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Homesteading and Risk

I saw a vague statistic the other day – an estimate that between 46 million and 93 million Americans are descended from homesteaders.  The number seems low – but my work experience is in the West . . . I have received a few paychecks from Minnesota, but most of my working life has been in Montana, Colorado, and South Dakota.  I suspect that, at least in Montana and South Dakota, the majority of my coworkers had homesteader grandparents and great-grandparents.

My maternal great-grandparents had a story about Sitting Bull and his two wives stopping by their homestead right after my grandmother was born.  The dates of her birth and his death make the story possible, but don’t verify.  At the least, she was born in the same area and time where Sitting Bull was for the last year of his life.  My maternal great-grandparents were homesteaders,  My grandfather homesteaded in North Dakota, then finished proving up on two homesteads (which he bought) in Trego.  There is a special place for the legislation that authorized both homesteading and the land grant colleges – they were passed at a time when most of the Democrat legislators were in Richmond, not Washington.

The Homestead Act granted free land – but the homesteader had to live on that tract, raise a crop and build a house.  I’ve seen the log cabins and soddies that were their initial homes, and realize how limited the toolbox on the homestead was.  Yet the risks and hardships associated with the homesteading movement are the basis real estate investment for about a tenth of the land in the United States.  Not a tenth of the private land – a tenth of the total land mass. 

Checking the records in South Dakota, I learned that the majority of female homesteaders near my home were Indian women – not all tribes received reservations, and these Indian women didn’t wait until 1924 for the rights of US citizenship – they were recognized as citizens upon proving up their homesteads.  Single women, white or Indian, former slaves, immigrants, all could qualify for homesteads.

Not all succeeded.  Along the Milk River, that reliable water source also brought disease – typhus if memory serves correctly.  Homesteads were being claimed when Custer was still on active duty.  Risks from all sources were high.  Yet the Homestead Act gave Americans of all backgrounds the opportunity to risk it all for the chance to become landowners.

Some died.  Some gave up, sold the homestead and found a job in town.  Some became landowners – property owners.  The Homestead Act provided a framework for upward mobility in rural America.  That opportunity to choose risk and hard work as a way to property doesn’t exist in today’s risk averse society.

I think we’ve lost that link with the homesteaders – when my grandparents moved to Trego, their neighbors were people like them, homesteading to become property owners and eking out a living until the land became their own.  My last link with that generation went with the passing of Loretta Todd – I doubt if she ever realized that her comments on “Fahlgren’s Pond” were my last touch with a grandfather who died before my fifth birthday.

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