14 thoughts on “Homesteaders in Nebraska, 1880s through 1900”

  1. Great photos. Two things I was thinking:

    * We see a sod house on the plains. They see the farm they haven’t built yet.
    * They looked determined. They weren’t living an easy life.

  2. While I never lived in Nebraska, I have some family history from there. One set of my great-grandparents homesteaded in Nebraska during that time, near Lincoln. When my grandmother was an infant, my great-grandmother died. My widower great-grandfather, with his son and infant daughter, left Nebraska and returned to Illinois.

    One of my favorite books, Willa Cather’s My Antonia, is about homesteading in Nebraska. Cather had very fine eyes and ears. Her descriptions of the prairie landscape do a fine job of painting a picture of the prairie. How often do you read dialogue and say to yourself, “I know people who talk like that,” as I did with My Antonia? My Okie grandmother talked about “baching it,” as did Cather. Cather caught the Slavic immigrant grammar [I want you should] which I remember from my childhood home in New England.

    The first time I ever heard the song Starving to Death on a Government Claim, back in the ’60s, it was sung about Nebraska. It is usually sung about Lane County in Kansas these days.

    Then hurrah for Nebraska, the land of the free
    The home of the bedbug, mosquito and flea,
    I’ll sing loud her praises and never complain
    While starving to death on my government claim.

    Lyrics adapted for Nebraska.

    Sod houses are not such a bad idea, if done right.

  3. Loved the photographs of people like my Kansas ancestors.

    Intensely dislike the faux folk songs, both Gringo’s and the one Vanderleun put up. They seem condescending.

  4. My grandparents’ farm in Illinois, near Campus and Dwight, was homesteaded by my grandmother’s father. The pasture, when I was a child, was virgin prairie. When I was about 12, my grandfather told the tenant farmer, Alvin Nelson, whose father had been the tenant before him, to plow up the pasture and use another area for it. The next year, the corn was 12 feet high in that old pasture. Gives an idea of what it was like for the homesteaders, although they of course did not have hybrid seed.

    It was 160 acres, which was about what one man could farm in 1860, when John Ferguson filed his homestead. My grandmother was born in that farmhouse in 1878.

  5. You might appreciate this concept album by Tom Irwin of Springfield, IL about a diary from the 1890s that he found on his family farm. Because the songs are in the first person from a boy’s, mostly innocent, personal perspective, they seem genuine enough, not condescending or contrived.

  6. Gringo: “Elizabeth Crain, what makes ‘Starving to Death on a Government Claim’ a ‘faux folk song?'”

    All the attributions to Vance Randolph, for starters. The date, 1941. The whiff of a hidden agenda in words such as “starving to death on a government claim:” oh, the hypocrisy of those settlers, griping about what the government had in its beneficence granted them, all the while pretending to be so independent!

    A lot of them really *were* that independent. They preferred blizzards, tornadoes, lightning strikes, rattlesnakes, grasshopper plagues, and the occasional Indian raid to meek submission to their self-appointed betters.

    And the government thought the land was worthless, or they wouldn’t have been giving it away.

  7. Elizabeth Crain, you are more finely tuned than I to label Vance Randolph in the faux folk category. My knowledge isn’t that high- I had never heard of Vance Randolph before.

    I would assume that you would consider Lomax to be one of those faux folks also, as he went about the country also collecting songs for the LOC. One year I requested Lomax’s The Folk Songs of North America for Christmas. My mother later penciled in some notes to songs in the Lomax book that her Okie father had sung to her when she was a child. Which doesn’t sound very faux, at least for Lomax- regardless of what his politics was.

    The whiff of a hidden agenda in words such as “starving to death on a government claim:” oh, the hypocrisy of those settlers, griping about what the government had in its beneficence granted them, all the while pretending to be so independent!

    That is your interpretation of the lyrics. My interpretation of the lyrics is that they were a humorous way to deal with a difficult situation. Homesteading wasn’t easy. At least that was my childhood interpretation from hearing the song a half century ago, having heard from my Okie relatives what it was like to try to make a living off a farm in the 1930s. Not easy. [From what I read yesterday: About 2/3 of homesteaders abandoned their land before the five year period was up. Homesteaders needed about $1,000 in capital- about the equivalent of $15,000 in current dollars- to make a go of it-and most didn’t have that amount of money.]

  8. Grurray, thanks for another example of Cather’s fine ear for dialogue/dialect. Definitely one of my all-time favorite books.

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