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Why They Came: Homesteader Reality Shapes Modern Nebraska

Dec 14, 2021 04:34PM ● By Matthew Hansen | Flatwater Free Press
family in black and white outside small farmhouse

Photo via Flatwater Free Press    

Forgive George Barnes if he looks a little grim. 

That day in 1887, ol’ George had ample reason to mean-mug photographer Solomon Butcher, and homesteader life in general.

The night before the family photo, it had rained. Hard. 

The rain had soaked the roof of their soddie. The decaying pole holding the roof had snapped. The whole thing had come down on itself, like a bad metaphor, ruining everything the family owned. 

The year before, George Barnes’ wife had died of an unknown illness. Barnes was raising three children by himself while he tried to make crops grow without water. Then his house caved in.

So yes, he grimaced.

The experience of George Barnes is much more real than the fictions we have come to believe about the Homestead Act that “settled” Nebraska. It’s an experience still embedded in Nebraska’s DNA. 

The homesteaders had it rough.

Your soddie might collapse. Your spouse might die. Your land may refuse to produce wheat and you may grow gaunt and homesick for whatever map dot from which you arrived.

And we haven’t yet considered the blizzards. Or the locusts.

All these things did happen, Nebraska historians say, and they lead us to one question George Barnes must have asked himself a thousand times. 

What am I doing here? 

* * *

Rhonda Seacrest

More than a century after Barnes’ house caved in, a woman named Rhonda Seacrest stood in a central Nebraska cemetery and asked herself the same question.

Seacrest, whose husband Jim Seacrest was then president of a group of family newspapers, had agreed to take her mother to a funeral.

The burial took place in a cemetery near the village of Merna.

It was February. Gray. Twenty degrees. The cemetery sat on a hill, and when Seacrest faced the horizon, the unrelenting wind stung her eyes, lashed her face, practically shook the questions from her.

Why do I stay here? Why did…anybody…ever…stay here?

Rhonda Seacrest and Jim, who died in 2016, answered that question by helping make their part of Nebraska better. They raised money for performing arts and hospitals in North Platte. She supports programs that bring the arts to western Nebraska school kids. (She’s also a supporter of Flatwater Free Press.)

The questions Seacrest asked herself prompted another: Why does Nebraska celebrate people who simply passed through?

Our license plate once featured a covered wagon. We venerate attractions like Chimney Rock originally used as 19th century signposts for people headed west. This way to California! Veer right for Oregon!

Not long ago, Seacrest was asked to donate to the renovation of Chimney Rock. She said no. Then she started thinking.

“I decided it was time to put a face on the people who actually stayed here,” she said.

* * * 

Photo courtesy of History Nebraska

Quick quiz: How did most Nebraska homesteaders reach the land they claimed?

They rode in covered wagons, right, which they circled when attacked by warring Native Americans. Yes?

No. Most people who homesteaded in Nebraska rode the train. What little contact they had with Native Americans tended to be trade-related. Friendly.

This picture in our heads, historians say, is a Hollywood-warped picture of earlier settlers – people who rumbled West in the decades before the Civil War. 

The Homestead Act took effect on Jan. 1, 1863, promising Americans the right to claim 160 acres that would be theirs if they built a house and grew crops for five years. Homesteaders began to come to eastern Nebraska, but didn’t begin settling parts of central, western and northwest Nebraska until the 1880s or later.

It wasn’t an Oklahoma land rush or California Gold Rush. It wasn’t a rush at all. 

Homesteaders showed up steadily for three decades. They took the train.

“If the railroad comes to that community in 1877, then homesteading explodes in 1878,” said Jonathan Fairchild, historian at Homestead National Historical Park near Beatrice.

Many who boarded these trains didn’t arrive thinking that the land would be an heirloom passed down generations. Many planned to profit and skedaddle.

“Most people didn’t come to stay,” said David Wishart, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln geography professor and editor of “Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.” “You really have to understand the degree of speculation that went on in the frontier.”

Taking land, farming it for five years and then selling it at the first opportunity made a mountain of sense to many homesteaders, who often came from desperate circumstances. 

Roughly one of five arrived in Nebraska directly from Europe, according to Rick Edwards, retired director of UNL’s Center for Great Plains Studies. Many were brand-new Americans, who had moved from, say, Germany to Ohio to central Nebraska in short order.

These weren’t European aristocrats starting anew. Most had no other way to own land. Often, immigrants were lured by laughably incomplete portraits of Plains life. One advertisement promised that no flies existed in South Dakota. 

Another Czech newspaper ad: “You see this farmer plowing the soil and gold coins coming out,” Fairchild said. ”Literally, it was, ‘Come here, you will be rich in America!’”

People who already had money didn’t often trifle with the Homestead Act. They didn’t want to wait anymore than 21st century millionaires want to wait in line at Disney. 

That era’s rich instead bought the Nebraska land they wanted from the railroad or previous owners. Who could blame them? 

As the story of George Barnes suggests, being a homesteader was unfathomably hard.

A list of the things historians mentioned when asked about those difficulties:

Drought. Heat. Blizzards. Wind. A spring thaw that turned ground into gumbo and made it impassable.

Wind. Falling crop prices. Farming crash of the 1890s. Debt. 

Loneliness. Childbirth. Cholera. Measles. Whooping cough. Typhoid. Medical care a day’s ride away. Death of children. Death of spouse. Bugs. Wind. And…

“The 1870s, of course, had the locust plagues,” Edwards said. 

Come again?
“Yes, the locust plagues. No one knew about this. There was no knowledge that this could happen. And they came and devastated everything.”

One thing most homesteaders didn’t face, historians say: Imminent threat from Native Americans. That’s largely a myth.

Most Plains tribes had been utterly decimated, resettled or pushed onto reservations by the time large numbers of homesteaders arrived. Relationships between Native Americans and nearby white settlers were often cordial, historians say, and based on trade. There was occasional, infamous violence, but it never touched the lives of the vast majority of homesteaders.

The main violence, physical and cultural, was against Native Americans themselves, Wishart said. 

“The main motivation of Indian policy was to get land for whites,” he said. “The (government) saw it as a trade, basically, ‘we will give you our civilization if you give us your lands.’ But of course that meant rejecting everything you knew as Indian. It was a policy of cultural genocide…and it meant that (by the Homestead Act) Indians were no real threat.”

There were plenty of real threats.

Edwards was the first researcher to count the number of homesteaders who claimed Nebraska land and then actually made it to the five-year mark.

His answer: roughly 55%. Basically a coin flip.

The rest got sick, went broke or cut bait and left. And many of those who did make it sold quick and vanished, too.

So, how does Edwards differentiate those who stayed from those who didn’t?

“How did people get out of a trench in World War I and run towards the barbed wire?” he said.

The people who stayed faced an incredible array of enemies, calmed their terrors, dove out of metaphorical trenches and sprinted into gunfire for years. Decades.

They were leathery and obstinate. They were among the first residents of this new state called Nebraska.

This article originally appeared in Flatwater Free Press, shared with Omaha Magazine via Creative Commons License. 

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.
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