Thursday, March 13, 2014

Isaac Claims a Homestead

"He could not breathe in a crowded place--
He wanted his air and his open space--
He watched while civilization neared on the path
through the wilderness..."
William B. Ruggles, "The Pioneer"

The pull westward for Isaac B. Werner had begun while he was still a teenager, and soon after his father died in 1865, Isaac left his father's rich Berks County, PA fields in the Lebanon Valley.  Leaving behind the picturesque Pennsylvania-Dutch community, Isaac and his older cousin Henry traveled first to Indiana, but the promise of the western frontier pulled Isaac onward to Illinois.  In Rossville, IL Isaac established a prosperous business as a druggist and later a milling partnership, but after a few years the gradual civilizing of Illinois reawakened a longing for "his air and his open space," and in 1878 he claimed his homestead and a timber claim on the Great Plains of Kansas.
Posters enticed settlers

Isaac was not some dandified small town druggist without calluses on his hands nor lacking farming experience in his background.  Experience in the milling business had added some agricultural knowledge to his youthful experience on his father's farm.  Yet, not even the Illinois prairie years had prepared Isaac for farming in Kansas.  Foremost was the limited rainfall, which caused crops that were lush and promising in the spring to wither and die in summer's heat and drought.  Next was the fierce wind, which propelled the blast-furnace heat into tender crops.  Fields of corn that had managed to receive the necessary rain and escape grasshoppers and chinch bugs often succumbed to the wind's gritty sand that shredded leaves and blew the essential pollen away before it could fertilize the waiting kernel, ruining the crop for both fodder and the development of the corn.  Add to that the sandy loam soil, and nature's trick of hiding patches of gumbo in unexpected places, and Isaac and other settlers faced unanticipated agricultural challenges.

Original 1933 Cover
 Isaac was not alone in his decision to leave the more settled parts of America and start fresh on the vast prairie lands which had previously been the domain of Native Americans and a few trappers and hunters.  Many American children have been introduced to the saga of Western expansionism through the "Little House" books of Laura Ingalls Wilder.  In Little House on the Prairie, Laura's family built their log house near what is now Independence, KS, having moved into Indian Territory in anticipation of the land being opened for settlement in the near future.  In Little House in the Woods the family returned to Wisconsin to settle on a pre-emption claim.  In Little Town on the Prairie, the Ingalls family moved to South Dakota where Laura's father finally claimed a homestead and they remained, participating in the growth of the town of DeSmet.

Replica homestead
Each of the Wilder's attempts to claim land relied on a different means.  Briefly, these are the three situations.  The Homestead Act of 1862 was signed by Abraham Lincoln, but it did not open all of the Western land for homesteading.  Some eager settlers moved onto land that was not yet opened and attempted to fulfill the requirements for homesteading--building a structure in which to live, making improvements to their property, and physically remaining on the property the required amount of time to mature their claim as if it were homestead.  If that land were subsequently opened for homesteading, they had a head start on other claimants, usually having claimed the most desirable, more fertile land by pre-emption, and they could remain.  Pre-emption could also apply to buying a claim and finishing the requirements started by someone else.  In the case of Indian Territory, those settlers were not always rewarded by their early settlement, as the case of the Oklahoma Land Rush and the term "Sooners" shows.  When the government made a new agreement with the Indians in Oklahoma, and that land was opened for homesteading, early settlers were not allowed to prove up the land they had settled and improved.  Instead, they had to return to the boundary and participate in the Land Rush with everyone else.  Those who hid and pretended to have "rushed" for the land they staked were called Sooners, (whether they were new settlers or preemption settlers trying to secure the land they had developed), given that name because they jumped the starters' guns the morning of the rush, taking advantage of getting to their claim sooner than those who began the rush at the designated starting places and time.

Stafford Co. Map 1885
Isaac came to southernmost Stafford County to stake his homestead in 1878 on land officially open for homesteading.  He built his residence, initially a dugout, and began making improvements by planting trees and breaking sod, and he remained on the land for the requisite 5 years necessary to prove up his claim.  In order to secure his patent, he took two neighbors before a local judge to swear with him that he had lived on the land for the required time and had made improvements.

According to the US Department of the Interior statistics, more than 270 million acres of public land, or about 10% of the land that made up the 48 contiguous states, was transferred to private ownership under the Homestead Acts.  Isaac claimed 160 acres, the maximum allowed under the Homestead law, and received his patent from the government, signed by President Grover Cleveland.

(Remember, you can enlarge the images by clicking on them.) 

1 comment:

The Blog Fodder said...

My grandfather his two brothers and their mother lived in a single sod house built over the corners of three adjoining quarters. Each man slept on his own land while they proved up their claims.