Plains Folk

Homestead National Monument


We were looking forward to visiting the Homestead National Monument, near Beatrice, Nebraska, established by act of Congress in 1936 to recognize the significance of the Homestead Act of 1862 and the importance of homesteading to the national story. The visit, though, left us disappointed, or at least ambivalent.

The purpose of the monument, Congress said, was to provide “a proper memorial emblematical of the hardships and the pioneer life through which the early settlers passed in the settlement, cultivation and civilization of the Great West.” Now, right there you see a certain slant to the prose, emphasizing “hardships.”

Note that the monument was created in 1936, during the worst of the Dust Bowl. What I have come to call “homestead regret” had begun, with many saying that most of the Great Plains never should have been given over to homesteading. This idea was an old one, raised a half-century earlier by explorer and geologist John Wesley Powell, but in the 1930s the idea grew stronger.

Why place the monument at Beatrice, Nebraska? Because this was the site of what was said to be the first homestead filed under the 1862 law. Daniel Freeman filed his claim ten minutes after midnight on January 1, 1863.

Freeman’s story was told in an article in World’s Work in 1901. According to this source, Freeman, a Union soldier, had made improvements on some land near Beatrice. Hearing of passage of the Homestead Act, he diverted from military duty to visit the U.S. Land Office in Brownsville to file his claim. At a dance on New Year’s Eve he met a land office official who told him the office would be closed the next day. Freeman persuaded the fellow to open for his claim in the middle of the night, thus becoming the historic first filer of a homestead claim.

The National Park Service does not vouch for this story, merely observing, “One of the first people to file a claim under the Homestead Act of 1862 was Daniel Freeman.” The monument on Freeman’s claim came mainly at the instance of U.S. Senator from Nebraska George Norris.

Getting back to the idea of homestead regret-the park service decided almost immediately that the appropriate way to memorialize homesteading was to take the land Daniel Freeman had plowed and seed it back to native grass.

The exhibits in the interpretive center do detail, as Congress mandated, the hardships of homesteading-grasshoppers and all. The orientation video gives equal time to the loss of American Indians whose land was homesteaded. Homestead regret all over the place.

As you leave the visitor center and walk upon the Freeman homestead, the first things you pass are gravestones, those of Daniel Freeman and his wife Agnes.

Interesting footnote: Daniel Freeman was the plaintiff in a court case having to do with establishment of religion. In 1899 the teacher at nearby Freeman School was leading prayers and giving instruction in religion. Freeman brought suit to stop this, and he won on appeal to the Nebraska supreme court.

Most historians agree with the makers of the Homestead National Monument that homesteading on the plains was a mistake. On the other hand, homesteading ancestry is a matter of pride and heritage to countless resident of the Great Plains. I’m going to think some more about this and sort it out next time.

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