Settlers of the Great Plains of America

The Homstead Act of 1862, it's all up to you

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America room

...Finally, we reached the goal of our journey. The men immediately claimed the land, one next to the other, all started to make living places, digging holes, cutting trees in the forests for covering the holes, making fire places. Immediately I start to make bread from the little flour left from the travel, and also soup from water and flour, to get everybody warm again. 

breaking the prairie  sod house

It was already beginning of March, our harts were looking out for spring, and I was looking forward to start growing vegetables in the ground around our dug-out. But it took a full year more that we had to stay in the dug-out, in which time the men tried to make the land better...

Most immigrants arrived at Boston (MA), New York (NY) Philadelphia (PA), Baltimore (MD), or Galveston (TX). Upon arriving, some settled in the big cities or stayed in the eastern parts. The majority, however, moved out oand helped settle the newly-opened prairie states.

The Homestead Act of 1862 literally is one of the landmark laws in American history. The Act regulated land distribution and motivated millions of people to move into the sparsely inhabited areas of the young United States to break new land. The Act provided 160 acres of land for free "for everybody over 21 of age who will live on the land, build a home, make improvements, and farm for 5 years". In most of the sparsely forrested prairie states, an additional 160 acres could be obtained as "Tree claim"; the farmer had to cultivate at least 10 acres of the land with trees.

section map wilson kansas
Section map around Wilson, KA. Even today, most of the section roads still exists, as are the oringal school building for 6 pupils and some fo the first houses of Czech settlers, like Stehno and Lilak.

Wood was scarce on the prairie, and many settlers started their lives in so-called dug-outs in river or creek valleys, or in sod houses. Sod houses actually could be quite elaborate and comfortable. Prairie grass has a very thick and tough intertwined root structure. This made the land extremely hard to brake. On the other hand, sod could be cut into patches and used directly as building material. With no wood available, many farmers first lived in sod houses, and then made houses of stone.

Many families did not manage initially, went back east, and came out again. Others just moved on to better or less populated places. By the end of the 19th century, most of the setllers had settled down for good. In many cases, their descendants are still living on the same land. Homesteading continued for almost another century. The last homestead claim was made in 1979 for 80 acres opf land in Alaska. After proving up, the deed on this land was handed over in 1988, the last claim to be honored.

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© Robert Dulfer (2013)