This Date in Native History: Legend has it that on this day, at the stroke of midnight on January 1, 1863, farmer and physician Daniel Freeman convinced a land officer to open up the office. It was there that Freeman signed up to become the first settler to purchase a 160-acre plot under the Homestead Act, enacted by President Abraham Lincoln in May of 1862. The land in Beatrice, Nebraska was not only beautiful, but particularly productive for farming.
The Homestead Act of 1863 was a stamp of finality on the loss of land for the tribes, making land available to all who had never borne arms against the U.S. The act was established to encourage settlement farmers, including freed slaves, and was available for as low as $10 for 160 acres. For some, it was a chance for a new start.
For others in Nebraska, such as the Omaha, Oto, Missouri, Pawnee, Arapaho, and Cheyenne, the Homestead Act was like a continuation of the death knell for their way of life. Already, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and more than 50 years of treaties had forced tribes to relinquish their land and relocate to reservations.
Thousands of those tribal members had ignored those calls for relocation; they remained and developed trade with the new settlers. “From the few diaries we have seen, we’ve had comments that the Indians came to the doors of the homesteaders, not in a violent manner but seeking trade for food, shelter, and clothing, and they would trade with the homesteaders in this location,” said Blake Bell, historian for the Homestead National Monument. “When the land was opened to American citizens they were anticipating that settlement would be a non-issue because of relocation.”
More than a year and a half later, in August 1864, an intense retaliation was launched by the Lakotas, Cheyenne, Pawnee and other tribes as they recognized the settlers were there to stay, and the diminishing buffalo and hunting lands were becoming dire. In a raid along the Little Blue River in Nebraska, along an important road used by emigrants on their way to California, Utah, Oregon and California, more than 30 settlers were killed and a few women and children were taken as hostages for negotiation.
Daniel Freeman, who was battling the Indians, wrote to his future wife Agnes, who had been engaged to his brother that died in the war.
The Indian war kep me away so long that my work seams all together…I was out on trips piloting the enemy and scouting and took part in two Batels and came of safe I think the troops are stationed so there will be no more danger to the setlers near here thare would have bin no trubel with if it had not bin for the Rebels urging the Indians to make war that was white men with the Indians in boath batels.”
According to the website for the Homestead National Monument of America, the Homestead Act, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Railroad Act were all passed at the same time to encourage the settlement of the west. Some reports show that close to four million settlers claimed 270 million acres of land in 30 states, almost 10 percent of land in the country.
Veronica E. Velarde Tiller, Jicarilla Apache, author of many books and the article, “Westward Expansion, Indian Wars, and Reservations (1850 to 1900)” wrote that the settlers had many advantages in war against the Natives. Mass production of weapons, clothing, and tools, and transportation by steamship and train played a part, but perhaps the most dastardly resource the new American government and its representatives possessed was the ability to develop treaties with no intention or ability to fulfill.
Where honor had been the way Natives forged their intertribal intentions, the United States government used lies, treachery as the means to achieve their goals. Tribes were exploited for their land by miners, ranchers, speculators, and railroad builders. The government pressured Natives to assimilate, citing the importance of individual achievement rather than tribal ways, Tiller wrote.
Private land was not made available to the tribes until the Dawes Act of 1887. Historian Blake Bell said that through the Dawes Act, more than half of the reservation land was lost through sales to non-Indians. However, some of the tribes including the Five Civilized Tribes negotiated and were able to retain their sacred places.
Bell described the Dawes Act as yet another unscrupulous move to take land from Indians. “When the Dawes Act was passed, it gave 160 acres to registered Indians. The Dawes Act was a back doorway to get more land from Indians, and was worded in such a way that it forced them to register or the land went into public domain. It enabled the United States to gain millions of acres from the Indians.”
And yet, as Tiller wrote, “Outnumbered, outproduced, outgunned, run off their land, cheated, robbed, and slaughtered, they were still here… The Indians who survived the second half of the 19th century, saving most of their culture and some of their land, would be the seeds from which the Indian renaissance of the 20th and 21st centuries would grow.”