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Prairie Settlement [imagemap with 9 links]

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The Homestead Act, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, turned over vast amounts of public land to private citizens. It was a significant event in the history of the westward expansion of the United States of America. Ultimately, 270 million acres (10 percent of the area of the United States) were claimed and settled under this act.

A homesteader had to be the head of a household and at least 21 years old to claim 160 acres of free land. Each homesteader had to live on the land, build a home, make improvements, and farm for five years before becoming eligible to take full and legal ownership. The filing fee of $18 was the only money involved.

The early settlers were often newly arrived immigrants (from Ireland, Germany, Sweden, the Czechoslovakian region of Bohemia, Russia, Denmark, and Polish and French colonies), Eastern farmers without land of their own, single women, and former slaves. They were determined and hardy, carving out a life and a civilization, raising children, breaking land, planting farms, and digging wells in the midst of the tallgrass prairies of the Great Plains. The population of the state of Nebraska more than doubled between 1880 and 1890.

The homes built by these pioneers were made of tough prairie sod, piled into walls with openings for windows and doors. These sod houses, often called "dobies," were comfortably warm in winter and cool in summer. "Dug-outs" were dug into a hillside, the south side usually exposed with windows and a door.

The move westward of the railroads continued to push back the frontier. The Burlington Route reached Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1870, and in 1872 built its line to a junction with the Union Pacific at Kearney.

Solomon D. Butcher
In March 1880, the then 24-year-old Solomon D. Butcher, his father, his brother, and his brother-in-law set out in two covered wagons on the 700-mile trek from Illinois to Nebraska. Butcher and his father each staked a claim in Custer County. Realizing he was ill equipped for the homesteading life, the young man turned his land back to the government after only two weeks.

But between 1886 and 1912, Butcher set out to photograph the settlement of Custer County and other counties in Nebraska. He photographed a significant portion of the population at a critical time in the history of the area.

These photographs document the changes wrought by human hands as people first build simple shelters, then break the land, then add outbuildings and equipment, then build larger, more permanent homes, and finally render the once-wild land tame....

In 1886... Butcher seized on an idea: he would produce a photographic history.... Butcher began the odyssey that has become his legacy to this nation. Travel was complicated. Roads, if they existed at all, consisted of little more than ruts. He would journey for hours to reach the home of a family he wished to photograph, and often accepted food, lodging, and the stabling of his horses in exchange for a print. As he traveled, he supported himself with subscriptions and donations that various citizens made to the project, as well as by the sale of photographs.

-- from Prairie Settlement: Nebraska Photographs and
   Family Letters, 1862-1912; Nebraska State Historical
   Society digital collection/Library of Congress

All photographs courtesy the Nebraska State Historical Society

Main image: Solomon Butcher and camera (nbhips 16311); wheat field (nbhips 12866).
Sidebar images: (1) nbhips 10216; (2) nbhips 3207.

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