All across the West they stand forlorn and forgotten. Many have tumbledown roofs, sagging walls, gaping doors. Yet these modest 10-by-12-foot homestead cabins represent a revolution in public-land policy, an American dream born of Thomas Jefferson’s belief that we should become a nation of farmers.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the 1862 Homestead Act, the federal law that changed the West forever and provided a new start for urban emigrants, immigrant families and single women.
I grew up on a former homestead in southeast Colorado of 160 acres, a rectangle bisected diagonally by the Amity Ditch. I attended high school on the High Plains, the short grass prairie of songbirds, raptors, jack rabbits, grama grass, and a view as far as the eye can see. Farms and ranches across Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and New Mexico had all been homesteaded as were farms in the Dakotas and eastern Oregon and Washington.
This year the Homestead Act, passed by Congress during the Civil War, celebrates one of the great private land opportunities in world history. Only a young, brawny nation such as the United States would give away free land.
Congress realized Jefferson’s dream when it voted to provide 160 acres, a quarter section, of free land. The stipulations: You must live on it for five years, plant crops, and build a 10-by-12 cabin to “prove up” your claim. In the American West, 57 percent of homesteaders made good on their claims for 600,000 patents on 80 million acres of what had been public domain. The lure of free land drew Americans in covered wagons. European immigrants crossed oceans and took railroads west. Peasants had no hope of acquiring acreage in countries controlled by kings, but in the United States, land beckoned.
We remember President Abraham Lincoln and his leadership during the Civil War, but signing the Homestead Act is a close second. Said Blake Bell, historian at the Homestead National Monument of America in Beatrice, Neb., “Lincoln’s ‘second legacy’ transformed the U.S. and the world as millions of lives were forever impacted by the government’s distribution of free land.” When settlers finally got their patent, proving the land was theirs, the document read: “THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, To all to whom these Present shall come, Greeting.” For each patent, the president of the United States signed “in testimony whereof.”
A remarkable feature of this uniquely American law was its openness. The law did not require that homesteaders be American citizens, or even that homesteaders be men. Any adult could take up free land in the West, and dozens of single mothers tried their hand at homesteading.
The Homestead Act was wildly popular. Over the decades, different versions of the law would be passed such as the Timber Culture Act (1873); the Desert Land Act (1877); The Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, a stockgrazer’s law where ranchers, primarily sheepmen, could own the surface, but the federal government kept the minerals; and even a special homestead law for World War I veterans.
Under the Timber Culture Act, families received 320 acres if they planted one-fourth of it in trees. Over 65,000 claimants did so and patented a whopping 10 million acres. Ranchers received twice that acreage, or 640 acres, for the Desert Land Act once they paid an initial 25 cents an acre, irrigated part of it, and within three years paid $1 an acre. The Timber and Stone Act (1878) permitted the purchase of 160 acres of forest land for $2.50.
Of course, fraud flourished. Conniving ranchers who knew they could control thousands of dry acres sent their cowboys to homestead key springs and land along streams, creeks and rivers. Once the homestead became patented or passed into private ownership, the ranchers quickly paid off their cowboys and quietly urged them to move on. Tales are told of homesteaders swearing on the Bible that they had built their 10-by-12 cabin, without admitting that it was only 10 by 12 inches instead of feet. Brothers sought adjoining claims and thus built their cabins to straddle 320 acres instead of in the center of 160 acres.
Between 1862 and 1934, when the Taylor Grazing Act greatly diminished homesteading, millions of acres of public land became private. But not without hardship. Many folks failed, although 4 million land grants averaging 160 acres were made in 30 states.
Most of the homesteads have long since been incorporated into larger farms or ranches. Scattered log cabins or adobe houses of the original homesteaders dot the American West. Sometimes even the cabins are gone and the only proof anyone lived there are aged elm or apple trees or heirloom rose bushes. So it was exciting for me to find in the Wet Mountain Valley against the east side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a family who still owns their ancestors’ original homestead of 160 acres – no more, no less.
This Colorado Centennial Farm with wildlife, willows, creeks and aspen groves represents five generations of consecutive family ownership since Moritz and Matilde Brandenburg homesteaded the ground in 1880. Their land patent was signed by President Chester A. Arthur. Each year, a dozen cow elk come down to a sheltered pond to calve.
Great-great-grandson John Brandenburg explained, “The ground here was like it was in Germany – loamy soil, river-bottom land. It was tough times to homestead. My parents almost lost the place during the Depression in the 1930s when you couldn’t find a dollar.”
Though the homestead log cabin had been enlarged with five more rooms, we sat in the original cabin on a comfortable couch. A vintage 1941 Warm Morning wood/coal cookstove took the chill off the room. Children were born in the house and attended the 1889 Willows School, a one-room building a mile down the road. As late as 1979, the home had no electricity or running water.
A Korean War veteran, Brandenburg left the Wet Mountain Valley to find work. “We could have eked out a living, but you have to go outside the valley to make money,” he added.
While thousands of homestead families sold their claims and moved on, the Brandenburgs hung on. John smiled through his thick gray mustache and said, “Realtors have come by and I’ve said, ‘what part of ‘no’ do you not understand?’”
Now, the land is under a conservation easement held by the San Isabel Land Protection Trust, which safeguards sweeping views of the Sangre de Cristo range, white now with the first snows of autumn. Brandenburg and his son Ken hope to keep their property in the family for more generations. Ken told me, “It’s our refuge,” and when they host reunions, a hundred relatives picnic on the lawn.
The homesteading legacy endures. Though forlorn cabins, roofless against winter winds, stand empty, those simple structures represent success for families and the one key law that settled the West.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College.