This National Historical Landmark is the site of the first claim made under the Homestead Act of 1862, made by homesteader Daniel Freeman. Also on the site is the Freeman School, a one-room brick schoolhouse, and the Palmer-Epard Cabin, built on a nearby homestead in 1867. The park’s visitors’ center contains displays including photographs of sod homes and tools used by the settlers.
Homestead National Monument of America
8523 W. State Highway 4
Beatrice, NE 68310
ph.: (402) 223-3514
Web site: www.nps.gov/home/
The Homestead National Monument commemorates the settlement of the Great Plains in the last half of the nineteenth century by pioneers who claimed land under the provisions of the Homestead Act of 1862. This legislation offered free land to those willing to settle the vast, unfarmed territories of the West. Though there were some strings attached, the offer was good enough that nearly twenty million acres were claimed in Nebraska alone.
When Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon in 1803, he was ridiculed by some for paying too much. In retrospect, this fifteen million-dollar deal was perhaps the greatest bargain in history. The entire Mississippi Valley and tributary lands were included in this huge parcel, and some historians have suggested that Napoleon, soon to go to war with England, felt he would lose the land in a settlement with the British anyway. It is hard to imagine the United States gaining the world prominence it eventually achieved had a foreign power continued to control this area.
Although America tried continually to settle this vast area, by the 1850’s much of the midwestern plains still appeared to be wilderness. As early as 1825, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri had proposed free government land grants to expedite development, and in 1852 the antislavery Free-Soil Party called for free land for settlers. By 1854, the first bill reflecting these demands was introduced in Congress. There was great support for this concept all through the West, though some easterners (primarily farmers) were opposed.
At first, it was thought that cheap land would be enough to lure sufficient settlers. By 1859, Nebraska lands were offered at $1.25 an acre. However, this charge was made retroactive to those who had already settled the land. The uprising by these settlers caused great problems among the new arrivals. In the end, most of the original settlers were allowed to stay, but the publicity of the whole incident was rather bad.
Congress passed a homestead act of sorts in 1860. This required settlers to pay twenty-five cents an acre for the land. President James Buchanan, however, refused to sign the bill and it never went into effect. Finally, on May 20, 1862, President Lincoln, a longtime supporter of the homestead movement, signed the Free Homestead Act, to take effect on January 1, 1863. Under its provisions, any man or woman twenty-one years old or any head of a family could have 160 acres of land. To achieve ownership, he or she had to live on the land for five years and pay about eighteen dollars in fees. Some historians believe that this act provided more benefit to the American people than any other passed by Congress.
Daniel Freeman, then a Union soldier at home on leave, was granted the first homestead on January 1, 1863. The land office was not to open until January 2 (New Year’s Day being a holiday), but the huge throng of land claimees agreed to let soldier Freeman be the first. They persuaded the head clerk at the office to open for a few minutes on January 1 to take care of Freeman, as he had to leave to return to his regiment. The land he claimed is on Cub Creek in Gage County, Nebraska, about five miles northwest of Beatrice. This is now the site of the Homestead National Monument.
Thus began the great homesteading drive that continued until the beginning of the twentieth century. Over a million people claimed and received more than 120 million acres of land under this program. It is interesting to note, though, that approximately 48 percent of the land claimed was never actually transferred to the claimees. There is little doubt that the region’s harsh terrain and weather played a large role in this statistic.
In many parts of the Great Plains, there was very little forestation. Those settlers who had the means could purchase wood to construct their homes. Many of these structures were rough log cabins, but some were slightly more elaborate. Those who could not afford wood, or those who lived far from a forest, often built homes of sod. The construction process was described by Cass G. Barns, a physician who served the Nebraska area in the late nineteenth century: The first step in making a new home would be to select the location and then choose the best low spot where the sod would be thickest and strongest. A breaking plow was used to turn over furrows on about half an acre of ground, using care to make the furrows of even width and thickness so that the home wall would rise evenly. A spade was used to cut the furrow into sod bricks about three feet long. A float made of planks or the forks of a tree or even the wagon drawn by horses or oxen, was used to transport the sod bricks to the building place. The first layer in the wall was made by placing three-foot-wide bricks side by side around the foundation except where the door would be located, carefully breaking joints. When the first row was placed, the cracks were filled with fine dirt and two more layers placed on top. . . . Every third course was laid crosswise of the others to bind them together. This process was followed till the walls were high enough to take the roof. A door frame had been set on the ground and built around with sods and two window frames placed higher up in the wall, one by the door and the other opposite on the other side of the house. The wall was then carefully trimmed to symmetrical proportions by the use of a sharp spade.
The first step in making a new home would be to select the location and then choose the best low spot where the sod would be thickest and strongest. A breaking plow was used to turn over furrows on about half an acre of ground, using care to make the furrows of even width and thickness so that the home wall would rise evenly. A spade was used to cut the furrow into sod bricks about three feet long. A float made of planks or the forks of a tree or even the wagon drawn by horses or oxen, was used to transport the sod bricks to the building place. The first layer in the wall was made by placing three-foot-wide bricks side by side around the foundation except where the door would be located, carefully breaking joints. When the first row was placed, the cracks were filled with fine dirt and two more layers placed on top. . . . Every third course was laid crosswise of the others to bind them together. This process was followed till the walls were high enough to take the roof. A door frame had been set on the ground and built around with sods and two window frames placed higher up in the wall, one by the door and the other opposite on the other side of the house. The wall was then carefully trimmed to symmetrical proportions by the use of a sharp spade.
The roof was usually made of a wood frame with metal sheeting. Some of the better “soddies” had plank floors and glass windows, but this was the exception rather than the rule.
Other settlers lived in dugouts, usually located by the sides of mountains or ravines. These would resemble lean-tos and sometimes were almost totally underground. Some homes, in fact, were completely underground, with only a stovepipe and door to show their location. The settlers who lived in such homes existed with very few possessions or luxuries. A stove for cooking was often the main furnishing. (Because wood was so scarce, the settlers used buffalo chips for fuel.) Handmade beds were sometimes present, though sleeping on the dirt floor was more common. Despite these hardships, the sod houses and dugouts were home. One settler later wrote, “The wind whistled through the walls in winter and the dust blew in summer, but we papered the walls with newspaper and made rag carpets for the floor, and thought we were living well.”
Virtually all these people engaged in farming. Many had farmed previously elsewhere, but the differences in climate and soil often made their transition difficult. The prairie tallgrass had to be cleared before crops could be planted. Ordinary cast-iron plows proved unable to cut through the tough, root-woven sod, so the steel grasshopper plow was invented. The harsh weather in many areas of the Midwest also made the farms somewhat less than sure bets. Rain was scarce, and traditional crops such as oats, barley, and wheat repeatedly failed; by default, corn became the staple crop. These problems, combined with the fact that few of these settlers had much capital with which to buy implements, livestock, working animals, or other necessary items, made the failure rate of these farms nearly 50 percent. Many did make a go of it, however, and some became quite prosperous.
The settlement figures for the state of Nebraska illustrate the yearly trends of homestead claims. In the first year (1863), 349 claims were made covering 50,775 acres. The height of homesteading was in 1885 when 11,293 claims were made totaling 1,748,841 acres. Even by 1900, the end of the homesteading era, 3,141 claims were made for 456,855 acres. And from 1863 to 1900, 141,446 homesteaders claimed 19,820,201 acres of Nebraska land.
By the turn of the century, many hundred of thousands of settlers were working their lands all over the Midwest, and the great sea of tallgrass had all but vanished from the prairie. In 1934, the homesteading era officially came to an end with the repeal of the Homestead Act. Two years later, the federal government decided to commemorate this great migration with a public memorial. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill on March 19, 1936, making that first homestead claim by Daniel Freeman a public memorial park.
This historic homestead is now a National Monument and has been expanded to include other historic structures. Among these is the Freeman School, named either for Daniel Freeman or for Thomas Freeman, whose kiln fired the building’s bricks. Built in 1872, it served as a school, church, and general meeting place for the community until 1967. This school also provoked a historic court case involving the separation of church and state. Daniel Freeman filed suit in 1899 to prevent religious instruction in public schools. The school board denied his challenge, but the Nebraska Supreme Court agreed with him in their decision of October 9, 1902; the U.S. Supreme Court would not take this position for some time. The school has now been restored to its original appearance.
Also on the Homestead National Monument Site is the Palmer-Epard Cabin, built in 1867. It was moved to its present location for display purposes in 1950. This cabin is constructed of mixed hardwoods and homemade brick set in lime mortar. It is currently furnished to illustrate life in the 1880’s.
Another restoration is the one hundred acres of tallgrass prairie within the park area. Planted with the region’s native tallgrass and mantained, in part, through controlled burnings, the prairie now looks just as it would have to the settlers when they arrived to build their homesteads.
Barns, Cass G. The Sod House. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1903. Reprint. 1970. Gives first-hand descriptions of how the homesteaders lived. Neill, Edward. Dahkotah Land and Dakohtah Life. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1859. A scarce but interesting title. Olson, James. History of Nebraska. 3d ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. Covers the subject of homesteading in Nebraska. Sheldon, Addison Erwin. Nebraska: Old and New. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966. Another book on homesteading in Nebraska. Wollaston, Percy. Homesteading. New York: Lyons & Burford, 1997. The author, who was born in 1904, describes his experiences growing up homesteading in Montana.