Daniel Freeman celebrated the arrival of 1863 at the land office in Brownville, Nebraska. He’d traveled from Illinois to claim 160 acres of prairie, and just after midnight on January 1, 1863, he made his claim. Then the real work began. Freeman erected a 14-by-20-foot home on his new land, and around it he cultivated the soil and planted hundreds of fruit trees. He built a farm and a life.
Congress and Abraham Lincoln helped give Freeman this opportunity through the May 1862 Homestead Act. The Act gave American citizens and immigrants the right to claim up to 160 acres of land. If they improved the land and stayed on it for five years, they could “prove-up” their claim and take full ownership. Freeman stayed and proved-up in 1868. Across the first page of Freeman’s homestead file at the National Archives is scrawled the words, “First entry made under the Hd, Act of May 20, 1862.” He was the first homesteader, and 1.6 million more successful homesteaders followed him over the next century, launching a revolution of new farms and ranches in the US West.
This revolution was built on the dispossession of American Indians from their lands. Some homesteaders like Freeman benefited from Native land cessions that had occurred prior to passage of the Homestead Act. Other homesteaders, particularly those in the Dakotas and Oklahoma, helped drive the dispossession process. While rooted in this American sin, the Homestead Act also provided unexpected opportunity for others.
Thousands of Black Southerners, frustrated with white supremacist violence and limited opportunity at home, moved westward to claim their bit of the American dream. Willianna Hickman was one of these westward dreamers who left Kentucky for Nicodemus, Kansas. She imagined she would arrive in a vibrant settlement. Hickman and her companions traveled by train and foot, and when they neared Nicodemus, the men in the group shouted, “There is Nicodemus!” Hickman looked out to the horizon of rolling prairie, so different from the lush grasses and forests of Kentucky. She studied the terrain and asked her husband, “Where is Nicodemus?” He pointed to smoke rising from homes dug into hills and she began to weep. The town of Nicodemus never became a commercial center, but Black Americans like the Hickmans persevered and filled the surrounding hinterland with 88 farms on over 13,000 acres claimed through the Homestead Act. Other Black homesteader settlements in places like Dearfield, Colorado; Sully County, South Dakota; and Blackdom, New Mexico staked their claims in the decades that followed.
On this President’s Day we should remember the Homestead Act’s complicated history. The homesteading story exemplifies government’s power to reshape people’s lives so more of them might share in the nation’s wealth. Homesteading’s intersection with American Indian dispossession is also a stark reminder that government power can be weaponized against the most vulnerable among us. Daniel Freeman continues to speak to us from his original homestead, now the site of Homestead National Park. Nicodemus National Historic Site similarly connects its visitors to the dreams of Black homesteaders who made the great migration westward. As many as 93 million Americans today are descendants of homesteaders. The story of homesteading shows us who we are and what is possible.
Jacob K. Friefeld is the Illinois and Midwest Studies Research Historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and co-author of Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History (University of Nebraska Press, 2017).