Research – the First Homesteaders



The sources on the following pages will allow you to do some research on the first Homesteaders.


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In 1906, the Indian Reservation in Wyoming was opened up for settlers.  Farm land was shared out by a lottery, but town plots were simply first come first served – resulting in a ‘land rush’.

This family – photographed less than two days after Riverton became a town – has claimed a plot next to what would later become Riverton's Main Street.





Many homesteaders, when they had their photo taken – such as this Nebraska family in the 1880s – liked to be photographed together with all their best possessions.





Clarkdale in Arizona was built up after 1912 by William A Clark, owner of a copper mining company, for the workers of his mining company.

Although Clark was determined that the town should be modern and worthy of his name, the first settlers had few possessions.





Who were the homesteaders?  Sometimes the answers surprise you.

This 1886 photo shows the Chrisman sisters of Nebraska.  Lizzie Chrisman (second left, with the hat) made the first of the sisters' homestead claims in 1887.  Lutie Chrisman (third left) made a claim the following year.  Hattie (far left, next to her horse ‘Bet’) made her claim in 1892 when she came of age.

By the time Ruth (next to her pony Jessie, far right) – who was only 14 years old in 1886 – came of age, all the land had gone.  Ruth hated this photo, which she said made her look ‘like a horse thief’.  If a woman wanted to own a homestead, she had to promise to stay unmarried for five years.





Elizabeth Thompson Wirt, daughter of York County homesteaders in the 1872, describes her dugout house in her book: Cradle Days in York County (1976)

With the arrival of Mother the dugout became the home of their dreams.  When Mrs Thompson was all set for housekeeping there was the 'four-hole cook-stove' in one corner, the table in the opposite corner.  In the other end of the 12x14 foot room were two beds, one, above the other, for the children; another for the parents.  The chairs were slices of a large cottonwood tree trunk, each set with three legs.  All the furniture was the handiwork of Mr. Thompson.  The room was warm in winter and comfortably cool in summer.





A sodhouse – made of earth – in Nebraska, 1892.





In this source, Fannie M. Potter, daughter of Nebraska settlers, describes her Log House in 1856:

The house is a hewed log house twelve by twelve on the inside, well daubed.  At a first glance you would think the walls were plastered, but look a little closer and it is only lined with white muslin.  The walls we intend to paper over the muslin this winter, leaving the ceiling white.  A good dyed carpet covers the rough boards, but they are not rough now, for I scrubbed them smooth before the carpet went down.





Mary E. Reynolds, who moved to Nebraska in 1857, describes her Log House:

Our dwellings were log cabins, a story and a half high; the floors of rough cottonwood boards, put down just as they came from the mill, which shrank so badly in a few weeks after being laid, that the space between the boards was almost as much as the width of the boards themselves.  The wind, which blew all the time, came through the cracks with such force, that in winter time, it was impossible to keep the place warm.  Few of us had carpets.  Those of us who did not used to buy a rush mat, that the Indian women made…  One winter I covered my floor with buffalo robes; of these every settler had a supply, getting them from the Indians…  In those days the electric lights were not here, no gas, no oil even.





Thomas Allen Banning’s autobiography records life at home in Illinois in 1825-65:

I have often wondered how my mother stood it with such a family of children and no one to help her but my oldest sister.  We used candles, which my mother made by pouring melted tallow into moulds.  We used soap that my mother made by filtering water slowly through a barrel of wood ash to get alkali and potash, and then boiling this in a kettle with the scraps of fats she saved.  Often she would sit up late at night darning our socks and mending our ragged trousers.  Fortunately for her we ran barefoot from early spring till winter snows.  The socks that grew on our feet needed no darning.  Now and then a tinsmith or tinker would come along and solder our pans and kettles.





The Rawding family of Nebraska in 1886 – Sylvester, his wife Emma, daughter Bessie (age 16), son Philip (age 17), son Willie (age 7) and son Harry (age 15).

Only the parents and Philip wear shoes or boots.

Can you spot what is for dinner?





Mrs. W. E. Morgan, wife of Pastor Morgan, describes life in a sod house in Nebraska in the 1870s:

They told us that Nebraska winters were lovely, and that we had nothing to fear from cold or storms…. I  woke sometime in the middle of the night to find my bed wet with what felt like snow and the wind was howling as if all the spirits of the storm were turned loose.  The morning showed the fact that our bed was covered with about two inches of snow, our door blocked by a big drift, and the whirling sleet made it dangerous to go out.  We were in the midst of a genuine Nebraska blizzard.  To add to our discomfort we had only green wood to burn and a scanty supply of that.  I wrapped the children in blankets to keep them even moderately warm…

It was, I believe, three days before the storm cleared so that we could get to Beaver Creek, two miles away, and obtain some decent fuel.  Meanwhile we whistled to keep our courage up…  We had three blizzards that winter, one after the other….





Account of a young pioneer woman in Kansas, 1870s:

When the spring floods came, the sheep were on the wrong side of the river, and it was my mother who manned one of the three wagons that went back and forth across the rising waters until the last sheep was safely on the home side.  She has told me of her terror during those hours, with the water coming up steadily.

Nightfall, blanketing the prairie in a dense, boundless blackness, brought an even keener sense of loneliness to the pioneer home.  For it was during the black nights that the howl of the wolf spread terror throughout every frontier homestead.  Often roaming the plains in packs, these fierce animals would attack without mercy.  When Mr. Johnson [a neighbor] arrived home and found his wife dead [from illness] and his house badly torn down by wolves he fainted away....  After the funeral he sold out and moved away.





Homesteader women had to be tough – this photo shows an immigrant woman (perhaps German/Russian) ploughing the field on her and her husband's homestead near Miles City, Montana, 1912.





Charlie O’Kieffe, a Nebraska farmer, remembered in 1960 what it was like to cook with buffalo chips [dung]:

For the information of housewives who may never have cooked with buffalo chips here is a rundown of what Mother went through when making biscuits It goes like this: stoke the stove, get out the flour sack, stoke the stove, wash your hands, mix the biscuit dough, stoke the stove, wash your hands, cut out the biscuits with the top of a baking-powder can, stoke the stove, wash your hands, put the pan of biscuits in the oven, keep on stoking the stove until the biscuits are done. 

Mother had to go through this tiring routine three times a day.





Gertrude Sewell Pate, daughter of Red Willow County homesteaders, 1879-1890, describes life in a log house:

The walls of our house were plastered and whitewashed.  Mother sewed strips of white muslin together (by hand, since there were no sewing machines in those days), which were tacked on the ceiling to keep insects and dirt from falling.  It also hid the unsightly logs, making the room clean, light, and attractive.  The fireplace built in the wall added to the cheerfulness of the room.  Guests enjoyed it with us many evenings as the wood fire crackled and shone brightly…

An essential piece of equipment was a fly swatter….  Fly swatters were made by folding a newspaper with a few thicknesses over a stick then cutting it into narrow strips as a sort of fringe.  This implement was not used to actually swat flies, but was waved gently over the dinner table to keep flies off the food.  Since newspapers were so scarce, paper fly swatters were luxuries.





ET McFarland lived in Kansas in the 1870s.  The ‘organ line’ was a mark of the frontier, since it marked the limit of church religion, and of settled, civilised life:

We passed through to the town of Clyde on Sunday and was surprised to hear an organ in the church as we thought we were beyond the organ line, but that is one of the strange things in the settlements of Kansas.  Churches, Schools houses and organs with the latest music books on the market followed close in the wake of the earliest settlers…

The people were happy generally and had their amusements; literary societies, singing schools, spelling matches, all were enjoyed by young and old alike…  The same can be said of the religious meetings, though some things would be thought out of place in church today.  I will give one example that happened at America City.  The minister had finished his sermon when suddenly a young man stood to his feet and said, 'There is a dance down on the corner immediately after church.'  So the minister announced the meeting closed .





This is a transcript of a letter, dated 17 November 193, from Ruth Chrisman (the girl at the far right of the photo in Source 4) to Martha Turner, the Nebraska State Historical Society librarian:

Dear Miss Turner –

No doubt you think I have forgotten my promise to write you and send a few of our early experiences in Nebraska.  My parents came here in the Spring of 1883 … with their family of seven children – 3 sons and 4 Daughters came through with five wagons.  My Father had several hundred cattle which he shipped as far as Kearney as this was our nearest rail road point.  From there we all Journeyed on together to Broken Bow.  My Father had been here – and claimed on land north of B.B. about 14 miles.

There were not many settlers there as that time plenty of gov. land – so my older Brothers and Sisters all took up land next to it which took in several thousand acres of such wonderful range – and hay.

I can remember how we used to gather wild fruit.  Such delicious plums and raspberries – and the grass would be over our heads.  Summer months were beautiful such wonderful rains – never heard of droughts those days.  But the winters were quite hard and my Father, like many others, suffered a great loss in his cattle.  Would drift with the storms, and freeze to death.

We had many hard ships but with it all we had our little pleasures.  When our neighbors were such a long distance when we visited each other we spent several days.  How I can remember then how happy we were when we would look out and see someone coming over the hill: only had three rooms in our sod house – but always had room for all that came….  We would take down a bed or two – put the table out side and be ready for a dance.  My Brother played the violin so we had our orchestra at home – often danced till daylight….

Altho – I can well remember the blizzard of 88 – was caught away from home at School.  We had no fuel to burn but corn stalks – so we had to ‘move out’ – went to the nearest neighbor: who was a widow – she was out of fuel – had to burn some old chairs to keep us warm – Know how happy my Mother must have been when we all got home again.  There were so many teachers and children who perished in the Storm.

Your friend Ruth Chrisman