Our first stop in Nebraska was Beatrice, home of what is recognized as the very first homestead in America! We visited the Heritage Center along with the grounds that commemorate that first homestead under the Homestead Act of January 1, 1863.
- What is land ownership? Why did it mean so much to certain people? And yet the Indians had no concept of land ownership.
- THE WORK! How difficult it was to prove up on land in the required 5 years the government gave. The perseverance and forbearance the homesteaders showed.
- The people. They had recordings of homesteading stories from the actual homesteaders. They also featured current Nebraskans who still live on their family’s homesteads. About 40% of all the homesteaders in the country proved up on their land.
- The Dust Bowl! Yes, it was a small part of the museum. Just think of the promises of paradise-like farmland that turned to dust in the wind. And yet, people stayed. They lost their fortunes, their homes and their children (children and elderly were particularly effected by “dust pneumonia”). But still, so many stayed on their land. And the worst part? Their own farming practices played a major role in the damage.
- Free land! Really fascinating that our country gave away approx. 10% of its overall land for free (although the work more than paid for the land). I am reminded of George Washington McClintock’s line when he is talking to homesteaders who just arrived to the Mesa Verde by train fixing to farm the land. McClintock is a cattle rancher played by John Wayne. When one of the settlers remarks that the government gave them 160 acres each to farm, McClintock replies, “The government never gave anybody anything. Some years back a lot like you come in. Had a pretty good first year. Good summer. Easy winter. But the next year the last rain was in February. And by June even the jack rabbits had sense enough to get off the Mesa.” Nebraska had the largest percentage of land designated to homesteading at 45%. The Homestead Act was not repealed until 1976, and it gave land to men and women alike over the age of 21 years.
Would you have gone for it???
I don’t know about me, but all this talk of homesteading makes me miss my chickens…