Homestead National Monument
By the 1850's,huge land acquisitions had filled out the continental United States. the country's sheer vastness strengthened the conviction that the public domain rightfully belonged to the people. The grassy interior between the Missouri and the Rocky Mountains was designated Indian Territory in the 1830's and was bypassed by the emigrants on the Oregon Trail. But as the east and far west closed to settlement, expansionists pushed through the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which opened the territory to farmers.
Distributing land west of the Mississippi became an enormous project. The inability of small farmers to compete with larger concerns precipitated a seris of anti-speculation laws. The Pre-emption Act, championed by Missouri Sen. Thomas Hart Benton in 1841, legitimized squatting by letting farmers claim unsurveyed plots and later buy from the government. Southerners opposed the idea of land giveaways because it benefited working-class whites who were unlikely to vote slavery into any new states.
The Homestead Act of 1862
President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act of 1862 as the American Civil War drug on into its second year. The act declared that any citizen or intended citizen could claim 160 acres -- one quarter square mile -- of surveyed government land. Claimants must "improve" the plot with a dwelling and grow crops. After five years, if the original filer was still on the land, it was his property, free and clear. One of the first takers was a Union scout from Iowa named Daniel Freeman. Freeman persauded a Brownville, Nebraska land agent to let him sign up shortly after midnight on January 1, 1863, the eay the Homestead Act took effect, allowing Freeman to rejoin his Union Army regiment. The Homestead National Monument is located on the site of Freeman's original land claim.
Sod Homes of the Prairie
Homesteaders in the eastern prairie could burrow into hillsides before wooden cabins were built. Newcomers to the flat, treeless grasslands farther west found a durable building material beneath their feet. Buffalo grass was short and tough with a dense tangle of roots; it held its shape when cut. Using a special plow, one could shave enough sod from half an acre of prairie for a 16-by-20 foot house.
Certain advantages kept owners in their homes of "Nebraska Marble" long after lumber was available for housing. Soddies were inexpensive, quick to build, well insulated, tornado -proof, and did not burn. On the other hand, they needed constant repair, especially after rainstorms when the roofs dropped dirt, water and sometimes snakes.
The Closing of the Frontier
By 1918 the frontier was only a memory. Mechanization transformed the grasslands into farm lands. Ultimately, some 1.6 million homestead applications were fulfilled. In 1934 the Homestead Act was repealed, formally ending the pioneer era that had died long before.
Homestead National Monument
Since 1936, Daniel Freeman's T-shaped claim has commemorated one of the first documented Nebraska homesteads, as well as the waves of American landseekers and European immigrants who ventured west in the late 19th century to take up the demanding life of the prairie farmer. Homestead National Monument includes the original Freeman land, an historic cabin typical of eastern Nebraska, the original Freeman school and trails that wind through the restored tallgrass prairie.
Homestead National Monument is located in southeastern Nebraska, about 40 miles south of Lincoln. Follow the signs from I-80 at Lincoln. At Beatrice, turn west and folow Nebraska Route 4 for 4 1/2 miles to the park entrace.
Homestead National Monument is administered by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. Contact: Superintendent, RFD 3 Box 47, Beatrice, Nebraska 68310