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Homestead History
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Written by Christopher W. Czajka

"The re-emergence of a Great Plains of Indians and bison was foretold in 1987 by two Rutgers University professors, Frank J. Popper and his wife, Deborah E. Popper. They said white depopulation would accelerate, as it became clear that farming and building towns on the arid Plains was 'the largest, longest-running agricultural and environmental miscalculation in American history.'"
-- from the NEW YORK TIMES, May 27, 2001


photo
The two wheeled outfit used in the rough country. Montana Historical Society.
hen Meriwether Lewis and William Clark returned from their three-year exploration of the American West in 1806, President Thomas Jefferson estimated that it would take the people of the United States "a hundred generations" to settle the land West of the Mississippi. It seemed as though the United States would always have a frontier, an unsettled territory just beyond the grasp of "civilization." Yet, less than 90 years later, Americans were told that the frontier was closed, and that a chapter of history had come to an irrevocable end.

The 1890 "Bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census" left little room for imagination, stating, "Up to and including 1880, the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports."

The "wild" West, the West of covered wagons, pioneers, cowboys, and Indians, faded into memory, myth, and legend. Due in part to the efforts of the homesteaders, who headed into untamed regions for 160 acres of "free" land they had often never seen, the seemingly endless North American continent had been conquered and tamed for all time. Or had it?

The Census Bureau's 1890 decision would soon be articulated in Frederick Jackson Turner's seminal frontier thesis, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History"; writing in 1893, Turner argued the importance of the frontier past in explaining American history. Yet "frontier living" -- in particular the homesteading lifestyle depicted in FRONTIER HOUSE -- continued long past 1890, and well into the twentieth century.

Though homesteaders arrived in Montana Territory as early as the 1860s, the homestead boom in Montana truly began in 1906. Railroad magnates, hungry for a strong customer base in the sparsely settled state, began distributing promotional flyers and leaflets across the country and around the world. Montana, they said, was a farmer's paradise. Several unusually wet growing seasons which yielded bumper crops, a booming agricultural market, and a glut of banks eager to give credit fueled interest in unclaimed homesteads.

frontier fact The average size of a Montana farm today is over 2,700 acres.
Between 1906 and 1918, more than 100,000 immigrants flooded into the state. Forty thousand homesteaders filed claims, making Montana the most homesteaded state in the Union. Towns sprang up overnight, businesses boomed, and homesteaders took to one-room cabins, claim shanties, and sod houses as their predecessors had done nearly forty years earlier. The railroads were happy to give one-way "settler's fares" to those seeking to settle the state.

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