Thursday, August 20, 2015

Robert Lee Murphy: The Homestead Act and MG Historical Novels

US Postage Stamp Commemorating The Homestead Act

The Homestead Act of 1862 has figured prominently in many novels about the settlement of the American west by the white man and the freed black slave. This giving away of “government” lands accommodated the westward expansion embodied in the Manifest Destiny doctrine; but, it also stimulated more conflict with the Native American inhabitants who, as a result, were stripped of their traditional use of the land.

Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, the first book in her Great Plains trilogy, follows the life of Alexandra Bergson who, as a young lady, assumes the responsibility for her mother and brothers following the death of her father. She struggles to maintain the family cohesiveness on land her father had homesteaded in Nebraska.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s By the Shores of Silver Lake, the fifth of nine books in her Little House on the Prairie series, covers the period of time when Laura’s family files a homestead claim in De Smet, South Dakota. The Newberry Honor was awarded to this book in 1940. In the 1970s, a popular television series based on the book series starred Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert.

Jack Shafer’s Shane is currently listed on Amazon as the number one best selling western for teens. Shane, a reformed gunslinger who initially refuses to carry a revolver, comes to the aid of the Starrett family and saves their homestead from a ruthless rancher who wants to drive them off the land. The 1953 movie Shane, starring Alan Ladd and Jack Palance, is frequently rated as one of the ten best western films.

In my frontier, historical novel, Eagle Talons, The Iron Horse Chronicles—Book One, Will Braddock would have been aware of the Homestead Act as he follows the building of the first transcontinental railroad west on his quest to determine his own destiny. Although Will grew up on a farm in eastern Iowa in the late 1850s and early 1860s, his father would not have acquired that farm under the provisions of the Homestead Act of 1862.

Over the years, there have been several acts to encourage settlement of portions of the expanding United States and the ownership of land by individuals. During the Civil War, Congress passed the Homestead Act of 1862 following the secession of the southern states, whose politicians had opposed earlier attempts at such a law. Leaders in the South wanted the opportunity for the west to be settled by slave owners, and they feared that anti-slavery advocates would grab the land grants and oppose the expansion of slavery. The Homestead Act enabled any citizen, or person who declared the intention of becoming a citizen, who was at least 21 years old to file a claim for ownership of 160 acres of government land if they built a dwelling and farmed and lived on that land for five years. The original act precluded any one who had borne arms against the United States from eligibility. In 1867,Congress amended the act to permit Confederate veterans to participate if they signed an affidavit of allegiance to the government.

The railroad companies were supportive of the Homestead Act and benefited from it because it brought settlers who populated the new towns they created along their right-of-ways and provided purchasers of the land given to them by the government as part of their incentive for constructing the railroad. “Homesteading” was discontinued in the United States in 1976, except for Alaska where it continued another decade.

In an early draft version of Eagle Talons, I included a discussion between Will and Jenny about the purpose of her family's intention to migrate to either California or Oregon, wherein she said the McNabbs were taking advantage of the Homestead Act. I could have written that Jenny’s father, a former Confederate officer, would have to sign the government’s affidavit to comply with the law. However, I decided it was an "information dump" that did not advance the story about the family’s destination. Therefore, I deleted specific reference to the Homestead Act from the book. This is an example of a historical novelist developing a plot point and spending time on research, then abandoning the knowledge as unnecessary for the work in progress.

The Homestead National Monument of America in eastern Nebraska was created in 1936 on the site of the homestead of Daniel and Agnes Freeman. Freeman filed the first claim under the Homestead Act of 1862. It is interesting that their last name epitomizes the intention of the Homestead Act—that free men should be allowed to own property. Here is the website for the Homestead National Monument:

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