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Norman speaks on homesteading at chat

The July 6 Front Porch Chat featured Keith Norman speaking on “Homesteading.” Although it was first passed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, the last homesteading was done in Alaska in the 1970s. The law stipulated that anyone who was over 21 years of age or was head of a family and did not take up arms against the U.S. government was eligible to homestead 160 acres of land. The homesteaders also had to make improvements on the land, farm at least 10 acres of it and live there at least five months per year for five years.

Norman said the process of homesteading was pretty simple: Find a parcel of land that no one else was claiming, register the homestead at the land office (in Bismarck or Fargo) and build some sort of shack, often rough lumber covered with tar paper or covered with sod. Plow the sod on at least 10 acres of native prairie with a team of horses, mules or oxen. Plant some oats for the stock, wheat for bread, and make a small garden for potatoes and vegetables. Then in the homesteader’s spare time, try to gather enough fuel to last the winter in the poorly-insulated shack. Norman said it was no wonder that about 60 percent of those who homesteaded failed to “prove up,” which is what it was called when the homesteader received the deed to his land after the five years. If the man had been in the Union army, the time to prove up was reduced by one year for each year served; if the person served in the Confederate army, he didn’t even qualify.

Norman said that “Along with all of the other hardships they faced they had to try to sell a bit of produce or collect bison bones to make the $5 that was charged by the local newspaper to run the announcement that they were still on their homestead each year.” This requirement of the Homestead Act is probably the reason that every small town had a local newspaper that depended on these ads to stay in business, most going out of business when the land in the area was completely homesteaded.

The railroad owned every other section within 40 miles of the tracks (usually the odd-numbered sections) and was willing to sell the land for $3 to $5 per acre. There was other land that was bought by Preemption and others who would sell the land that they had homesteaded. All in all, the prairies were settled, and there was not much land available in this area by the early 1880s. The railroad was the key element in the homestead movement. People from the East would load all of their belongings and their family on a boxcar and unload it at their destination where land was available to homestead. More than 100,000 people came to northern Dakota from 1879 to 1885, Norman said.

There was a bit of fraud in some of the homesteading. Norman gave some examples of the comical and misleading statements that some used to obtain their homesteads under these less-than-honorable tactics. He also said many of the homesteaders only spent the summers on their claims and wintered in more hospitable environments. It is likely that most people would have a very difficult time surviving the winter in those conditions and equally likely that most people would have a very difficult time even surviving the summers in a tar paper shack in the middle of the North Dakota prairie, he said.

The next Front Porch Chat at 2 p.m. Sunday will feature Searle Swedlund, executive director of Jamestown Tourism, discussing North Dakota tourism, and some of the scenic byways across the state.