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).