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Homestead History
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Group at N.P. Depot. Montana Historical Society.
he vision of the West created in dime novels and the Wild West shows lived on through the advent of film and television. From the time of the first full-length narrative film, THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, in 1906, westerns have proven popular and profitable for Hollywood. From the silent serials to the grandiose classics, film cemented the characters of the Wild West we know today: the cowboy riding off into the sunset, the Indian in war paint, the wild-eyed prospector, and the prostitute with the heart of gold. Television mirrored and reinforced these stereotypes, and did so with avidity. At one point in the late 1950s, there were more than 30 prime-time westerns on in the same season -- at a time when there were only a handful of networks to carry them. But still, shows such as GUNSMOKE, HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL, and THE RIFLEMAN tended to focus on the "shoot 'em up" adventures of noble men in lawless surroundings. When settlers appeared, they were inevitably traveling in their wagon trains, or the proud owners of sprawling ranches. The romance of the movie and television West overlooked the homesteader and the 160-acre plot of land.

The dominant images of homesteaders for many Americans at the beginning of the twenty-first century are the calamity-prone residents of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE. Though the beloved series, which ran on NBC from 1974-84, and has never been out of syndication, was based on the "Little House" series of books by homesteader Laura Ingalls Wilder, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE largely ignores the realities of homestead life. Fans of the series will remember that in the TV version, the Ingallses were technically not even homesteaders (they purchased their farm). Though weather, poverty, disease, fire, and other assorted cataclysms certainly wreak havoc on the residents of Walnut Grove, the frontier backdrop usually serves as a stage on which the characters explore critical issues facing audiences in the 1970s: economic uncertainty, peer pressure, women's lib, racism, alcoholism, and drug addiction (to name a few).

Curiously, while the broadcast of FRONTIER HOUSE will be providing one of the few accurate representations of homesteading life, the frontier, "conquered" so long ago, is making a comeback. "Rural flight" from the states that were among the most homesteaded, including Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, began in the 1930s and has been steadily increasing ever since. Towns and cities created by homesteaders face the very real possibility of becoming ghost towns in the next 30 to 40 years.

Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books have reportedly sold more than 60 million copies worldwide.
The desertion of towns in these former homestead lands is fast becoming a mathematical certainty. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, the birth rate in states such as Nebraska and the Dakotas declined anywhere from 30 to 44 percent. A large swath of the nation's midsection -- encompassing Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas, and Kansas, a total of 16 percent of the continental United States -- has contributed barely one percent of the nation's total births in the last ten years. While many towns are still thriving, there is simply not a "next generation" to propel them into the mid-21st century. As Harlow A. Hyde writes in the ATLANTIC MONTHLY,

"With fewer children, schools will be closed and consolidated. As the population drops, the Postal Service will close post offices. Government at all levels will close, as well as movie theaters and barber shops. Churches will be unable to support pastors. In many towns, the clinic or hospital will close, owing to a lack of patients and an inability to retain doctors. The effects of reduced economic input will ripple through the local economy. As the cutbacks continue, real estate value will plummet without doubt the decline in births will gradually drain the life out of the region without more children, the aging social fabric will fray and finally fall apart."

The low birth rate is not the only factor that is dooming many towns in the once-homesteaded lands. According to Rutgers University professors Frank J. and Deborah E. Popper,

"The global economy has turned against [these towns]. They cannot hold their young people. They cannot attract manufacturing because they are too far from major markets, and offer too small or too unskilled a labor force. Nor can they lure those seeking to live in an Arcadian setting. The frequent harshness of the landscape, the climate, and economy has always meant the region chooses its own; now there will be no one left to choose. Much of the rural Plains will be virtually deserted."

In fact, according to a recent NEW YORK TIMES story, an area of 900,000 square miles -- equal to the original Louisiana Purchase -- now meets the nineteenth-century Census Bureau definition of "frontier," with six people or fewer per square mile. Much of the land has depopulated even further, to a category the government deems "vacant." The "bet with Uncle Sam" that homesteaders made beginning 140 years ago has been called in, and, in an incredible historical irony, Indians and bison may be the ultimate winners. Tribal officials across the troubled region have reported a steady influx of Indians since the mid-1980s. The NEW YORK TIMES also reports that the overall population of Indians has grown by 20 percent in North Dakota, 23 percent in South Dakota, 18 percent in Montana, 20 percent in Nebraska, and 12 percent in Kansas. There are now more Indians on the Great Plains than there have been at any time since the mid-1870s. Simultaneously, native plants and wildlife are making a comeback. Species such as prairie dogs and bison are returning in record numbers. One daring plan, proposed in the late 1980s, calls for turning the Great Plains -- the most homesteaded land in the country -- into a vast game preserve called the Buffalo Commons. According to Frank and Deborah Popper, the Commons would function as "the world's largest historic preservation project, the ultimate national park. Much of the Great Plains will become what all of America was." Though initially met with hostility and skepticism, the idea of the Buffalo Common -- or a comparable plan -- is becoming a distinct possibility.

Within the next half century, the outcome of many of the efforts of the 2 million American homesteaders may be negated. The lifestyle depicted by the participants in FRONTIER HOUSE could function as a reference for future generations on one of the most romanticized, misunderstood, sensationalized, and sanitized times in our nation's history, a time which may be, in the words of NEW YORK TIMES reporter Timothy Egan, "an accident of history, or perhaps only a chapter." Thomas Jefferson's prediction that it would take "a hundred generations" to thoroughly settle the west could ultimately prove prophetic -- or, possibly, the "wild" west will never be tamed.

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Works Consulted:

Brooks, Tim and Marsh, Earle. THE COMPLETE DIRECTORY TO PRIMETIME NETWORK TV SHOWS. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988.

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns. LEWIS AND CLARK: THE JOURNEY OF THE CORPS OF DISCOVERY. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Egan, Timothy. "As Others Abandon Plains, Indians and Bison Come Back." The New York Times, 27 May 2001.

Hyde, Harlow A. "Slow Death in the Great Plains." Atlantic Monthly, June 1997.

Lamar, Howard R. THE READER'S ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE AMERICAN WEST. New York: Thomas Crowell Company, 1977.

McMurtry, Larry. WALTER BENJAMIN AT THE DAIRY QUEEN. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.

Pickett, Mary. "Reminders of a Lost Era." Billings, Montana Gazette, 29 August 1999.

Popper, Frank J. and Popper, Deborah Epstein. "Back to the Buffalo: The Economic Future of the Great Plains." Fedgazette, a publication of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, December 1989.

Ward, Geoffrey C. THE WEST: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY. New York: Little, Brown, 1996.

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