Nebraska is home to the nation’s first homestead

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Imagine getting the opportunity to own 160 acres of land for free. All you had to do was a build a house and improve the land for five years. After that, the land was yours.

The Homestead Act of 1862 did just that. President Abraham Lincoln signed the act into law that year.

IMG_4313On Jan. 1863, Daniel Freeman became credited as the first homesteader in American history. He picked out 160 acres (a quarter of a square mile) near Beatrice, Nebraska. Beatrice is located in southeast Nebraska, about 40 miles south of Lincoln, the state capital.

Freeman was a Union soldier during the Civil War. He went on to have two wives and 11 children. Freeman supposedly had a long interest in the land he homesteaded.

Other men signed up for land that day, as well, but history credits Freeman as the first homesteader, said Susan Cook, a ranger with the National Park Service. She works at the Homestead National Monument in Beatrice. The facility is located adjacent to Freeman’s land.

IMG_4429Thirty of the 50 states actually had some type of homestead action during the program’s almost 125 years in existence. The act was repealed in 1976, but allowed an extra 10 years of homesteading in Alaska.

The Heritage Center (aka visitor’s center) has a museum-quality exhibit covering the history of the Homestead Act. It also has a nice gift shop area, as my wallet can confirm with all the stuff Lisa wanted to buy (ok, ok, two post cards don’t break the bank…). It does have some nice souvenirs and clothes. I kicked myself for not buying a book that listed off the wall attractions in almost every Nebraska county.

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I recommend starting a visit with the short film documenting the homestead movement in America. It gave a nice overview, using comments from people affected by homesteading. Descendants of both settlers and Native Americans discussed the impact of the Homestead Act.

The film covered the several sides of westward expansion:  white and African-American settlers’ successes and failures. It also covered the Native American views of being displaced.

The film didn’t back away from controversy. It allows viewers to consider all angles and decide for themselves.

The lower level of the center has the museum exhibits. It tracks the history with attractive displays.

IMG_4315One thing the Homestead Act did was help facilitate the industrial revolution. Equipment had to be built specifically for the conditions settlers faced in developing the land. Plows built for dryland farming had to be engineered. Handheld tools had to be developed for moving brush, rocks and other obstacles.

IMG_4322The windmill played a huge role in farming. It provided energy, as well as helped prime pipes for water wells.

Some of the other exhibits displayed some household items that could be found in the houses of successful homesteaders.

IMG_4342In the end, most people failed as homesteaders. Less than half actually completed the five-year requirements of building a house, clearing the land and planting a crop.

Almost 100 million Americans are considered descendants of homesteaders.

Outside the heritage center, the national monument has walking trials and other exhibits.

IMG_4402A cabin that’s almost 150 years old sits on the park’s grounds. It was moved there from a few miles away. The cabin is very small. It is believed that 9-12 people lived in it at some point.

Inside, the main floor had a small stove, bed, table and desk. A loft was atop a wooden ladder. It amazes me that a family could live there. Today, it would likely be the size of a playhouse for some kids.

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Old farm equipment sat on the land near the cabin.

IMG_4416We started walking along a trail and just looked at the prairie grass swaying in the wind. Freeman may not have known this in 1863, but he picked out a very scenic area.

Freeman apparently was a smart man. He picked out land to make a T-shaped homestead. He had water on a couple of sides of the land, which would assure success for him, the park ranger mentioned to us.

IMG_4454We walked a short trail to Mr. Freeman’s gravesite.  It sits on the east side of his property, with a nice view of his land.

IMG_4432Down the road about ¾ of a mile is an education center for the park service. It houses an art exhibit, as well as some old farm equipment.

A covered wagon sits among the equipment. That brought back memories of when I was a kid. I remember having to dress up as a cowboy in grade school for the state’s centennial in 1968. Our school put on a program with old songs, etc. We had a covered wagon as a prop.

IMG_4453A mural sits in the education center’s lobby. It depicts the hazards of life on the prairie. Tornadoes are in the background as the family is in the foreground.

That mural made me think of difficult life was back then. If a prairie fire started, there was nothing to stop it from advancing. Settlers could lose everything they worked for in minutes. Snow? Frigid weather? Imagine how difficult life would be during the 1800s with the extreme cold temperatures we’ve had in parts of our country recently. 20 degrees below zero? I would think the results would not be good.

IMG_4442About ½ a mile from there is the Freeman school. Several of Freeman’s children attended school here. The school closed in 1967 and was the oldest operating one-room school in Nebraska, according to the Park Service.

IMG_4463The Midwest may not have the pre-Revolutionary War history of a lot of eastern and southern states, but our area has a great deal to offer in telling the story of the United States. We learned a lot about the westward expansion of the United States at the Homestead National Monument.

For more information on the Homestead National Monument, please visit the National Park Service website at http://www.nps.gov/home/index.htm.

 

Comments

  1. those that good deeds of the government… Wish to have own land where I can built my own house too.

  2. that was a great history lesson, to learn about the land, I didn’t know that President Abraham Lincoln signed the act into law that, I enjoyed it learning new things

  3. I live around a lot of War History, growing up my dad always dragged us around to all kinds of history places, I used to hate it then, but now I really enjoy it. This looks like something really awesome to visit. I’m not sure I could keep up with all that land, I can barely keep up with the 4 kids & the house as it is. We just currently got a nice piece of land this past October, I’ll regret it when it comes to mowing haha. This is a great read.

  4. Nice pictures. Soon the weekend is here and I hop you will get great one.

  5. The old farming equipment must be really cool. Someday I would love to get out there to see this someday.

    • I agree. When I saw the plow, I recalled how my dad told me a story about when he was farming and they went from a single horse pulling the plow, to two horses and then a tractor.

  6. I love seeing history like this. That little cabin is intriguing.

  7. I’ve never been to Nebraska. Love all the history you’ve shared here!

  8. Freeman did a great job making history on this land! I would definitely love to homestead and own a land for free, and be able to build a school for my own children like him 🙂

  9. I just can’t imagine what that life would be like! And I didn’t realize the first homestead was there. I love fence pictures from the midwest like that first one 🙂

  10. Great pictures and wonderful education! We love to visit museums.

  11. That was a great history lesson.. I guess back in the day you could sort of squat on land and claim it for free..

  12. I can’t imagine how hard life would have been for the first homesteaders!
    ~ Kimberly

  13. It Is Amazing How They Lived Back Then I Would Of Loved It, Thanks For Sharing!!

  14. Thanks for the information. I have studied homesteading as a hobby at different times in my life and I feel an emotional pull every single time I drive across Nebraska and consider all they had to endure. We will have to take our kids here the next time we’re in the area.

  15. I have read about Daniel Freeman in history..very interesting

  16. This was great – I love history and I live right in the middle of it here in Virginia where it all started! BUT hearing about The Homestead is just as good for those that traveled to there had harsh times too. Wonder if his descendants still own or did they give it over?

    • Thanks. The early American history, involving Virginia, is great. The National Park Service owns the land now, in order to protect it from development and help with agricultural development. A park ranger told us that other countries’ governments visit to study the grasslands for possible development.

  17. I’d love to visit here! I’m a descendent on both sides from homesteaders. It would be neat to learn more about it.

  18. This sounds so interesting! I feel bad for the Native Americans that got displaced- but the ability of owning land just by working it sounds honorable. That museum looks so interesting- I will have to visit it someday.

  19. I’ve never been to Nebraska, maybe its time i visit! Looks wonderful! Thanks for sharing!

  20. I’d love to be able to take my kids on a lot of the adventures that you go on. I’m sure that they would be amazed by the concept of so much land per person compared to today’s averages.

  21. My boyfriend is from Nebraska and when I visited him we drove past the museum! His family’s from Plymouth 🙂

  22. Awesome pictures showing history, I didn’t know that he was considered the first homesteader… because I know very very little about homesteading at all.
    I also couldn’t imagine 9-12 people living in a shack that size! Yikes!

  23. What a really cool post. Thanks for taking us along on your visit.
    We are having those frigid temps too and it is difficult enough.
    I wish we could get land for putting the work into it.

    • Thank you. I thought about pioneers the other day as the temps hovered around 0 degrees. Today, we can turn on the furnace. Back then, I am sure they struggled to stay warm.

  24. Definitely God’s country out there!

  25. This looks like a great field trip for school! When my family is in the area – we will definitely check it out!

  26. That is a pretty nice act he signed!! But I bet people were fighting over land?

  27. I love history! What a fun place to visit! I would love someone to offer me 160 acres! Sign me up!

  28. Imagine getting that opportunity now? I would be happy with one acre, never mind 160!

  29. You truly make everything come alive and the reader transported to where you are describing. What a great place and great post 🙂

  30. This was a very interesting period in history. There were things that could have been done differently. And abuse of indigenous people. But at the same time the lives of the settlers, their stories and struggles are something so universaly human.

  31. People like Daniel Freeman are visionaries who build nation. It was nice to read so much detailed history on this piece of land.

  32. The Homestead Act of 1862 started with good intentions but, as you pointed out, had its share of successes, failures and controversy. I was drawn into the photos you shared and imagined the challenges those early settlers faced.
    Elizabeth

  33. Grandma Florida says:

    Do you know whether there’s any truth to the “story” I’ve heard about European immigrants changing their surnames to match someone who was homesteading in order to “purchase” the land before the title was clear? Could “relatives” take over a homestead?

  34. This really brings it all into perspective. It is interesting to learn about this and trials the early residents had. On a side note- I am so grateful for my house after seeing the pictures of those – they are nice- but I would crazy with all my kids in a house that small. lol.

  35. 160 acres of land for free – yes please!
    I bet a lot of people couldn’t make it work any way…

  36. Wow, this looks really cool. I would like to take my kids on a vacation where they actually learn some good things about history.

  37. That is really cool. I love bits of history like that.

  38. what a beautiful spot it is 🙂

  39. What a cool history lesson, thanks for sharing something I that I knew nothing about. Awesome.
    SJ @ Chasing the Donkey recently posted…First ever underground hot air balloon flight happened in Croatia… seriouslyMy Profile

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