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Homestead History
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Written by Christopher W. Czajka

photo
Wooden trunks such as this one were used to pack personal belongings.
lanning a cross-country move, even today, is no minor feat. With boxes to be packed, movers to be hired, travel arrangements to be made, relocating is always stressful. But the stresses faced by cross-country emigrants 130 years ago -- weeks (or months) of grueling travel, rough (or nonexistent) roads, and few amenities -- were monumental by modern standards. Homesteaders traveling to Montana in the 1880s had to abandon the majority of all their material possessions, bid farewell to family and friends who they would often never see again, and prepare supplies that would last not only for the long journey ahead, but for the first few months in their new home.


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s a first step, homesteaders planning to "jump off" into the West had to choose their mode of transportation. Travel options to Montana in the 1880s were not as limited as we may be tempted to think. Unlike travelers on the Oregon and California Trails in the 1840s and 1850s, Montana homesteaders had several transportation choices available to them as they headed for the frontier. In 1859, the first steamboat reached Montana, after traveling 2,200 miles up the Missouri River from St. Louis. Commercial traffic began the following year. Cabin fare for the trip was around $300, with a rate of 12 cents a pound for freight -- prohibitively expensive for families seeking to farm once at their destination. Aside from the costs of steamboat travel, the journey itself was extremely perilous. The Missouri was navigable for only a few short weeks each summer, and the boats frequently ran aground, sank, or burned after their boilers exploded. However, the lure of the frontier was strong, and between 1860 and 1888, more than 40,000 passengers made the treacherous trip.

frontier fact Conestoga wagons were pulled by teams of six to eight horses and could haul up to five tons of freight on wheels reaching as high as six feet tall.
The steamboat trade, with its expense and limitations, dropped off sharply in the mid- 1880s, as the first railroads reached Montana and opened up to passenger service. "Emigrant cars," specially designed for the prospective settler, afforded dismal and cramped accommodations to those with enough money to pay for the cost of trip. Passengers in emigrant cars were often forced to spend their journeys sitting upright on uncushioned, backless benches. On many trains, the management offered thin straw mattresses (at a cost of $3.00 each), which could be laid on the floor beneath the benches. One settler remembered, "My mother had a real hard time getting any sleep on the train. Anytime she laid down under the benches, her feet stuck out into the aisle, and the conductor would come along and kick her."

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