Getting around our prairie country, I often encounter people who are justifiably proud of their lineage as descendants of homesteaders. They share in our collective memory of the homesteading experience as a matter of democracy, opportunity, and connection to the land. Homesteading, we generally emphasize, too, was hard work. Attaining patent to the land required a combination of steely determination and good luck.
Not uncommonly a descendant of a homesteader in Kansas will produce a land patent certificate signed, he or she might declare and point out, by President Theodore Roosevelt! This is when I have to be tactful and say something like, “That surely is a treasure to your family.”
You see, no one has a homestead certificate signed by an American president. The personal signing of land patents by the President ceased during the administration of Andrew Jackson, decades before passage of the Homestead Act of 1862.
What I will not do, here or in the presence of the proud descendants of homesteaders, is disparage the Homestead Act or the homesteading experience. Indeed, when I visited the Homestead National Monument at Beatrice, Nebraska, the set-up there struck me as oddly ambivalent.
The Homestead Act, after all, required claimants to accomplish “improvements” to the land, including breaking and planting it. At the monument, however, the homestead claim of Daniel Freeman has been seeded back to grass.
When I went to college, I was taught that the Homestead Act was a big mistake. In the first place, most farmers could not avail themselves of the Homestead Act. The good land already was given out to railroads and other recipients, and so the actual settlers had to buy land. Those who tried to homestead mostly failed and gave up the effort. Successful homesteaders generally survived by gaming the process, committing land fraud against the government. And the whole enterprise was bad, because it resulted in the unjust dispossession of American Indian lands.
Now come a trio of researchers from the University of Nebraska--Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, and Rebecca S. Wingo--who conduct a whole new assessment of the homesteading chapter in our history. They return to the original documents and statistics, but also build a whole new base of data drawn from digitized homestead files. Their conclusion, in brief: the Homestead Act was important, and it worked pretty well. Homesteaders patented more than 17 million acres in North Dakota. Most of them, having begun proving up, achieved patent of their claims. Fraud was uncommon.
In some areas, such as Dakota and Oklahoma territories, homesteaders did displace Indians on the land, but in many other western states, they came long after the conflict for the land was concluded. Here in North Dakota, the role of homesteaders in agitating for the seizure of native lands is a matter of unfinished business for a settler society.
The book by Edwards et al is Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History, University of Nebraska Press. Recommended for all plains folk who like to brandish their homestead certificates, or who just share a tie to the land. ~Tom Isern