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Homestead National Monument of America Landscape

Open, rolling landscape with green prairie grass, edged by trees
Landscape of the original homestead

NPS

In the early hours of January 1, 1863, Daniel Freeman, a Union Army scout, filed for 160-acres of free federal land made available under the Homestead Act of 1862. This made him one of the first claimants of the act. After filing his application, Freeman moved to Nebraska and settled near the city of Beatrice to establish his homestead. On his homestead, Freeman cultivated crops, raised livestock, and added a log cabin along with other structures.
Established as a National Park Service unit in 1936, Homestead National Historical Park preserves 211 acres in Gage County, Nebraska. The National Park Services recognizes the 162.73 acres of Freeman’s original homestead as its own cultural landscape, significant for its association with Freeman and the influence of the Homestead Act. The landscape and surroundings remain mostly rural. The natural features, including what is now a restored historic tallgrass prairie and woodlands that are accessed through interpretive trails, largely define the visitor’s experience of the landscape. Although no structures associated with Freeman remain, the vegetation composition, topography, and creek retain a similar appearance to the original Homestead claim. A hedgerow of extant Osage orange trees (Maclura pomifera) along the site’s southern margin also contributes to the site’s historical significance, as some date from Freeman’s lifetime.
A door and a window in one side of the log Palmer Cabin, with open fields beyond
Exterior of the Palmer-Epard Cabin

NPS / M. Tack

The Palmer-Epard Cabin’s relocation to the site in 1950 provides an additional interpretive opportunity and represents the local construction style of the time. The cabin, built in 1867 by George W. Palmer, originally sat 14 miles to the northeast of today's Homestead National Historical Park. The monument also includes the nearby Freeman school site, Mission 66-era education center, and Heritage Center addition. The Heritage Center includes exhibits about the Homestead Act and its effects. The design of the building itself references the nation’s heritage through the roofline’s resemblance to a plow breaking through sod.

Landscape Description
The homestead’s T-shaped configuration results from the arrangement of four 40-acre square plots of land. The landscape is located about five miles west of Beatrice, Nebraska and roughly 50 miles to the south of Lincoln. State Highway 4 roughly delineates the northern border and crosses Cub Creek, which runs through the northern and western areas of the site.
Cub Creek winds through a landscape of bare trees and low vegetation
Cub Creek

NPS / M. Tack

Two principle native vegetation communities exist at the site: the upland prairie and riparian woodland. The National Park Service manages the tallgrass prairie as part of its efforts to restore the landscape to its conditions shortly after Freeman’s initial settlement. The restored prairie -- one of the oldest in the National Park Service -- contains species such as big and little bluestem, indiangrass, switchgrass, goldenrod, fieldpussytoes, and leadplant.

The other vegetation community, the riparian woodland, also includes a number of native species including bur oak, silver maple, boxelder, red elm, hackberry, and cottonwood. The presence of the woodlands and the creek allude to the site’s historic appeal for homesteading. Cub Creek was a valuable water source in a region prone to prolonged dry spells. The trees provided Freeman an important source of building material and fuel. Freeman also used trees, such as those of the Osage orange hedgerow, to mark property boundaries. The thorns of the Osage orange also made it an effective barrier to contain or exclude livestock. Until superseded by the advent of barbed wire, Osage orange hedgerows were common on homesteads of the Great Plains.

Osage Orange hedgerow and path cut through prairie grass
Osage orange hedgerow alongside open prairie

NPS / M. Tack

Other historically significantly features within the monument include the Daughters of the Revolution monument and a small grave site. The Daniel and Agnes Freeman gravesites, located on the east upland ridge, consist of two footstones and a granite marker. A modern element in the prairie is a raised viewing platform used for interpretation programs.

Landscape History

Photograph shows man standing on ramp in front of Daniel Freeman homestead in Gage County, Nebraska, the first homestead claim under the 1862 Homestead Act; large piles of wood in yard.
"The first homestead in the United States, U.S.A." shows the Daniel Freeman homestead in Nebraska in 1904. Note the large cottonwood shade tree beside the house, a common historic ingredient of Great Plains homesteads.

Library of Congress

President Lincoln passed the Homestead Act of 1862 during the Civil War to provide US citizens, including formerly enslaved persons, opportunity for upward mobility. In order to receive free federal land the act required the claimant file an application and pay a $14 filing fee. Each individual could claim up to 160 acres. In addition, claimants needed to live on the land for five years and make improvements before filing for a deed of title. Homesteading did not provide an easy life. Unfavorable weather, natural disasters, soil infertility, disease, and pests could affect crop production and result in financial hardship. The isolation and physical demands compounded the difficulty of homesteading. Furthermore, some homesteaders, specifically in the dry plains region, found 160 acres inadequate for agriculture and raising livestock.

However, many, like Freeman and his family, found success. After furnishing the site with a log cabin in 1867, he went on to add a two-story brick home, barnyard, feeder barn, granary, corncrib, windmill, and well. The final federal patent was granted in 1869. Daniel, and his wife, Agnes, lived on the homestead until his death in 1908.

Homestead Act of 1862

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Besides bolstering immigrant opportunity and national development, the Homestead Act generated profit for the government. Prior to the Act, few small farmers could afford the initial investment for the land or physical labor required to clear it. Instead, small farmers often used “preemptive rights” under the 1841 Preemption Act to live and work on federal land to reserve ownership before purchase. The Homestead Act of 1862, in conjunction with the standardization of Federal land surveys, legitimized federal land claims and minimized claim disputes.

The Homestead Act remained active for 124 years until its repeal by the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act. By the early 20th century, the disbursement of 270 million acres or 10 percent of total US land occurred under the Homestead Act. Most homesteaders claimed land in Montana, North Dakota, Colorado, and Nebraska (lands of the Oregon Territory had already been homesteaded through the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850). In totality, approximately 40 percent of homesteaders fulfilled the five year term and made improvements to gain title to their land.

The Homestead Act had a vast impact upon indigenous people. As settlers arrived, Native Americans were displaced and pushed farther west. Many Native Americans died in battles over land or by starvation and diseases brought by the settlers. For many cultures, practices and traditions were almost lost. By 1887, many Native Americans had been relocated to Indian reservations, often far from their traditional lands.
A view of the Heritage Center building rising over the prairie, with some grass mowed and some darkened by burning
The Heritage Center from Grains Growers Highway Trail. Portions of the prairie are maintained by prescribed burns.

NPS / M. Tack

The Homestead National Historical Park cultural landscape conveys the influence of the Homestead Act of 1862 and legacy of Daniel Freeman. It also represents homesteads across America. Homesteading not only provided a way of life for many Americans, but also contributed to westward expansion and the nation’s development.

Quick Facts

  • Type of Landscape: Historic Vernacular Landscape
  • National Register Level of Significance: National
  • National Register Criteria: A, B, D
  • Period of Significance: 1862-1936

Last updated: March 3, 2021