Friday, February 28, 2014

The Homestead Acts

by Jerry Johnson of the Sutton Historical Society and Ken Nelson of Sutton, Clay Center & Manassas, VA

Is there a more iconic image of the American Frontier than that of the Homesteader?

We revere that rugged individualist of the 1870’s or ‘80’s, a farmer - a young man usually - on his small farm, his team with the recently invented modern farm implements, a few cows and calves, some pigs, chickens and maybe geese or ducks. His pretty, hard-working young wife and her growing brood add to that iconic image.

We attribute much of the growth of our portion of the Frontier to the Homestead Act and how it provided free land for anyone willing to live and work on that land for five years. What a story!

But was it that simple? You know the answer, “It never is.”

Nils Nilsson or Nels Nelson, Verona area pioneer and on of
four homesteaders studied in Ken Nelson's research.
The first Homestead Act passed the House but was defeated in the Senate by one vote. The next attempt passed Congress in 1960 but was vetoed by President Buchanan. What was going on?
The idea of the homestead, a small farm owned and supporting a small family was not the universal concept for western development in the 1850’s. The alternative was the model of the large plantation owned by a gentleman in the mode of the Southern Gentry with slave labor.

Early advocates of the homestead were the “free soilers” who even had a short-lived, single-issue political party called the Free Soil Party centered in New York State. They saw the homestead in the west as a mechanism to halt the spread of slavery into the new states in the west. And although the 1960 act made it through congress there was still strong opposition by Southern Congressmen. Buchanan feared that such a divisive act would further drive the south toward secession.

But secede they did and opposition to the Homestead Act “went south.” The Homestead Act of 1862 was passed by the remaining congressmen from the North and President Lincoln signed it on May 20, 1862.

Then just six weeks later, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 after six years of heated discussion.

These two acts, arguably the two largest “stimulation packages” of the 19th Century were enacted in the midst of the nation’s largest internal crisis, The Civil War.

These two acts implement a huge policy decision that the country would incentivize and subsidize not just western development, but rapid western development.

And so, just eight years later, Luther French filed for his homestead in Section 2, Township 7, Range 5 from the 6th Principle Meridian and little more than one year later the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad laid tracks through that homestead sparking growth in a small community that became Sutton.

How long would it have taken for a town to start in northeast Clay County without both of these acts signed into law by President Lincoln in the spring of 1862? It is hard to imagine how it would have happened.

Part of the subsidies of the Railroad Act was the granting by the U. S. government of ten square miles of land for each mile of track laid. In each township along the railroad including that around Sutton the railroad received the odd numbered sections and the even numbered sections were designated for homesteads, except for sections 16 and 36 in each township were designated as School Land. This wasn’t land where schools were to be built but was land to be sold with the proceeds going to support public schools.
Carl Johan Johannesson or Charley
Johnson, homesteader northwest of

Talk about infrastructure planning. The national policy was that the federal government would encourage development of the frontier. Some pretty smart folks on congressional staffs in the midst of the civil war crafted a coordinate set of laws that provided for land management, transportation, communication, population and education over a huge chunk of the country. President Kennedy’s policy decision to go to the moon in a decade pales by comparison.

The State of Nebraska has always been closely linked to the Homestead Act. The Homestead National Monument honoring the very first homestead is in Gage County about four miles west of Beatrice on state highway 4. How did that happen?

There are a few versions to this story. The Homestead Act went into effect on the first of January, 1863. Daniel Freeman was (supposedly) a scout in the Union Army who had to return to St. Louis (supposedly) on January 1st. He convinced someone to open the land office just after midnight so he could file his claim and hit the road. Everyone else waited for normal business hours and later, when the claims were sorted, Mr. Freeman’s Gage County claim appeared on top.

The plan to create a National Homestead Monument at the site of Daniel Freeman’s homestead was not a popular idea in Gage County. Mr. Freeman had stirred up a controversy in 1899 when he took exception to the local rural school teacher’s classes in religious instruction including Bible studies, prayers and hymns. She maintained that she had the permission of the school board so Mr. Freeman sued the school board of Freeman School, likely named for another Mr. Freeman.

The Gage County District Court ruled in the school board’s favor; Daniel Freeman appealed to the Nebraska Supreme Court which overturned the district court in 1902 citing the separation of church and state provisions in the Nebraska State Constitution.

The renovated Freeman School is near the Homestead National Monument, both major Gage County attractions today.
This 1962 postage stamp commemorated the centennial of
the Homestead Act

So what did it take for Mr. Freeman and the other homestead applicants to get possession of that farm? Was it really just a matter of living on the place for five years and it was all yours?

As I said earlier, it was not so simple.

Thanks to Ken Nelson of Manassas, Virginia, one-time of Clay Center and a cousin for a more thorough answer.

Ken has a keen interest, to say the least, in land management policy and practices. He looked into the details of the full story of what it took to apply for a homestead claim, meet all the requirements to “prove up” the claim and to complete the necessary documentation to obtain full ownership. He researched and compiled the documentation used by four of his ancestors (three I share with him) to file and prove their claims near Sutton, Saronville and Verona.

Luckily, I didn’t get him started on Swedish Land Reform or we’d have been here all night.

Nels Nelson filed an Application for Entry of 80 acres in Section 26 of Lewis Township about a mile from where Verona would later appear.
Nels Nelson's final official certificate in the series
of required documents needed to secure his
homestead. The detailed story of the process is
located in the "PAGES" section of this blog.
Charley Johnson (or Charles, Charlie, Carl Johan Johanesson – Swedes were flexible) filed for an eighty at the top of the hill in Section 28 of School Creek Township a mile west and two and a half miles north of Sutton.

Adolph Aspegren’s homestead application was just west of Saronville in Section 2 of Lewis Township.

Andrew Israelson initially purchased a total of 320 acres railroad land but in 1878 he filed for an 80 acre homestead in Section 6 of Lewis Township about five miles west of Saronville.

Those policy makers in Washington seemed to have anticipated potential criticism about fraud and abuse by incorporating a series of limitations and documentation requirements.

An applicant had to 21 years of age, have never taken up arms against the United States (Confederate veterans need not apply), own no more than 320 acres (Andrew Israelson almost disqualified himself), etc. The applicant had to live on the claim for five years making improvements then file for a deed to title with accompanying documentation that he had met those requirements, with witnesses and all.

Ken’s description of the homestead process is a 24 page document. Much as I’d like to share it with you today, Jarod does not do single-subject issues of Sutton Life Magazine. Ken and I will post a version of his research product on the Sutton Historical Society blog at

How successful was the Homestead program? It was successful enough to expand upon. The Timber Culture Act of 1873 was authored by Senator Phineas Hitchcock of Nebraska and allowed a second quarter to be added to a homestead for the planting of 40 acres of trees. The timber claim was filed on the edge of Edgar by David Jones.
This stone monument commemorating the first
registered claim under the Timber Culture Act
of 1873 is located near Edgar, Nebraska. Photo
is from the Clay County Atlas of 1963 compiled
by Midwest Atlas Co., Fremont, Nebraska

The Kinkaid Act in 1904 allowed for 640 acre homesteads west of the 100th Meridian and other measures increased the size of all homesteads.

The Homestead Act was repealed in 1976 with an extension for Alaska. The last homestead was an 80 acre claim in southeastern Alaska in 1988.

Were there problems? Of course. The drafters of the legislation stipulated that a dwelling of at least 12 X 14 would be built. They neglected to define the units of measurement opening the doors from some to claim that their 12 inch by 14 inch structure met that requirement. Phony claimants could be hired and people bought abandoned property. Land Offices were underfunded and understaffed, wages were low making enforcement tough and investigators were targets for bribery. Conditions were harsh where most homesteads were filed and only about 40% were eventually proved up.

But still, 1.6 million applications were processed for more than 270 million acres or about one tenth of the country.

The Homestead Act had a great impact on the frontier but nowhere greater than in the area around Sutton.

Check out the (under PAGES) for a more detailed discussion on just what it took to secure a homestead in Clay County.

This article first appeared in the July, 2013 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. Contact Jarod Griess at 402-984-4302 or at for more information about his publication.




No comments: