Homesteading

The remains of concrete structures, partially reclaimed by desert plant life.
When modern explorers visit Dunbar, little evidence of the area's fascinating history remains.

B Michel, NPS

Dry. Desolate. Cactus-strewn, hostile, and dangerous. For many modern visitors, the Mojave Desert is simply a place to get through on the way to someplace else. However, for some hopeful adventurers in the early twentieth century, the high eastern valleys that would someday be part of the Mojave National Preserve signified something else: independence, opportunity, and hope for a brighter future. Through taking advantage of the US Government's new homesteading act, hundreds of Americans, including 24 African Americans, beat the odds to earn their own little pieces of the Mojave desert.

When the United States Government passed the Homesteading Act in 1862, life in the West was changed forever. Under this act, any American (including women and recent immigrants) could earn the rights to 160 acres of land. The risks were great, but the reward was tantalizing. In the eastern United States and Europe, only elites could afford to purchase land. Hundreds of thousands of industrious settlers soon dotted the central United States, determined to work hard and earn their legacy. By the early 1900s, prime farmland throughout much of the country had been claimed by Americans as its former inhabitants were relocated to reservations.

The Lanfair, Pinto, and Round valleys in the eastern Mojave Desert opened to homesteading in 1910. To earn rights to the land, homesteaders had to complete a number of tasks: pay a small filing fee; build a house 10 ft by 10 ft or larger; clear and have under cultivation ten acres the first year, twenty the second, and forty the third; and live on the place seven months each year, for three years.

The homesteading communities of Lanfair, Dunbar, and Ledge (later renamed Maruba) quickly sprung up in the Lanfair Valley. Homesteaders began clearing Joshua trees and planting gardens, hoping for the good fortune they knew they’d need to survive in the desert.

Dunbar was an especially notable homesteading community because it was specifically for African Americans. Like all homesteaders, Dunbar’s residents were attracted to the promise of free land, but they were also incentivized to escape the racist and often violent discrimination of the postbellum south and of coastal California cities. The African American homesteaders earned the rights to their land at impressive rates, which some scholars attribute to their high levels of communal teamwork. Dunbar was named after the poet, novelist, and playwright Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African American icon. His former home is a National Park Service site in Ohio.

Farming the desert wasn’t easy. The Lanfair valley receives less than 10 inches of precipitation per year. Wells were nonproductive unless they were dug 300 to 500 feet deep, which homesteaders could not afford. Therefore, water for irrigation and household use needed to be fetched from springs miles away. With hard work, settlers were able to grow modest harvests of milo (a drought-resistant sorghum, sometimes called Kaffir corn), field corn, wheat, and beans.

A one-room school was built in Lanfair in 1913. There, black and white pupils studied together as equals, which was unusual at the time. Former homesteaders remember families of different races helping each other work the fields and visiting each others’ houses. However, segregation still occurred for certain social events and possibly for other activities. Dances and a Fourth of July picnic organized by the local Yucca Club were advertised as open to “any white person in the valley.”

Cattle ranchers and homesteaders were increasingly at odds with each other, as both groups wanted access to the same limited resources. Rumors from the period abound: sometimes cattle ranchers would urge their cattle to break homesteaders’ fences and devour their growing crops, thereby hastening the homesteaders’ departure from the desert. In retaliation, the rumors say that the homesteaders would help themselves to a free hamburger now and then. These long-standing feuds eventually led to a double murder at Government Holes in 1925.

As the years went by, the population of Lanfair Valley slowly dwindled. In the election of 1916, 64 voters cast their ballots in Lanfair. By 1924, only 27 did. By 1927, the United States Postal Service decided there was not enough business to keep its Lanfair office open. There were no permanent Lanfair residents after 1946.

Overall, between 150 and 175 homesteads received land titles in Lanfair valley, including 24 run by African Americans. After receiving the patent to their land, some chose to sell to cattle ranchers immediately and use the money to pursue other dreams elsewhere. They determined “success” not by whether their children continued farming, but by how well the homesteading generation equipped their children with the life skills, money, and education needed succeed in a wider world.

Some homesteaders held on to their land patents as an investment. At the time the Mojave National Preserve was created in 1994, over 70,000 acres of land in the Lanfair Valley was still private property, bequeathed to today’s generations by their homesteading ancestors. According to the bylaws of the Preserve, the land may remain in private hands forever if the owners do not wish to sell it.

The elements have taken their toll on Lanfair Valley. When visitors explore the area today, all that remains are occasional foundation stones, neat squares still cleared of their native Joshua trees, sporatic fenceposts, and – most of all – the stories, passed down through generations, of an ambitious farming experiment in the middle of nowhere.

Last updated: February 13, 2021

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