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[Detail] The David Hilton family near Weissert, Nebraska. 1887.

The Homestead Act and Homesteading

The U.S. Congress enacted the Homestead Act in 1862. One purpose of this law, which took effect on January 1, 1863, was to encourage settlement of the west. It offered homesteaders free title to a quarter section (160 acres) of public land if they built a home and improved the property for five years. A second purpose was to tie the west to the north politically and economically during the Civil War (note that there were no Southern representatives in Congress when the bill was passed). A copy of the bill that became the Homestead Act can be found in A Century of Lawmaking for the New Nation.

Potential settlers viewed the Homestead Act as a virtual gift, a way to get a fresh start in life. Yet the public lands eligible for homesteading varied considerably as to quality of soil and quantity of yearly rainfall. Some of the land lay in regions that had too little rainfall to ensure successful farming. On the high plains, especially west of the 98th meridian, rainfall was so sparse that effective farming or ranching was extremely difficult on less than a full section of land or even more (that is, four or more times the amount of land available through the Homestead Act). Many settlers who filed a homestead entry actually did not complete the process.

Prairie Settlement contains many documents—photographs and letters—relating to homesteading in Nebraska in the early 1870s through the 1890s. A keyword search using homesteading as your search term will produce 62 hits, which include examples of Oblinger letters and sundry photographs. The subject index includes six subject headings relating to homesteading and homestead laws.

Another way to discover what the process of homesteading was like for ordinary people is to read in order the Oblinger letters from late 1872 to mid-1873. After Uriah Oblinger married Mattie Thomas in 1869, he went to Nebraska with two of his brothers-in-law to establish homesteads. Mattie did not join him until May 1873, so Uriah wrote her almost weekly. The letters between the two provide vivid detail about the process of establishing a homestead.

For example, Uriah wrote Mattie and his two-year-old daughter Ella on November 3-5, 1872. The following short excerpt gives a sense of some of the challenges Uriah was facing.

Sunday Nov 3rd 1872
8 miles South East of Sutton Clay Co Neb

Dear Wife & Baby

ma this is as pretty a country to look at as any one ever saw but it has it drawbacks as well as other places one objection is the depth to water wells back from the streams vary from 50 to 150 ft in depth…another objection is no timber at all you might say all there is stand along the streams and it is all taken up some of it however stand on rail road land and settlers go for that but is a limited supply at best. If I get either of the pieces selected I will have to haul my wood 10 to 12 miles…

A man can come here with $500.00 and manage properly and in a few years he can have a good comfortable home in a beautiful looking country and the most I see unfavorable is the timber & water…

Ma there is several with me today but I am lonesome without you and baby and I tell you there is a vacant place to me wherever I go and no one can fill fill [sic] it but Ma & baby well good by for the present…

Letter from Uriah W. Oblinger to Mattie V. Oblinger and Ella Oblinger, November 3-5, 1872

Because Uriah apparently had little money when he went to Nebraska, he had to find work during his first winter there. A letter of December 22, 1872, describes Uriah's finding work hauling ice. Many of the letters over the next several months continue to describe Uriah's work and his attempt to save money so he can send Mattie and Ella railroad fare to Nebraska.

Since Mattie had not been to Nebraska yet, she was curious about the area. In a letter dated January 19, 1873, Uriah answered a question Mattie asked him about Indians:

…you wanted to know about the Indians if they were troublesome where we are going to settle I can tell you they are not for we will not be living on the trail they pass along when they go hunting and they are not troublesome anyway till they get out farther on the frontier than my homestead there was a party of them camped for a few days at Sutton this winter as they were going on a hunt but botherd no one as I can learn.

Letter from Uriah W. Oblinger to Mattie V. Oblinger and Ella Oblinger, January 19, 1873

Based on your reading of the above excerpts and other letters in the period when Uriah was working to establish the homestead, answer the following questions:

  • What were the hardships faced by people trying to establish homesteads on the Great Plains?
  • Which of these hardships do you think was most likely to cause a homesteader to give up the claim? Explain your answer.
  • What can you infer from Uriah's letters about Mattie's concerns during their separation? What kinds of questions from Mattie does he answer in his letters?
  • How do Mattie's first impressions of the homestead upon her arrival compare with Uriah's first reports from Nebraska?