), vividly portrays another “group” not as well-known which consisted of the slaves who needed a new home after being freed. These free slaves were escaping fear and repression and were enticed by the railroad, investors, religious groups and politicians to the “land of Eden.”

A key ingredient that made the Homestead Act successful was the Emancipation Act. The Emancipation Act was passed and this left many previous slaves homeless. It is hard for me to imagine the fear and stress that these African-Americans had to face. Huge numbers of slaves moved to Kansas in droves in the late 1870’s, and was referred to as the Exodus by Athearn In Search of Canaan (1978). In Search of Canaan by Athearn also tells us about several African-American land prospectors who encouraged this movement to Kansas. The best known town, which still exists, is Nicodemus, Kansas, which was established in 1878.

The book Negro Revolution by Robert Goldston depicts the true feelings of the Negroes in this time period. They had no desire to return to Africa (as was expected) after living in a civilized society (Goldston, 1968). The land was considered unwelcoming and uninhabitable, contradicting the stories pushing the slaves to become homesteaders. In Search of Canaan by Athearn tells us of the harsh climate, poor crops, meager supplies, low wages and disease that they endured. Mr. Athearn also portrays a less than welcome atmosphere from the people who lived in this land of “Eden.” Regardless, these black people were leveraged for political gain and used by the railroad as cheap labor as Athearn explains in Union Pacific Country (Athearn, 1971).

People had a dream of a “transcontinental railroad” and were motivated by greed and the Homestead Act to move forward with a plan. The people behind the railroads had a strong desire for wealth and the money raised would answer the nation’s debt problems so they became relentless in pushing their “dream” forward. I want you to think as you listen to my next point on railroads about the immense amount of planning, investment and diligence required to build the transcontinental railways. The railways became the mode of transporting people and supplies to the West. Union Pacific Country by Athearn has many illustrations showing how the railroads strongly advertised to further their goals by moving people to their new homesteads.

Ms. Houk confirms in her handbook The Homestead National Monument of America that the Pacific Railway Act was initially passed in 1862 and revised in 1864. The earliest settlers had arrived by wagon, but quickly used the railroads as a better means of reaching their new homesteads. The intention of the transcontinental railroad was to help the military defend the country. However, there were many greedy people that profited from this venture. Railroaded written by Richard White (2011) is very graphic in explaining how bankers and investors planned to capitalize on building the transcontinental railroad in answer to the nation’s debt. Mr. White’s book tells us of the methods and complexity of their plans, which is similar to what our country has more recently experienced.

I have just given you information about how railroads tied three very different pieces of legislation together for a very successful homesteading process. I now understand it was a combination of events that made the Homestead Act truly successful, rather than only the promise of “free” land. It took the vision & will of Presidents Jefferson and Lincoln, the emancipation of our slaves, and the dream of a transcontinental railroad combined together with the Homestead Act to make it successful. I don’t think I ever connected the homesteading of our land by black people because after all their hardships, many of them moved on to improve their lives.


Athearn, R. (1971). Union Pacific country. New York, NY: Rand McNally and Company.
Athearn, R. (1978). In search of Canaan. Lawrence, KS: The Regents Press of Kansas.
Goldston, R. (1968). The Negro revolution. New York, NY: The MacMillan Company.
Houk, R. (2000). Homestead National Monument of America. Washington, PA: Eastern National.
White, R. (2011). Railroaded. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company Inc.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Homesteaders Used Barb Wire

Fencing and Barbed Wire
By Travis Maresh
Southeast Community College 

Imagine a world without any defined boundaries, a world where cattle and livestock roamed free. Everyone has seen barbed wire before, whether it is on a ranch or in a movie. I have been involved with fencing and barbed wire growing up so I have decided to learn more about the beginning of barbed wire. Today I will inform you about fencing and barbed wire. I am going to teach you about the history of barbed wire, the role barbed wire played in the 1900’s, and how barbed wire has evolved.

The history of barbed wire dates back to 1868 with Michael Kelly and patents had been awarded through 1874. However, according to C. Moore "Barbed Wire: It Isn't Just For Fences" (2003) there are more than 570 patented wires. The U.S. patent office recognized Michael Kelly’s patent in November of 1868. Kelly took two wires and twisted them together, resulting in a place for the barbs. Joseph Glidden received his patent in November of 1874 for his type of barbed wire. Glidden improved on Kelly’s design by locking the barb in place rather than hanging loosely. Glidden also invented the machinery to mass produce this type of wire.

Barbed wire played a large role in the Midwest. It was cheap to produce, easy to put up and needed little maintenance. Wooden fences were too costly, because of the lack of lumber in the open plains. Barbed wire was the solution to many of the farmers’ problems as barbed wire fences were much more cost effective.

According to McCallum (1965) "The Wire that Fenced the West," the farmers and the cowmen had two different opinions about fences. The cowmen were for the unwritten Law of the Open Range, which was the free access to grass and water. The farmers had to put up fences so the cattle would not ruin and trample their crops. This difference in opinion about the barbed wire fencing resulted in range wars between the two groups. Since watering holes were blocked, the cattlemen cut the fences, and in some cases lives were lost. According to "Fencing the Great Plains: the History of Barbed Wire," (2011) homesteaders used barbed wire to mark their boundaries.

Today, barbed wire is still prevalent in our lives, we can see it holding prisoners, keeping unwanted intruders away, or protecting valuables.  According to M. Bellis "History of Barbed Wire or the Thorny Fence," Barbed wire has been used in multiple wars since its invention. Miles of barbed wire were strung in World War I. British military manuals which date back to 1888 encouraged the use of barbed wire. Today, barbed wire is used in prisons, construction sites, and storage sites. To protect supplies barbed wire has been put up around buildings.

Barbed wire has been used in many ways; it has developed from a cattle fence into a protection device. Barbed wire helped farmers and homesteaders in numerous ways, protecting crops and establishing boundaries. From containing cattle to being used as a war mechanism barbed wire has changed over the course of its history.

I hope you enjoyed learning more about fencing and barbed wire. I have shared with you the history of barbed wire, the role it played in the 1900’s, and the evolution of barbed wire. We still use barbed wire 150 years after its invention, whether it is to confine cattle, or as a military device, barbed wire has come a long way. Fences and barbed wire gave the Midwest boundaries and established property lines. Yes, the cattle still roam free, just inside a fence.

Good fences make good farms. (2011). The Wilson Quarterly, 35(3), 63. Retrieved from OmniFile Full Text Select database.

Bellis, M. (n.d.). History of barbed wire or the thorny fence. Inventors. Retrieved November 02, 2011, from 

Fencing the Great Plains: The history of barbed wire. (2011). National Park Service. Retrieved from,%20final.pdf 

McCallum, H. D., & McCallum, F. T. (1965). The wire that fenced the West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Moore, C. (2003). Barbed wire: It isn't just for fences. Antiques and Collecting Magazine, 108(8), 62-7. Retrieved from OmniFile Full Text Select database.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

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Monday, November 7, 2011

2012 the 150th Anniversary of Homestead Act

Dear Friends:

Next year we will be commemorating a story we know very well, a story that covers 270 million acres, is tied to 93 million Americans, spanned 123 years and is directly tied to the development of the largest agriculture superpower in the history of the World!

In 2012 our Nation will observe the 150th Anniversary -- in what has been said is one of the most significant laws ever created in the history of the United States -- The Homestead Act of 1862! We are contacting you to ensure you are aware of this anniversary and to seek your consideration in joining us in commemorating this epic event in American History!

While communities and organizations throughout our Nation are preparing for this anniversary it is important for us to remember that Homestead National Monument of America, Southeast Nebraska and our community will be at the center of this anniversary.

Already a number of activities and special projects are under way including:

• A major national symposium will be conducted with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; this event will take place in Lincoln and at the monument.

• Main Street Beatrice will be decorated with commemorative banners and planning special exhibitions.

• Special quilt programs will be presented.

• 44-1 kids will be engaged,

• A special national exhibit on exploration will be brought to the monument.

• The Nebraska Humanities Council will be bringing to the community their 2012 Chautauqua Event.

The Historic Homestead Act of 1862 Document signed by President Abraham Lincoln will be traveling to Homestead from the National Archives in Washington. D.C.; this document is considered, like the U.S. Constitution or Bill of Rights, to be one of our Nation's 100 most important documents.

• Plans are also under way for a major event at the monument on Sunday, May 20, the day on which the law was signed by President Lincoln.

Further activities include working closely with the Beatrice Chamber of Commerce during this historic year to make the 2012 annual Homestead Days event extra special.

We hope you, your business or organization will consider joining in this historic event! Ideas on how you can join in the fun include:

• If your business or organization is planning on giving away promotional items in 2012, consider highlighting the Homestead Act's 150 th Anniversary.

• If you are planning on participating in the annual Homestead Days Parade, start thinking now about your entry. If you plan on tossing promotional items to the crowd, we hope you might consider highlighting our community's tie to homesteading.

• You might consider special displays, window decorations or promotions.

• Your group or organization might want to feature presentations or programs looking closer at the Homestead Act and its effect on our community or Nation.

• You might wish to sponsor one of many special programs coming to the community or monument.

• And we are sure you have great ideas that are not even listed here.

Fifty years ago our community threw a party for the Homestead Act's Centennial that included a variety of activities: a Proclamation signed by President John F. Kennedy, three parades, a Miss Nebraska Pageant, retail promotions, a new postal stamp was issued, along with many other community programs. In doing this the community gained pride while having a great time.

We hope you will consider joining us for afro, filled sesquicentennial! Should you wish to discuss any ideas and would like to call on us for assistance, the Friends of Homestead, along with the staff at Homestead National Monument of America, stand ready to assist you. You can reach me at 402-223-7217, or call the monument at 402-223-3514.

Diane Vicars
Friends of Homestead

P.S. You can pick up your commemorative poster at the monument starting October 1, 2011.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Poetry Slam at Homestead

Uploaded by on Sep 28, 2011

Students express themselves through poetry competition

The art of SLAM

"From “I am the crumbles at the bottom of the cookie jar,” to “If tomatoes are fruit, does that make ketchup a smoothie?” students from across the state gathered at the Homestead National Monument to show of and improve their creative writing skills..."

Read more:

Friday, September 9, 2011

Learning to write

While sitting at Freeman School one afternoon leafing through the Spencerian Penmanship booklet I started thinking about the amount of time students must have spent perfecting each stroke. I also wondered about the possibilities for disaster with a six-year-old,  a pen and a bottle of ink. I just could not imagine how their little hands could make those seven specific strokes needed to write the Spencerian alphabet.

by Doris Martin, Ranger; Homestead National Monument of America
After doing some research I discovered that penmanship instruction did not begin until the student was in second or third grade. “In America’s heyday of education children of eight years old to adults of eighty learned to write the Spencerian way,” according to the Theory of Spencerian Penmanship booklet.
Before the age of 8 children learned to read but not write. Learning to print was not taught until the 1920s when Manuscript Printing was introduced.  Students were then taught to print first and then moved to cursive writing. For example, Abraham Lincoln would not have been taught to print.  But he would have spent many hours learning how to write in cursive. According to The Theory of Spencerian Penmanship, Platt Rogers Spencer, “the father of American handwriting,” advised his students to practice six to twelve hours a day.  He believed that mastering his script would make someone refined, genteel, and upstanding. Today penmanship lessons are developed so teachers spend about 15 minutes a day on penmanship.
Even the idea that all people needed to know how to write was slow to develop. In the 1700s many were taught to read so they could read the Bible but few were taught to write. “Because reading and writing were understood to serve entirely different ends, instruction in one was divorced from instruction in the other. Reading was taught first, as a universal spiritual necessity; writing was taught second, and then only to some,” according to Tamara Plakins Thornton in Handwriting in America: A Cultural History.
The teaching of handwriting in the nineteenth century was closely associated with character building. “The letters were formed by command with the teacher calling out letter elements and the student simultaneously writing them down on the page; the letters mysteriously appeared out of the assembled elements,” according to A History of Learning to Write.
“Such exercises were seen as character building,” the article continues, “A sample of someone’s script became a recommendation of industry and self-discipline.” Victorians emphasized the “moral nature of the individual” and handwriting was seen as a method for “character formation.”
The final workbook in the Spencerian  series includes page after page of sentences intended to improve a student’s character including “Better to live well than long,” “Hold truth in great esteem,” and “Let your promises be sincere.” Students were expected to copy each sentence 15 times in correct Spencerian form.
Handwriting was also viewed as a physical act. The key word now was muscularity…and the most pressing need was to exert control over the body of the penmanship pupil. “Victorian manuals spelled out methods whereby extreme levels of physical control might be maintained over pupils. Teachers distributed writing materials in numbered, standardized steps (“Position,” “Open books,” “Monitors about face”) marked by predetermined signals. They counted out loud or barked commands (“up,” “down’” “left curve,” “quick”) as pupils performed their handwriting exercises; some manuals recommended the use of a metronome. By such means, commented the Spencerian authors with pride, “entire classes may soon be trained to work in concert, all the pupils beginning to write at the same moment, and executing the same letter, and portion of a letter simultaneously.” Thus will the penmanship class proceed “with all the order, promptness and precision of a military drill,” according to Thornton.
Good penmanship was highly prized. “Indeed, concurred a Boston school principal, ‘to write illegibly or badly is almost to forfeit one’s respectability,” according to Laura Doremus in “Character in Handwriting.”
A slate and slate pencil were used by younger students while older students, especially in rural schools, used steel nibbed pens, an ink sponge and practice paper. And some schools even had a special teacher for penmanship instruction.  “We did have a man for a special writing teacher, Prof. Carrier, who fitted little leather harnesses on each right hand and instructed us in arm movement, to write a beautiful Spencerian hand, but when he left the room, these unruly hands resume their original scribbling habit,” said Alice Laura Stevenson in the Growing Up in Michigan, 1880-1895 online exhibit.
Now as I look at those Spencerian Penmanship booklets I not only think about small children using ink I also think about  the amount of time and effort which older students spent perfecting their handwriting and all the debate today about if it is even needed in today’s computer society.

Thorton, Tamara Plakins. Handwriting in America, A Cultural History. 1st. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996. Print.

Clayton, Ewan. "A History of Learning to Write." 13. Web. 14 Aug 2011.

Theory of Spencerian Penmanship. 1st. Fenton: Michigan, 1985. Print.

"School Days." Growing Up in Michigan, 1880-1895. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Aug 2011.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

I never saw a suit of underwear until I was 17 years old

Hardships were a way of life for homesteaders.  I came across this letter while doing research and was particularly moved by it.  It came from a woman named Lois to another woman named Jennie.  That is all I know.  It sounds like she is recalling her experiences growing up.  The letter offers perspective about the hardships on a homestead as seen through a child’s eyes.   It is interesting to think about what she is saying.  Today I wanted to share it with you.

Dear Jennie,

Our nearest neighbor lived two miles away and they could not read or write.  I never saw a suit of underwear until I was 17 years old and that revelation didn’t belong to anybody in in our family.  The only books in our house were a Bible and a catalog.  There were six members in our family, but you see, we had two rooms to live in, including the dining room which was also the kitchen.  Everybody worked at our house.  We thought everybody else in the world had gravy and bread for breakfast, liver and crackling hoe cake for dinner, buttermilk and cornpone for supper, because that’s what we had.

Some of us wore brogan shoes occasionally in the winter time.  We had nice white shirts for summer time use.  We slept on straw ticks and pillows were not thought of or required.  I didn’t know money would rattle until I was nearly grown.  Father got hold of two half dollars at the same time and let us hear them rattle.  Taxes were no higher but harder to pay.  We owned two kerosene lamps, neither of which had a chimney.  Our house wasn’t sealed, but two of our rooms had lofts over them.  We had a glass window in our “company” room.

Or nicest piece of furniture as I now remember was a homemade rocking chair. Our beds were of the slat or tight rope variety.  We went to school two or three months in the year, but not in a bus.  We attended church once a month, but not in a car.  We used a two mule buck board.  We dressed up on Sunday’s, but not in silks or satins.  We sopped our molasses, ate our own meat and considered rice a delicacy for only the preachers.

We heard a lot about cheese but never saw any; got a stick of candy and three raisins for Christmas and were happy.  We loved father and mother and were never hungry; enjoyed going naked; didn’t want much; expected nothing and that’s why our so-called hard times are not so hard on me.

                                                                                                                                                Bert and Lois

Blake Bell
Historian; Homestead National Monument of America

Friday, August 26, 2011

Conserving Prairie History

On the National Parks Service website for the Homestead National Monument of America which was last updated May, 2011, Adolph Murie is quoted in 1940 as saying, “In restoring the prairie grasslands the ultimate aim is to approach as near the original as possible. How near the original we can come is not known. But it would seem desirable to make an effort early in the program to restore some of the more prominent spring, summer and fall flowers to show a part of Nature which no doubt gave some cheer to the first settlers.”

By Katie Graham
Southeast Community College

Today I will inform you about the efforts to conserve the grasses and forbs, or flowers, of the prairie. I will speak about why it is important to conserve this quickly fading ecosystem, what is being done at the Homestead National Monument to conserve the prairie, and what is being done right here on our own campus [Southeast Community College] to conserve a piece of history.

Countless prairie restoration projects exist over all of North America today. Conservationists are trying to restore an ecosystem that is quickly fading. Once this natural habitat is destroyed completely, none of us will be able to enjoy what we never appreciated as being there in the first place. The tall grass prairies, which use to cover billions of acres, has now become the most extinct ecosystem in all of North America according to Sarah Osterhoudt and her article A Prairie Primer in OnEarth an online journal from the fall of 2001.

There is debate over what constitutes being restored, though. It can take many centuries to bring back the original assortment of soil, plants, and animals. It is not enough to throw down seeds and hope they produce a prairie. According to John Carey and his article Little Habitat on the Prairie Only Remnants Remain of the Nation's Original Prairie, and Biologists Are Scrambling to Understand and Restore What is Left from National Wildlife (2002), the hand of humans is needed first to replant the original vegetation where needed and then to keep it healthy, along with the occasional need for orchestrated fire and grazing.

The grasses and forbs, or flowers, of the prairie have begun adapting over the last thousand years or so to conditions that others plants and trees can’t handle. According to Katherine Kerlin and her article in the online journal E, entitled Return of the Native: Natural Prairies Slowly Make a Comeback in May of 2002, the native vegetation has adapted their root systems into one that can delve 12 to 20 feet into the ground which helps control erosion and adds to water quality by absorbing waste runoff. As you can see in this illustration, the prairie grasses have extensive root systems that develop before the plants ever start reaching out above ground. Above ground, the native plants help in snow control and preventing drifts across roads and can reach up to 10 or more feet. (Kerlin, 2002).

Now that I have told you a little about trying to restore the prairie ecosystem, one that has become the most extinct in North America, and how the grasses and forbs have begun adapting to harsh conditions, let’s talk about what we are doing here in Nebraska to conserve the prairie we have.

Nebraska is home to the second oldest prairie conservation in the United States which started in 1939. And while we may not all come from Nebraska, conserving any prairie in North America should be something we all care about. Through the restoration project at the Homestead National Monument, park staff has been able to bring back many of the original and diverse plants of the prairie (National Park Service, 2011).

On the National Parks Service website for the Homestead National Monument of America, James and Debacker in their Plant Community Monitoring Trend Report from 2007, state that currently there are 116 different species of plants present at the Homestead.

In an interview on August 14, 2011, with Jesse Bolli, who is a Resource Management Specialist at the Homestead National Monument, about 60 acres of the land is native trees, 100 acres is the prairie, which is broken into 20% for thicket, 25% for grasses and roughly 55% for forbs and other plants. The main ways they help control and encourage the prairie growth is through controlled burns, some mowing, and little herbicide. Controlled burns at the Homestead started in 1970. In 1990 the rotation was changed to a three year rotation and again in 2004 to burn 2/5 every year, taking the 4 year to rest. The Homestead uses herbicide only when needed and on a low level setting so as not to spray a large area.

Now that I have told you about the efforts at the Homestead National monument in restoring and conserving the prairie, let’s take a look a little closer to us and see what SCC is doing to conserve the natural prairie. Southeast Community College started its restoration program in 2007 to conserve what they can of the original plants. In an interview on August 14, 2011 with Nate Walker, who works here on the SCC campus in the Prairie Partnership office, SCC began with a high diversity planting with seeds from the Prairie Plains Resource Institute. Only local seed from around Nebraska was chosen to be planted, because plants outside Nebraska may affect other plant species growth or may be too weak to thrive under our soil conditions.

There were 16 species of grasses, five species of sedges, 17 species of legumes, 41 species of composites and 40 species of forbs planted in the high diversity planting which totals about 119 species. Another 10 to 20 species were collected and added later and about 10 species of weedy natives were present naturally (N. Walker, 2011).

The SCC prairie conservation is in its fourth growing season now. They had their last scheduled burn in February of 2008 which they do every three years, and that is why the flowers are so big now. After a scheduled burn, which is fed by the tall grass fuel, the flowers have a chance to take over and flourish. The grasses are usually dominant in summer and fall (N. Walker, 2011).

As we see in these pictures I took here at SCC, the flowers are tall and vibrant, while the grasses are a little shorter yet. This makes for better health for the ecosystem. The cycle of burning, grazing(which neither SCC nor the Homestead do), produces flowers that are higher in the graze lands and burn spots and eventually give way to the grasses in the summer and fall months (N. Walker, 2011).

We have just taken a look at what SCC and the Prairie Partnership office is doing to conserve the natural plants found in Nebraska through there high diversity planting and maintenance of our little patch of history. Thank you for listening as I informed you about the efforts to conserve the grasses and forbs of the prairie. Numerous restoration projects are in swing all over North America to conserve a quickly fading ecosystem, Nebraska is home to the second oldest prairie conservation in America, and Southeast Community College began its restoration project in 2007 to aid in conserving a part of history. It may take hundreds of years to restore a prairie close to its originality, but it’s worth the time and effort to save a little piece of our own history for generations to come.


Bolli, J. Resource Management Specialist at the Homestead National Monument of America
(personal communication, interview, August, 14, 2011).

Carey, J. (2000, June-July). Little habitat on the prairie - only remnants remain of the nation's original prairie, and biologists are scrambling to understand and restore what is left. National Wildlife.

James, K., & DeBacker, M. (2007). Plant community monitoring trend report. Homestead National Monument of America.

Kerlin, K. (2002, May-June). Return of the native: Natural prairies slowly make a comeback. E, 13, 3, 22.

National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior. (2011, May). Nature and science. Retrieved from

Osterhoudt, S. (2001, Fall). A prairie primer. OnEarth, 23, 3, 27.

Walker, N. Prairie Partnership at SCC (personal communication, interview, August, 9, 2011)

Photo credits: Katie Graham

Friday, August 19, 2011

Homesteading in Alaska

Has anyone here ever wondered what it was like Homesteading in Alaska? Well, I did and I am here to share with all of you what I learned and discovered about the challenges and obstacles homesteader faced in Alaska.

Now, take a moment and imagine what it was like living in Alaska during the late 1800’s into the mid 1900’s when the United Stated first purchased Alaska and homesteaders began claiming the land. In the article Alaska Division of Economic Development (2008a) the Department of Natural Resources states that homesteaders were coming from all over the United States to stake a claim to the land in Alaska.
My name is Samantha Johnson and I am here to share with you what I found during my research on Homesteading in Alaska. I learned that the Department of Natural Resources, the Division of Economic Development and the Bureau of Land Management in Alaska had taken several steps to ensure that the land in Alaska available for sale had certain requirements to meet prior to the actual sale of the land to any person. These organizations were dedicated to the land and the people and ways to preserve yet develop the land.
Today I will be explaining to you about the early years of homesteading in Alaska and the guidelines the potential buyer had to follow to preserve the natural beauty of the land but still meet the requirements to legally acquire the land patent (Alaska, 2008a).
 I will be describing what steps are required in Alaska to stake a claim on the land under the Homestead Act. I will inform each of you of the building and cultivation requirements that homesteaders faced and how they managed to accomplish them. I want each of you to know what types of crops homesteaders were able to grow and what kinds of protection they were able to build to keep their crops safe from wildlife.
After the United States purchased Alaska the land became available to homesteaders under the Homestead Act of 1862. The land became available for anyone to purchase as long as certain requirements were met. The Department of Natural Resources in Alaska claim that most of the land currently owned today was acquired after 1958 when Alaska first became a union state (Alaska, 2008a).
The Homestead Act allowed one homestead of 160 acres maximum for each family to stake claim in. Homesteaders were then required to live on the land, have a residence built on the land, and begin farming a minimum of 10% of the land within the first five years to receive legal ownership (Alaska, 2008a).
There were several steps that were taken before staking a claim in Alaska and once the homesteader completed the steps required to seek ownership he or she would find out if the filing of land ownership was accepted or rejected. Some homesteaders had to apply more than once to receive rights to claim the land (Alaska, 2008a).
The first step in seeking ownership of the land for homesteading was locating the land to stake a claim in and file any and all paperwork with the Bureau of Land Management in Alaska (Alaska, 2008a).
The second step in staking a claim to the land was to purchase it once the buyer was approved. Purchasing the land could be done by paying for it in a lump sum or by making a financial agreement and signing a contract with the government. Homesteaders were able to purchase a total of 160 acres of land for $20.00 (Alaska, 2008a).
The State of Alaska and the Department of Natural Resources worked together to ensure several guidelines were met before land ownership was approved to potential buyers. These guideline included living and farming requirements within a certain time frame before legal ownership was granted (Alaska, 2008b).
Once the buyer was approved to acquire land for homestead he or she must live on the property for a certain period of time or risk losing the land. The article Alaska Land Offering (2011) by the Department of Natural Resources and under Article VIII of the Alaska Constitution states “It is the policy of the State to encourage the settlement of its land and development of its resources by making them available for maximum use consistent with the public interest.”
Some homesteaders were so amped to start homesteading they set up tents on the land to live in until their main homes were built to show they were willing to follow the living on the land requirement. Even though homesteaders had to keep making changes to their tents and add fallen tree branches to keep the cold out they managed to survive the long winter months of Alaska (Alaska, 2008a).
Since homesteading in Alaska took several steps and certain requirements to meet before land could be used, the families within Alaska all worked together to make their living quarters more suitable for each member of the family.
When land was approved for homesteading and the building of homes started, the first proved up was to build a cabin. Homesteaders needed to build a cabin to withstand the harsh cold months of Alaska’s winter. One cabin is still in use over 40 year after it was built and is similar to the cabin being rented in the article Homesteading Challenges (1997) by Dexter, Dexter, Hausmann and IIten.
While building a home was not always an easy task, homesteaders in Alaska managed to make their living quarters suitable for long cold wintery months. Homesteaders often liven in small living quarter to keep the heat in a tighter space.
With limited resources available to homesteader’s and the lack of transportation, building equipment, machinery, supplies and tools homesteaders often relied on the help from a neighbors for these items (Alaska, 2008b).
Getting help from a neighbor was hard to do when you had to travel by horseback and travel some 15 miles or more to reach the closest neighbors house, cabin or tent. Some homesteader even traveled by dog sled to reach a helping hand from their neighbor (Alaska, 2008a).
Using building materials to build a cabin was a struggle when homesteaders had to transport materials to their land before construction could begin. The author Harrington and Merken describe in their article Life on America’s Last Frontier: Alaska’s (1995) about their experiences sitting in a outhouse in - 40 degree temperatures and giving a new meaning to “freezing your buns off.”
Since the building of the cabin was difficult to master quickly most homesteaders managed to complete the first prove up within the first year of claiming the land. When homesteader finished the first prove up he or she had to immediately begin working on the second prove up to ensure they could meet all requirement to receive land ownership (Harrington & Merken, 1995).
After the first prove up of the cabins were complete homesteaders moved on to the second prove up which was cultivating a portion of the land without harming to the natural beauty of the land (Alaska, 2008a).
Cultivating the land was a challenge when the Department of Natural Resources required all land owners keep the land free from being destroyed by removing trees or disturbing the lands natural beauty. Meanwhile having equipment available for cultivating the land was also a struggle for the homesteaders (Merrick, 2000).
Homesteaders often found it difficult to meet homesteading requirements where cultivation was concerned, because Alaska was strict about preserving the lands natural beauty (Merrick, 2000).
With issues meeting the cultivation requirements for the land ownership, Homesteaders were granted the right to remove some trees by chainsaw to meet the land cultivation guidelines (Alaska, 2008a).
After removing the trees the homesteaders were able to meet the required cultivation requirement of a minimum of 10 percent or 1/8 of the land for cultivation. “Homesteaders in Alaska were soon participating in cropping activities that today are not widely considered to be customary or traditional to Alaska Native communities” as the authors Loring and Geriach describe in their article Outpost Gardening in Interior Alaska: Food System Innovation and the Alaska Native Gardens of the 1930’3 through the 1970’s (2010).
Once homesteaders were cultivating the land they soon faced a problem with keeping the wildlife animals away from their cultivation areas. Homesteaders soon began to build so called fences, since they did not have sufficient material to build a fence they used the material they had at their disposal (Loring, Geriach, 2010).
With the help of a 48’ x 24’ garden fence homesteaders were able to keep wildlife like moose out of their cultivation areas during the first five years of homesteading to receive their legal land patent. According to the article Homesteading in Alaska (2000) by Michael Merrick not only did the fences help keep the cultivation areas safe from wildlife they also started building root cellars to grow a wider variety of crops that have a difficult time growing in the colder climates.
 Homesteaders have been able to grow items such as; potatoes, cabbage, carrots and broccoli (Merrick, 2000). And in more depth Merrick (2000) describes more about the crops homesteaders were able to grow and how some homesteaders were able to start cultivating the land for fish, which has boomed in the last two decades.
While acquiring the land was challenging for homesteaders, meeting the homesteading requirement were even tougher to meet. With the building of a residence to the cultivation of the land, homesteaders have worked together to make Alaska what it is today.
While the department of natural resources and the state of Alaska were adamant to keep the land in Alaska pure and free from harm they had to allow some destruction of the natural state to allow homesteaders to build and cultivate.
Today I talked to you about the requirements the homesteaders had to be met before and after the land was purchased in Alaska and how the Department of Natural Resources website listed the guidelines potential buyer had to follow to preserve the natural beauty of the land but still meet the requirement to legally acquire the land patent.
According to the Department of Natural Resources and the Alaska Division of Economic Development while the government had high expectation for potential land owners they kept the rights to acquire land more difficult in the early 1960’s to ensure the land in Alaska would remain natural. The State of Alaska had opened the doors for potential land owners to seek financial options to purchase the land. However each potential buyer would still have guidelines to meet prior to receiving the land and the legal rights. Meeting the requirement for cultivation was tough for homesteaders to meet when the department of natural resources protected the land in Alaska. Alaska soon began to loosen up on preserving the land when they required cultivation. Cultivation was hard for homesteaders to complete when the removal of trees had to be done before cultivation could begin.
Now I am hoping you understand why I was curious to learn more about homesteading in Alaska. Learning more about the way land was acquired for ownership give more meaning to owning land today. Having restriction on the land you own would be difficult for any homesteader but many Alaska Natives managed to succeed and expand their homesteading option in Alaska.


Alaska Department of Natural Resources. (2008a). Alaska Division of Economic Development. Retrieved from

Alaska Department of Natural Resources. (2008b). Fact sheet, land for Alaskans. Retrieved from

Alaska Department of Natural Resources. (2011). Alaska land offerings. Retrieved from

Dexter, B., Dexter, C., Hausmann, B., & IIten, J. (1997, May –June). “Homesteading challenges.”Countryside & Small Stock Journal, (81)3. Gardening, Landscape and Horticulture. Retrieved from Gale Cengage Learning.

Harrington, E. & Merken, H.  (1995, November-December). “Life on America’s last frontier: Alaska.” Countryside & Small Stock Journal, (74)6. Gardening, Landscape and Horticulture. Retrieved from Gale Cengage Learning.
Loring, P.A., & Geriach, S. (2010). Outpost gardening in interior Alaska: Food system innovation and the Alaska native gardens of the 1930s through the 1970s. Ethnohistory, 57(2), 183-199.
Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Friday, August 12, 2011

You Can, But You Can’t!

The last blog I posted hopefully brought some clarity to the issue relating to the untrue(ish) statement that African Americans were not allowed to homestead.  Another claim that is made when speaking of the Homestead Act, is that immigrants were allowed to come to the United States and claim 160 acres of land as long as they declared their intention to become citizens.  Is this true?  It has to be right?  It is written in the Homestead Act.  Again I use the same quote from my last blog article, it reads:

“That any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such, as required by the naturalization laws of the United States, and who has never borne arms against the United States Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies, shall… be entitled to enter one quarter-section or a less quantity of unappropriated public lands.”  
It is interesting to read this as it does say ANY person who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become a citizen.  But, what many people skim over is what follows that seemingly sweeping statement, when it says “as required by the naturalization laws of the United States”.  Yes, immigrants could come into the country and claim land under the Homestead Act of 1862, but we have to understand the naturalization laws of the United States examine what period of time in history we are referring to in order to understand who could and who could not become citizens, thus making them eligible to homestead.
First, could Asians homestead?  What about people from India?   Could all WHITE Europeans homestead?  In order to find these answers one must not look at just the history of homesteading, instead a broader scope of American history must be examined.  These answers can be found in the complicated history of immigration.  The early years of homesteading were, as we know was exclusive to white men and women, because they were the only people that could be considered for citizenship, a necessary criteria to homestead.  But the Civil Rights act of 1866 and the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868 was designed to prevent excluding people from citizenship based on race or color.  But, if the United States could prevent people from entering the country then this would not be an issue.  So, in 1870 Congress passed the Naturalization Act.  The Act limited citizenship “white persons and persons of African descent”.[1]  This effectively barred Asians from becoming citizens of the United States, thus making it impossible for them to homestead.  The relationship between Asians and the United States concerning immigration is filled with prejudice and discrimination.  In 1882 Congress was more forthright about their disposition when they passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.  It wouldn’t be until 1942, a full 60 years, before Congress abolished the Chinese Exclusion Act.  By the end of the 1940’s all restrictions preventing Asians from obtaining U.S. citizenship were abolished.[2]  This, in effect, gave Asians the opportunity to homestead.
What about people from India?  This was a bit more tricky because India was an Asian sub-continent and anthropologists considered them to be of the same race as white people.  Few had obtained citizenship, but in 1923 in the landmark case U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind, the Supreme Court ruled that people from India were not allowed to become citizens.  The court conceded that they are “Caucasians” but that they are not “white”, arguing that “the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable and profound differences.”[3]  Obviously, this would have made it impossible for people from India to homestead.  It would be 23 years before the United States would allow people from India the opportunity to become citizens.
And finally, could all white Europeans become U.S. citizens thus being allowed to claim land under the Homestead Act?  The simple answer is no!  This time the exclusion had nothing to do with race, instead it centered on political ideology.  History books write about the “Red Scare” of the 1950’s as the U.S. and U.S.S.R. began the decades long Cold War, but this was a continuation of a fear that had begun much earlier.  Political ideology like communism, socialism, anarchism and Marxism were seen as threats to the United States going back to the 19th century.  After President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901 by a Polish anarchist, Congress passed the Anarchist Exclusion Act, preventing people with “radical” political ideology from becoming U.S. citizens.[4]  The Act would be expanded in 1918 in the wake of a successful socialist revolution in Russia.  The legislation would remain largely in effect for the rest of the Homesteading Era!  It was expanded in 1950 with the passage of the Internal Security Act and would not be repealed until 1971.
So, what does all this mean to the Homestead Act of 1862?  I think here it is important to note that the Homestead Act did not exclude any population, however, it deferred to the naturalization laws of the United States.  What was unique about the Homestead Act was its inclusive nature.  Because it deferred to other laws like naturalization, the Homestead Act was quite adaptable to fluctuating shifts in social, legal, and political ideology.  And it was this adaptability that made the Homestead Act relevant for 123 years.    

[1]University of Huston Department of History, “Digital History,” University of Huston, (accessed July 26, 2011).

[2] Harvard University Library Open Collections Program, “Aspiration, Acculturation, and Impact: Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930,” Harvard University Library, (accessed July26, 2011).

[3], United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, Certificate From The Circuit Court Of Appeals For The Ninth Circuit., No. 202. Argued January 11, 12, 1923.—Decided February 19, 1923, United States Reports, v. 261, The Supreme Court, October Term, 1922, 204–215.

[4] Harvard University Library Open Collections Program, (accessed July 27, 2011).

Friday, July 22, 2011

Was Homesteading only for White People?

There are some aspects of the Homestead Act of 1862 that are often misunderstood.  One primary cause for the confusion was the length of time that homesteading legislation was on the books; 123 years total.  In today’s blog I would like to talk about one misconception (of which there are several that I will address in the coming weeks).  In this series of blogs I hope to bring some clarity to issues of confusion related to the Homestead Act.  The first topic I would like to address is the idea that African American’s could not homestead.  Those of us familiar with the history of homesteading have encountered homesteaders from every background, regardless of race or gender.  But a common statement that I often read is that the Homestead Act was only for white people.  This can’t be true can it?  Well, actually, there is some truth to the statement that only white people could homestead. 

When I first arrived at Homestead National Monument of America last year I was surprised at the diversity of homesteaders.  The pictures in the museum and archives showed women, African Americans, American Indians, and immigrants homesteading.  I, quite frankly, was amazed at the progressive nature of this legislation passed in 1862.  1862 is not a year I think of as being the most socially tolerant.  But, I have come to realize the liberal nature of the Homestead Act is not always applicable when you view it on a historical timeline.  In 1862, when the Act was passed, and on January 1, 1863, when the legislation became law the United States was a very different place than it would become less than a decade, half a century, and a century later.
It is only when you place the Homestead Act within its historical context that the progressive nature of the legislation emerges.  What about African Americans?  Strictly speaking, by the letter of the law, when the Homestead Act went into effect in 1863, African Americans were NOT allowed to homestead.  How could this be, so much has been written about African American homesteaders?  The answer is actually relatively simple and it can be found in the very first line of the Homestead Act:
“That any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such, as required by the naturalization laws of the United States, and who has never borne arms against the United States Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies, shall… be entitled to enter one quarter-section or a less quantity of unappropriated public lands.”   
I am only concerned here with the section that said you had to be “a citizen of the United States” or file a declaration of intention to become a citizen.  This is important because in 1863 when the legislation took effect, African Americans were not allowed to become U.S. citizens or declare their intentions because it was not legally possible for them to obtain citizenship. 

African American’s were not allowed to become citizens until the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was passed, granting citizenship to people born in the United States regardless of race or color; an Act that then had to be backed by an amendment to the U.S. Constitution two years later when the 14th Amendment was ratified.  The Homestead Act had been on the books for three years before African Americans were allowed to become U.S. citizens, thus allowing them to homestead.  So, in effect, when people say only white people were allowed to homestead, they are technically correct IF they are referring to the first three years the legislation was on the books.[1] 
 It may or may not have been the intention of the authors of the Homestead Act to consider a future United States that included African American citizens who would be allowed to homestead when they drafted the legislation, this, I’m sure, would be impossible to determine.  But, the Homestead Act did not exclude African American’s, thus leaving the possibility open, in 1862, to accommodate future African American homesteaders in the event that they would one day become citizens.  This became reality in 1866.  So, indeed, all homesteaders prior to 1866 were white, but for the remaining 120 years that the Homestead Act was a law African Americans, indeed, did homestead. 
However, it is interesting to note that in 1872 the Homestead Act was extensively updated.  Updates to a law are known as “Revised Statutes”.  Notably, in section 2302 of the Revised Statutes of the Homestead Act, it became illegal to make a “distinction on account of race or color.”  The intention of this update was to ensure that African Americans were allowed to homestead and it directly contradicts those who claim that the Homestead Act was only for white people.[2]
Naturally, since I talked about citizenship today, I will follow up next with immigrants that wanted to homestead.  Could anybody truly come to the United States and homestead?  Find out soon!

[1] American Memory Project, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New A Nation,” Library of Congress,  Please visit this website if you are interested in reading the legislation mentioned, including the Homestead Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

[2] Revised Statutes of The United States, 43rd Cong., 1st sess. (1873) , Sec. 2302, 424.