Plains Folk

Homestead in Emmons County


As the State Historical Society of North Dakota takes over the Welk Homestead in Emmons County for a state historic site, it will, for the first time, have a site on which to interpret the history of homesteading and pioneer farming. There will have to be a research base for this in order to tell the story of this particular homestead and its place in regional agriculture.


A good place to start is the homestead file for Ludwig Welk, which I recently obtained from the National Archives. Ludwig and Christina Welk were Germans from Russia from the Kutshurgen district, near the Schwarzmeer, or Black Sea. On May 4, 1894, Ludwig applied for a homestead, selecting 160 acres comprising two 80s in a squat L shape on the map. At this time, too, he paid initial filing fees of $14.


Conforming to the Homestead Act of 1862, Ludwig swore that he was “over 21 years of age, the head of a family,” and had “filed [his] Declaration of Intention to become a citizen of the United States.” The form he signed contained a printed avowal that he was taking his claim “for the purpose of actual settlement and cultivation.” Ludwig dutifully stated his occupation as “farmer.”


Documents such as those in the Ludwig Welk homestead file deserve careful reading, because they disclose more than is at first apparent. For instance, the name of the man who accepted Ludwig’s application was Ed Neal, and the man who took his filing fees was Asa Fisher. These Anglo-American names indicate the social gap separating the immigrant homesteader from the clerks who staffed the Bismarck Land Office.


I doubt that Ludwig Welk had good English-language skills in 1894. He had to have had help in making application, and this probably meant additional expense. Moreover, throughout the process of proving up, he had to deal with clerks and inspectors who did not speak his first language.


Flash forward to September 21, 1902, and there is another interesting detail shedding light on the issues of language and social distance. On that date Ludwig paid the final $4 due to complete his homestead entry, but he also paid a “testimony fee” of $1.25. A notation explains this was payment for the taking of 835 words of testimony at 15 cents per 100 words. This indicates that Ludwig was not capable of completing written forms in the English language and required help to get the facts down.


Here is another legal requirement the immigrant homesteader had to hurdle in the process of proving up: the publication of a “Notice of Final Homestead Proof” in a local newspaper. People doing local history often are amazed at the number and vitality of community newspapers in pioneer times. The reason is that the publication of homestead notices provided a wonderful revenue stream for frontier journalists.


So to make final proof, Ludwig had to submit an “Affidavit of Publication” and attach a clipping from his local paper, the Emmons County Advocate. A. J. Henderson, shop foreman for the Advocate, duly swore that the notice had been published in every weekly issue from March 20 to May 1, 1902.


The notice in the Advocate stated that the “named settler has filed notice of his intention to make final proof in support of his claim,” whereupon he would go before the clerk of the district court in Emmons County and seek his final patent. We can imagine the unease of the homesteader during this time, as he hoped and prayed no trouble-maker would come forward to contest the claim on which he had worked so hard.


There’s a happy ending to the story, and I will get around to that eventually.

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