Tricounty News

Claiming the dream

By Duane Stanley

If you enjoy history, you're again seeing that awkward-looking word that is so hard to pronounce: Sesquicentennial. The term, meaning 150th anniversary, is cropping up again to mark a century and a half since the beginning of the Civil War, and also of two key milestones that occurred in our history. The first was an act of Congress signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862Ðthe Homestead Act. The second was what is now commonly called the Dakota War. We'll look at the "uprising" and how it played out on Maine Prairie in coming weeks. But for this column, we'll look at homesteading, whichÐmore than any other factorÐopened up the "west" (including Minnesota) to phenomenal growth during the second half of the 1800s.

If you were an original settler on Maine Prairie, how did you get your land? You couldn't just walk around the prairie looking for "For Sale" signs, of course. So, whose land was it, and how did the early settlers claim their new homes?

From whence came this land? Reach back in your memories of seventh-grade social studies. There you learned that France had laid claim to most of the land from the Mississippi River to the Rockies, an area they called Louisiana. Napoleon had envisioned a great empire centered on the island of Hispaniola; today's Haiti. But French troops, defeated mostly by yellow fever rather than armed revolutionaries, were unsuccessful in putting down a slave rebellion on the island. At the same time, a greater threat in Europe was facing the future emperor: conflict with England. Without Hispaniola, Napoleon felt little need for the territory he had looked to primarily as a provider of resources for his Caribbean empire. What he needed immediately was ready cash to bolster his efforts in Europe. So, in April 1803, he offered to sell Louisiana to the United States.

President Thomas Jefferson was surprised at the offer. He had sent negotiators to France in an attempt to buy a comparatively small tract of land on the lower Mississippi, with the hopes of controlling some of the access to the upper river. Now, from out of nowhere, the offer of the vast stretch of Louisiana was before him. While politicians debated whether the Constitution even allowed him to make such a purchase, Jefferson moved ahead decisively, and the Senate backed him in his action. Before the end of the year, the U.S. had nearly doubled its territory; the Louisiana Purchase added 800,000 square miles, at the cost of about three cents per acre.

Meanwhile, pioneers kept moving westward, the country was in need of income, and there was considerable debate in Congress over making land available to individual farmers, as opposed to selling it in vast tracts to rich plantation owners who would farm it with slave labor and thus extend slave ownership to northern territories which were quickly becoming states.

In 1841, Congress passed the Preemption Act, and if your ancestors were among the very earliest settlers in Minnesota, it was under this Act they claimed land. Essentially the preemption process legitimized the status of squatters. It allowed a squatter who fulfilled certain requirements, to purchase the land, a 160-acre unit (a quarter section) once the government was ready to sell, and that at about $1.25 per acre.

To qualify, the claimant had to be the head of household, a single man over 21 years of age, or a widow, a citizen of the U.S. (or intending to become one), and must have lived on the land for at least 14 months. Also, the settler needed to continuously live on the land or to be working to "improve" the claim for a period of at least five years. This usually meant pioneers would erect a claim shanty, or a sod or log home, and would begin to break the sod, and plant crops. The government could reclaim the land if it remained idle for six months.

The preemption act was a type of credit purchase, with the settlers gaining the use and ownership of the land immediately, with the responsibility of paying for it later. The division of land was more easily accomplished by the end of the 1700s, because of new techniques for surveying. No longer were claims identified by such things as "the old oak by the creek." All U.S. land would be surveyed in grids of townships and ranges, based on meridian lines established across vast areas, and divided into "townships" of six miles by six miles. Each square mile (or section) is 640 acres, which itself is divided into quarter sections of 160 acres. Of course, each quarter section is made up of four forty-acre segments. Thus we grew up talking about "the cattle grazing on the back forty." My father always spoke of the "swamp forty," where they hunted and cut wood for the winter.

For years, attempts to refine the Preemption Act faced strong opposition from southern Senators representing the big plantation owners of the South. When a Homestead Act finally passed both chambers of Congress in 1860, President Buchanan vetoed it. But two years later, in 1862, with the southern states seceding from the Union, the issue of slavery no longer controlled the fate of land distribution. Abraham Lincoln signed the new Homestead Act on May 20, 1862, at the same time my great-great-grandfather completed five years of improving his claim just northeast of Pearl Lake.

The refined distribution system was similar to its predecessor. A settler would need to file an application, improve the land, and ultimately file for deed of title. The process was open to any citizen, or intended citizen, who had never taken up arms against the United States. The homesteader needed to live on the land for five years, improving it by building at least a 12x14 home, and planting crops. After five years, the settler could file for the patent, or deed, by showing fulfillment of the conditions. Valid claims resulted in free and clear title to 160 acres of government land.

By 1934, over 1.6 million homestead applications were made on 270 million acres, some 10 percent of all U.S. lands, passing ownership from the government to individuals, thus feeding the American Dream. (The Homestead Act was officially repealed in 1976, though it was extended 10 years for claims in Alaska.) This act served not only those Americans moving westward from their homes in the crowded original 13 states, but lured millions from across the ocean into the rapidly expanding United States of America.

© Duane Stanley, March 2012

Corrections for the Leppa family genealogy:

Walter "Pete" LeppaÐ1918-1994

Karl "Charlie" M. LeppaÐ1914-1985

Lillian HessÐ1916-2000.

Evelyn MakelaÐ1921-Living. She is past her 90th birthday and still going strong.

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As we enter 2012 and remember the very Kimball school that burned down and was replaced in 1911, celebration events by the Kimball Area Historical Society begin. While the overall theme for 2012 will be Kimball's All School Reunion Aug. 11, and we hope you're planning to attend, you won't want to miss "Growing Up In The 60s" at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 24, at Kimball's City Hall. Author Tom Symalla's stories of growing up in a central Minnesota small town is based on actual characters and events most of you will relate to.

Thank you for visiting our exhibit and booth during Kimball's annual Community and Business Expo March 24. Our door prize winners are: Dorothy Libbesmeier-Maine Prairie History Booklet; Deb Linn-keepsake note cards; Chuck Rosha-Centennial History Map; Michelle Kuhn-keepsake trivet; Steve Capes-Historical Society membership for 2012; Lisa Hechtel-keepsake coffee cups. Congratulations to you all.

For All-School Reunion advance information, your personal history research, volunteering, donations, the complete 2012 events schedule, contact the Kimball Area Historical Society at Box 100, Kimball MN 55353, (320) 398-5250, or 5743, e-mail kimball

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April 14: Next board meeting-9:30 a.m. City Hall

April 24: "Growing Up In The 60s," with Tom Symalla

May 22: "Pursuit." Dean Urdahl's talk rescheduled from February

And Many More