The lasting heritage of the Homestead Act
LITTLE RIVER, Kan. – Before this town was here, before the railroads were here, before a post office was here, the Hodgsons were here.
In 1871, Hannah and Henry Clay Hodgson moved into a one-room dugout on the banks of the Little Arkansas, their view an Indian camp on the other side of the river. They arrived in central Kansas in November, in the midst of a blizzard, and it took them three days from the train stop in Salina to get the 60 miles south to this outpost.
The Hodgsons had nine children in Virginia, too many boys to all be able to work the farm, so Henry Clay followed his brother, George, out onto the American frontier.
“In that one-room dugout, was Henry Clay and Hannah, and one-year old Charles, his sister, Ann Eliza, his brother George, and a freed slave, Charles Brown,” said Ed Hodgson, the great-grandson of Henry Clay and Hannah, who now farms this land. “But it was a terrible winter. They cried a lot.”
The Hodgsons’ story is much like the many settlers who faced severe hardships for the chance of free land offered by the Homestead Act, a revolutionary law signed in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln, who said it would offer everyone “a fair chance in the race of life.” The law is considered one of the most important in American history.
Power in the land
This year the Homestead Act celebrates its 150 year anniversary, credited with populating the West and putting much of the Great Plains into cultivation. In all, 270 million acres were settled in 30 states, covering 10 percent of U.S. land.
“The United States became this agricultural super power, the bread basket of the world, because of all that land they gave away in homesteading and all that land is being turned into farmland,” said Blake Bell, an historian at the Homestead National Monument of America in Beatrice, Neb.
The monument is at the site of the first homestead, land that is now home to a museum that rises up on the plains as if growing in the tall-grass prairie, its roof shaped like a huge silver plow, facing due west. It was here that the first Homesteader Daniel Freeman — in a hurry to return to the Union side of the Civil War — signed up with a land agent just after midnight on Jan. 1, 1863.
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Passed by Congress during the Civil War, the Homestead Act allowed anyone over the age of 21 to file a claim for 160 acres — even women and slaves, people who were considered property until this time. Settlers had to be U.S. citizens or planning to become citizens, as the act, widely advertised in Europe, also allowed for the naturalization of immigrants.
“Not only are we inviting immigrants to come to the country, but we’re also accommodating them by giving them a path to citizenship. To me that’s an immigration bill,” Bell said. “And it’s an accommodating immigration law at that. It’s not restrictive in any way. It’s very, very unique and very, very revolutionary.”
But this law very clearly excluded one group of people. Native Americans were removed —by false treaty or just the wrong end of a gun — and placed on reservations, the beginning of what many have called a government-sanctioned genocide. William Thomas, chair of the University of Nebraska history department, said that fact is a challenge to interpreting the legacy of the Homestead Act.
“An act that we celebrate as settlement of the West is also an act at the same time that enabled the stripping of land from native peoples,” Thomas said. “We have to come to terms with that in some way.”
Some 60 percent of homesteaders failed to “prove up” on their claims, pushed off by poor weather, bad land, or just loneliness brought on by the severe isolation. But although people failed in that regard, the law was still successful in populating the Great Plains, as those people often went to the regional cities to become merchants and provide services for the settlers, Bell said.
The legacy of those farms and businesses lives on today, according to Kansas State University historian Bonnie-Lynn Sherow.
"If you were to measure the achievement of homesteading by the value of today's GDP alone, it was an enormous success,” Sherow recently told the Wall Street Journal. “The amount of food and fiber produced exceeds the wildest dreams of the early settlers."
The act was also recently named by the Center for American Progress as one of the top 10 laws that helped the middle class prosper.
The Hodgsons, among the first white settlers in Rice County, Kan., spent two winters in that dugout and survived many more hardships — fires, grasshoppers, illnesses. But they clung to the land for the required five years, built a home and a barn, and then gathered more land as the years passed.
“I think they were just more tenacious than some. Maybe got lucky at times,” Hodgson said.
After their first home burned down, the family in 1899 built the tall, square, white home that Hodgson still lives in today.
That home today is a walk through history – the family’s and otherwise. Tremendous record-keepers, they have an amazing amount of information about their ancestors, generations of knowledge kept in big trunks in the attic. Along with their role in the Homestead Act, they were witnesses to other history: Family lore has it that Hannah tired quickly of the travelers along the Santa Fe Trail, which runs just three miles south of the farm.
They also have old buggies, cider mills, furniture, photos — and even trees, which they planted on special occasions, helping to create some shade on the stark prairie. The two burr oaks in the front yard were planted on Hannah and Henry Clay’s golden wedding anniversary in 1919.
Early on, they learned that the apple and peach orchards that they had cultivated in Virginia did not do well on the Kansas plains. So they moved to planting corn and alfalfa and kept a lot of livestock, Hodgson said. When turkey red wheat was introduced, the family planted wheat, and when milo was found to be much more drought tolerant, they also planted that.
Ed Hodgson won’t be the last of the line – there are many more Hodgsons, a kind of prairie dynasty along 28th Road in Rice County. Many in the fifth and sixth generations of Hodgsons are still farming and some work in nearby towns.
As the Hodgsons in Kansas prospered, the oldest Hodgson brother who inherited the family farm back in Winchester, Va., borrowed too much money, bought too much equipment and lost the farm.
“I think that had not for the Homestead Act, they would have never come out here,” Hodgson said. “I think the best and brightest came to Kansas, Henry Clay and George.”
Check out some of the original homesteading documents, signed by President Ulysses S. Grant, that entitled the Hodgsons to land in Kansas: