Chasing the Dream
Nebraska’s Homestead National Monument celebrates the independent farmers who shaped the American landscape.
On December 31, 1862, Daniel Freeman was mingling with land officers at a New Year’s Eve party in Nebraska. But he wasn’t just socializing; he had an agenda. A Union army scout, Freeman was scheduled to report for duty in St. Louis, Missouri, in a matter of hours—but he envisioned a much different future: The Homestead Act, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln the previous May, was slated to go into effect the next day, granting 160 acres of free, federally owned land to anyone who had never raised arms against the U.S. government. In return, recipients would build a home, grow crops, and learn to sustain themselves on the land; if they succeeded, the land was theirs to keep after five years.
It was the quintessential American Dream, and Freeman wanted a piece of it. So he convinced a clerk to open the General Land Office shortly after midnight and file his claim, making Freeman one of the first homesteaders in U.S. history.
As novel as it seemed, homesteading wasn’t a new idea, but it was a controversial one. Since the Revolutionary War, the distribution of federal land had been random and chaotic, and the result was often overlapping claims and border disputes. By 1803, when the United States bought 800,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River (the “Louisiana Purchase”), it was clear that the government needed a better plan. Thomas Jefferson, president at the time, envisioned a nation of small, independent farmers—a “poor man’s country,” he called it, with potential to become “An Empire for Liberty.” Most northerners supported Jefferson’s view, but southerners feared it would threaten their plantation model, which relied on slavery. Industrial leaders in the east worried they’d lose cheap laborers to the promise of free land.
Half a century passed before any kind of homesteading legislation was introduced in Congress. The House of Representatives tried pushing bills through in 1852, 1854, and 1859, but the Senate defeated each one. In 1860, a law passed through both chambers only to be vetoed by President Buchanan. Finally in 1862, the act gained the support it needed to become law. When Lincoln signed the bill, he set the tone for a free country, signaling a critical victory for the Union in the midst of the Civil War.
But for the new farmers tasked with taming wild landscapes, the honeymoon wore off fast. Homesteaders faced crippling droughts, severe storms, prairie fires, and grasshopper infestations. Inadequate farming equipment shattered in deeprooted prairie grass. Winters were brutal and unforgiving.
“People talk about our country’s strong work ethic and determination, and I think those qualities can be traced back to homesteading,” says Mark Engler, superintendent of Homestead National Monument in Nebraska. “To be successful on a homestead, you had to have an unstoppable work ethic—because if you stopped, you failed.”
More than half of America’s homesteaders did just that. But they contributed in different ways, like building up and populating western cities. And where some failed, others succeeded, so by the time the Homestead Act was repealed in 1976, homesteaders had claimed more than 270 million acres of land in 30 states, from Florida to Alaska. As many as 93 million Americans today are thought to be descendants of homesteaders.
Most impressive, however, was the diversity behind the movement. The Homestead Act didn’t just apply to white men—it offered the same free land to women, before women were even allowed to vote, and to immigrants who had yet to declare citizenship.
Even former slaves could file for land, and approximately 100,000 African Americans took the government up on its offer, including a Kentucky native named Robert Ball Anderson. While his first attempt at farming failed around 1870, he returned a few years later to claim more than 2,000 acres in western Nebraska. His success was so inspiring that it drew others to the area, and by 1910, Omaha, Nebraska, boasted the third largest African-American population in the west. “[These slaves] went from being property to owning property,” says Blake Bell, a historian at Homestead.
But freedom for some Americans meant enormous losses for others. The U.S. government had long been pushing American Indians off their land—and that removal was still happening during early homesteading. Not only did tribes lose their land; they were forced to abandon their culture. Their children were stolen away, placed in Caucasian schools, and forbidden to speak their native language; when they returned several years later, they could no longer communicate with their parents.
“What happened in the west wasn’t unique to U.S. history,” says Bell. “The removal process had been going on for more than 200 years. Homesteading was a great opportunity for many people, but the U.S. government took that land from American Indians before giving it away.” Another grave consequence stemmed from the idea that these natural lands somehow needed to be “improved.” Even Lewis and Clark, whose illustrations of western landscapes sparked an early conservation movement, failed to grasp the importance of prairie ecosystems. “When Jefferson asked why they came back with only one picture of the Great Plains, they claimed there was nothing out there,” Bell says. “Even though the land had been sustaining other cultures for thousands of years, Americans didn’t think it was being used effectively. It just didn’t fit the country’s agricultural mindset during that time.”
But history offers valuable lessons, and legislators in Beatrice, Nebraska, are giving it another go with the Homestead Act of 2010, which recently became law. Although the emphasis is no longer on farming, empty city plots offer modern homesteaders a place to build a home and pursue their dreams without degrading the land. Applicants range from individuals interested in developing small-scale alternative-energy sources on their property, to retired folks seeking peace and quiet.
Staff at Homestead are also working with the University of Nebraska, the National Archives, and Footnote.com to digitize historic homesteading records. “Economically, socially, and politically, homesteading is woven into the fabric of our nation, and we have just barely begun to scratch the surface on a lot of these stories,” Bell says. “We’re excited about the day we’re able to wrap our heads around what this really meant for our country.”
About the author
Amy Leinbach Marquis
Amy Leinbach Marquis, former associate editor at National Parks magazine, is directing a film series about the national parks experience at NPExperience.com.