Friday, May 6, 2011

Creation of Homestead National Monument of America

Homestead National Monument of America recently celebrated its 75th anniversary this past March. This milestone, and the program I gave in recognition of the anniversary, led me to the learn more about the creation of the Monument. So often, we take for granted that things are the way they are because that is the way they are, but that attitude prevents us from appreciating and understanding why things are the way they are. I have been at the Monument for a little of a year now and this was the first time I was able to examine in depth the creation of Homestead National Monument of America.

Many people believe March 19, 1936 was the beginning of the Monument. That was the day President Franklin Roosevelt signed the legislation that officially provided authority to establish a “memorial emblematical of the hardships of pioneer life through which the early settlers passed in the settlement, cultivation and civilization of the Great West." However, prior to Congress passing and the President signing this legislation, efforts had been actively trying to establish a permanent site recognizing the homesteading era.

Early stories claim that Daniel Freeman, who is recognized as the first homesteader ever, promoted the idea as early as the 1880’s to have his homestead recognized as a national site and protected in order to serve as an symbol of the homesteading era. Other accounts claim Dan Freeman was approached by other interests wanting to ensure his site was recognized, but that he declined. While that history is a bit muddled, we do know that in 1909, just weeks after Daniel Freeman’s death, a coalition of citizens in Beatrice, Nebraska began to advocate for recognition of Freeman’s homestead.

The early movement was hindered by the lack of political support at the national level. Nebraska representative Edward H. Hinshaw introduced legislation as early as 1909 seeking the establishment of a park, but these efforts failed at various points in the process. Support within the community of Beatrice remained strong but were often confronted with the reality that national recognition may not come. One advocacy group, the Daughters of the American Revolution, was determined to see the site obtain some type of recognition. The initiated a movement to have a stone statue be placed on Freeman’s homestead. They were successful in their efforts and in 1925 they placed a stone from the old capitol building on the site with a plaque that reads:

This stone from the old state capitol at Lincoln, Nebraska marks the site of the first registered homestead of the United States. Erected by Elizabeth Montague Chapter: Daughters of the American Revolution Beatrice, Nebraska

The DAR Monument, as it has come to be known, is still standing in the tall grass prairie to this day as the first physical memorial to the homesteading era.

Coincidentally, it was 1925 that a U.S. Senator from Nebraska named George Norris became involved with the effort. He advocated for the establishment of a national park at the site of Daniel Freeman’s homestead for nearly ten more years before Homestead National Park Association was formed by prominent leaders in Beatrice, Ne to assist the Senator in his fight. After a renewed local commitment coupled with the political backing of Senator Norris and Representative Henry Luckey, the formal legislation was finally passed by Congress and signed by the President in 1936. But, Congress failed to appropriate any funds to purchase the land designated to be the site of Homestead National Monument of America.

For two years Homestead National Monument of America existed only on paper. It was not until 1938 that the funds were provided to buy the land from the Freeman family. The process was long and at times bleak, but ultimately successful because of the commitment and passion of the local citizenry of Beatrice. When President Roosevelt signed Public Law 480 of the 74th Congress it officially “established” Homestead National Monument of America, but to many the site was already emblematic of the homesteading era that forever changed our country.

by Blake Bell
Homestead Historian


Anonymous said...

I've often wondered why it is named Homestead National Monument of America. None of the many other National Monuments has "of America" added.

Homestead Chief Ranger said...

We believe it is because of the national scope of the Homestead Act of 1862; that homesteading occurred not only in NE but in 29 other states as well. However, the monument's historian thought it would be very interesting to go back to documents pertaining to the monument's creation and see what is written. We will post what we find. Thanks for the question. Merrith Baughman, Chief Ranger - Homestead NM