The Heritage Center sits on the hill over looking the prairie of the Homestead National Monument of America. The center houses the educatonal information for the site.
Homesteading Changed the Face of the West
In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed a law that sent a ripple across the world. It was a radical idea that had been blocked by the southern states for 30 years prior to the Civil War: to give away land to homesteaders.
“At the time, approximately 1 percent of the world population controlled most of the land,” explained Susan Cook, a park ranger at the Homestead National Monument of America near Beatrice.
“Suddenly, people felt they too could become land barons,” Cook said.
It signaled a “fair chance” by President Lincoln to those who were willing to work and endure adverse conditions, make improvements on the land and live there for five years.
Even more radical for the time was that the opportunity was open to single women and former slaves. One didn’t even have to be a U.S. citizen at the time of filing.
“Many people got their U.S. citizenship the day they received their patent for the land five years later,” Cook said.
With Lincoln’s signature, 10 percent of the entire country became private land. Almost half of Nebraska was settled through the Homestead Act.
People moved fast and furious.
“(President) Jefferson thought it would take 10 generations to settle the West. It happened in two,” Cook explained.
Daniel Freeman from Ohio understood what was coming and was able to convince the land agent in Brownville, NE, to let him sign up shortly after midnight on January 1, 1863.
The very first 160-acre parcel of the 270 million acres to pass from federal hands to private from the Homestead Act happened in Nebraska, just east of Beatrice.
The entrance to the Homestead National Monument of America near Beatrice has a wall lined with states that indicate how much of the state was impacted by the Homestead Act.
It’s a first that will always connect Nebraska to the rest of the world.
“Free Russian Radio used to call here in the '90s to learn about how we actually did the land give away,” Cook explained. “The last conversation ended with the caller in Russia acknowledging they just don’t have the courage to try such a radical idea in Russia.”
Today this plot of land is the location of the Homestead National Monument of America. It represents a huge change in what is possible in the world.
But this change came at a great cost to another world. The world of the American Indians and their way of life came to an end, something we are wise to never forget.
People come from all over the United States and the world to visit the Homestead National Monument of America. Their desire is to learn about an important chapter in the country’s history.
Gabriel and Peyton Norine from Bruning recite the Junior Ranger pledge at the Heritage Center of the Homestead National Monument of America.
Gabriel Norine, 7, and his sister Peyton, 8, were visiting from Bruning, NE, with their parents.
They were working on their Junior Ranger badges, a fun project that gives children the opportunity to learn and explore the national parks.
“It was exciting to learn about homesteaders,” Gabriel said. “They had to do everything, like take care of the animals, make food, find water. It would have been very hard to live back then.”
Peyton enjoyed the walk through the prairie meadow.
Part of the monument is an approximate 120-acre restored prairie meadow, filled with big blue stem grass and wild flowers.
A butterfly visits a flower on the prairie of the National Homestead Monument of America.
A sunflower stands tall in the prairie of the Homestead National Monument of America.
“I enjoyed seeing the flowers, butterflies and bees outside,” Peyton said.
At the end of my visit, I took a walk through the meadow and the woods along Cub Creek. The calls of cardinals, house wrens and red-winged blackbirds filled the air.
Butterflies and bees darted about from flower to flower as cottontail rabbits nibbled on grass along the trail.
At one point, a white tail deer hopped from the woods into the tall grass and completely disappeared after three jumps.
The big blue stem grass stands tall like a monument on the patch of ground representing a radical idea that changed the world.
A family walks down one of the paths at the Homestead National Monument of America.
A couple of fawns watch a visitor at the Homestead National Monument of America.