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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Homestead Act brought diversity to Kansas years ago

By Beccy Tanner
The Wichita Eagle

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating Kansas history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.

It is hard to know Kansas without understanding the impact the Homestead Act of 1862 had on the state’s settlement.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the act, which President Lincoln signed “so that every poor man may have a home.”

It has been called one of the most important pieces of legislation in the United States. From it, Kansas gained its diverse roots.

To acquire land under the act, a person had to pay a $10 filing fee, live on the land for five years, and cultivate and improve it. On the treeless plains of Kansas, families built dugouts and sod houses and strung miles of barbed wire, some using limestone posts hewn from native stone to string the wire.

They also broke the prairie sod with their plows as they laid out the neat squares of land that became farms and townships.

The most notable homesteaders included the following groups:

•  Jewish farmers who built enclaves in a half-dozen settlements near Dodge City.

•  Exodusters — former slaves from the South — who flocked to western Kansas to start farming communities. Nicodemus is the last remaining all-black community to survive.

•  Volga Germans from Russia who built Catholic strongholds near Hays.

•  The Swedes who settled what became Lindsborg.

•  Mennonites who settled here from Russia.

Some of the most famous homesteaders included the Ingalls family, who homesteaded near Independence. Laura Ingalls Wilder was in her mid-60s when she began writing down her childhood experiences, which were published as the “Little House” series.

"There was only the enormous, empty prairie, with grasses blowing in waves of light and shadow across it, and the great blue sky above it … In all that space of land and sky stood the lonely, small, covered wagon,” Ingalls wrote.

Kansas, as a homesteading state, had nearly 90,000 successful homestead claims, representing 25 percent of the state’s total acreage. Immigrants, Civil War veterans, women and former slaves all came out of a sense of starting over.

Some walked. Some came by covered wagon. Others rode on trains.

Some of the first land offices in western Kansas — in Larned and Hays — recorded thousands of acres and entries. In 1877, Hays had 31,895 acres in homestead entries; Larned 145,878 acres.

In his book “West of Wichita,” Kansas historian Craig Miner told of one prospective homesteader headed to western Kansas by train. He was asked where he was going.

“Hell,” he replied.

The conductor said, “That’s 65 cents and get off at Dodge.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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