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.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Homestead Remembrances: Pioneer Peace

Atop of a small hill, a rusty gate and a struggling tree protect the long gone pioneers. 

Cemetery, six miles East of Daykin in Jefferson County NE, at the intersection of Highway 4 and Highway 15. 

by Bernadette Korslund

Cemetery, six miles East of Daykin in Jefferson County NE, at the intersection of Highway 4 and Highway 15. John Stowers died in 1891 at the age of 84. We can imagine him as a strong, hard working and well-respected pioneer. This may explain why, according the inscription,  “ he received a crown in heaven.”

St Johns Cemetery, Daykin in Jefferson County, NE.
The expanse of the prairie provides peace and rest to all.

Beatrice Evergreen Cemetery in Gage County, NE.
The early morning light lets your imagination wonder.
Will you meet some ghosts?

Beatrice Evergreen Cemetery in Gage County, NE. Catherine Ahlquist’s tombstone.

Catherine Ahlquist, a daughter of a pioneer. Her tomb is the only one in the cemetery with a human-shape statue.

  The truncated tree, the maul and the wedge mark the tomb of a former member of the society of Modern Woodmen of the World, founded on 1890 in Omaha by Joseph Cullen Root.

Saint Joseph Cemetery, Beatrice in Gage County NE. This German inscription is a reminder that the USA started as a melting pot.

Saint Joseph Cemetery, Beatrice in Gage County NE. "Pieta." Christ’s disproportionate hands and feet represent the work of, probably, a local and unschooled artisan. This naive representation translates with strength the grief of the ones left behind.

Cemeteries provide shelter to wild life. It is a favorite refuge for birds, squirrels, rabbits and butterflies.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Homestead camp fire song

Pinder, nguba, goober, or more commonly known as peanut, is an edible kidney-shaped seed that made its way to America via Africa, South America, and the slave trade. As goober peas were primarily consumed by pigs it did not become a more regularly consumed American food until Civil War soldiers began to eat it.

Goober peas are made by boiling green or raw peanuts in water. Most peanut connoisseurs agree goobers served warm and salty are the most flavorful.

Goober peas are immortalized in the energetic, entertaining song “Goober Peas.” The tongue-in-cheek humor is evident in author Blackmar’s publication credit-nod to composer P. Nutt and lyricist A. Pinder. The upbeat words sound like a tribute to the tasty peanut. Instead, the lyrics are an ironic view on the lack of food available to the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Listen to the song in the video below as sung by one Homestead National Monuments volunteers during the 2010 summer campfire series. At the upcoming July 9, 2011 program Ron Rockenbach will discuss “The Common Soldier in the Civil War” with a music program by Noel Ditmars.


Cornelius, S. (2004). Music of the Civil War era American history through music. Westport, CN: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Nickels, C. (2010). Civil War humor. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.

Peanut. (2010, July 1). Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition.

Mikles, N. (2011, March 16). Peanut primer: Roasted beats boiled for most Sooners. Tulsa World. Retrieved from

William, L. (1998, Apr/May). Goobers, groundnuts and pindar peas. American Visions, 98, 13, 2. doi: 08849390.

Friday, July 1, 2011

She made home happy

Tourism is everywhere...
No reservation to make so let’s go right now.
Come alone or invite a friend (this date won’t break your budget!)
I will take you to my hometown cemetery: Beatrice [NE] Evergreen Cemetery. First I can see your surprise, then later your disappointment. I understand but bear with me. I will take you to new lands...
To enjoy Beatrice Evergreen Cemetery at its best, choose the right time of the day either dawn or dusk. I recommend dawn. Get up before the sun and go out for a stroll. The ambiance is peaceful; the cottony morning fog will transport you to dreamy lands.
Many dead surround you but why be afraid? They are resting in peace after a busy, challenging life and now they lay soaking up the tranquil rising sun. No more fussing and buzzing for them. They bathe in the quietude of the land. They have learned how to relax. Listen to them and they will teach you how to reject the superficialities of life. 
Read their tombstones. Many died younger than you are today, many have buried their loved ones and some have been tragically distraught by the lost of a child. You can relate to these hardships of life but now, unlike you, in their final resting place, they are free of them. You did not reach your last destination yet and you wonder what lies ahead of you: you can predict that good and bad will come. So, now, at this moment, grab the best of it. Carpe Diem, as they said, in the Roman days. 
You feel completely alive; all your senses are stimulated: The gentle breeze caresses your face. You are amazed at the subtle pastels of the sky, at the trills of the birds. The woodpeckers call your attention by knocking incessantly on the trunks. The squirrels run from to tomb to tomb: do they pay a morning visit to their residents? Witnessing all this activity, you realize that you are not in a place of dead people. Life was, is and will be here for a long time.
Now, I want to introduce you to Catherine Ahlquist. She stands tall at the cemetery entrance, always waiting for the visitors. She is a good hostess, and treats all with a smile. She left this earth more than one hundred years ago but her epitaph keeps her alive. She married Hugo and left this earth too early, only at the age of thirty. Hugo missed her so much; their five years of marriage brought him so many joys. In his sorrow, he chose this beautiful statue, a lady with a serene and loving face, dressed in a flowing classic gown. Her slender and straight silhouette bears her pride. She liked to do things right, she thrived to be the perfect hostess, helping her husband in his business. She practiced the Victorian virtues of the time: thrifty but generous, elegant but not outlandish, social but not gossipy. Always busy, idleness could bring waste. Her needlepoint, china painting proved she was an accomplished artist. Being the wife of a young and successful banker she learned quickly how to entertain with class.  Hugo was always proud to invite his colleagues to a Sunday dinner. They had a lot in common. Although Hugo was born in Sweden and she was born in Beatrice, Gage County, they had a lot in common. After all, Catherine’s parents also were born in Europe.

Read her epitaph and let your imagination takes over. You will then discover even more about Catherine. 
In loving memory of Catherine M. Ahlquist
Nee Elerbeck, wife of Hugo W. Ahlquist.
April 17 1879-December 31 1909.
She made home happy
Within the hearts of those she loved
Rests the memory of her sweet and gentle life.
Did you notice the date of her death? How sad! The neighbors were celebrating the coming of the New Year, Hugo could hear their laughs and the jolly music, and he was sitting at her side, holding her hand, slowly stiffening, slowly turning cold, then becoming smooth but frigid marble.  Hugo had tried to hope despite the doctor’s verdict, had prayed for a miracle, but no, it was over... Catherine had left him forever.  
Catherine and Hugo’s whole story could seem erased by the years but you have the power to add in the missing puzzle pieces according to your liking. Build a beautiful story, emphasize the pleasant moments they lived together, share their prides and joys. Although life was short for Catherine, we will remember her as it is carved her epitaph: a loving and gentle woman.

Will you deserve such an epitaph? Or do you prefer to have some other accomplishments listed on your tombstone? About me, I would be delighted to leave such a legacy. Who knows? I certainly tried to be nice to all...

by Bernadette Korslund