Hanshew on Edwards and Friefeld and Wingo, 'Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History'

Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, Rebecca S. Wingo
Tracey Hanshew

Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, Rebecca S. Wingo. Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017. 277 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8032-9679-4.

Reviewed by Tracey Hanshew (Washington State University Tri-Cities) Published on H-Texas (July, 2019) Commissioned by Linda Powell (Amarillo College and Wayland Baptist University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53155

Homesteading is a central part of the history of the American West, remaining a contributing factor in the story of the growth and westward expansion of the nation. Approximately 1.6 million people acquired land under the Homestead Act, enhancing its role in popular memory as an example of the American dream (p. 2). Previous research on homesteading produced broad-based conclusions regarding its influence, while more recent scholarly work has moved away from these generalized interpretations to narrow the foci on the impact of Anglo expansion on the indigenous peoples of the West. Many scholars, however, continue relying on the sweeping conclusions as a foundation, which Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, and Rebecca S. Wingo, in Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History, assert is problematic and which inspired them to reexamine the topic. Posing new questions about homesteading and the various legislative acts that supported it, they reexamine the extent to which it was historically influential and test the accuracy of preceding scholarly conclusions.

Their study defines homesteading as “any claims for free public land made under the Homestead Act of 1862 and its amending and related successors, including the Kinkaid Act (1904) and the Enlarged Homestead Act (1909),” dividing the legislation into two chronological phases: the first lasting from the 1860s to the mid-1890s and the latter from the late 1890s to the 1920s (p. 12). This work also distinguishes homesteading by two geographic regions settled during these phases, with the first being the central plains of Nebraska and Kansas and the second, the far West. Framing the book around questions originating from previous research and general knowledge about homesteading, the authors begin by reevaluating primary sources within the context of four largely accepted interpretations about homesteading, which they identify as “stylized facts.” These include earlier assertions that “homesteading was a minor factor in farm formation [since] most farmers purchased their land; most homesteaders failed to prove up [improve] their claims [as the laws required]; the homesteading process was rife with corruption and fraud; [and] homesteading caused Indian land dispossession” (p. 13). Additionally, Edwards, Friefeld, and Wingo analyze whether women proved up their claims and how community formations factored into the number of successfully improved claims within a region or gender grouping. The authors use digital technology to learn more about the impacts of time and space on homesteading practices.

The findings generated from this reevaluation are enlightening and help to correct the historical record, while their use of new methodologies and enhanced technology reveal some potential flaws in the earlier work. For example, the personal/anecdotal stories used by earlier scholars might have added “depth” but also raise potential problems, particularly “when analysis is solely dependent upon personal stories, as for so long the scholarship of homesteading has been” (p. 19). They argue that the qualitative value of such anecdotal sources must be added to quantitative data to provide a clearer picture of homesteading history. Relying on more recent historical methodologies made possible by technology, the authors reassess commonly held “stylized facts” about homesteading to disprove that it was only a minor factor in farm establishment, along with the belief that most farmers ultimately purchased their land or that most failed to prove up the land claims as mandated by law. The authors found, using quantitative analysis, that before 1900, “nearly two out of every three new farms and almost a third of new land” was inhabited through homesteading, and they meticulously detail that between 55 and 63 percent of homesteaders before 1900 were successful (p. 40). Similarly, they reexamine the claim that the homesteading process was “corrupt and fraudulent” due to the actions of speculators, marriage fraud, identity theft (specifically veteran soldiers’ identity), improper residency, use of land in excess of the 160-acre allotment, and failure to commute. Instead, they argue that the data does not support the earlier generalized assertions that “most” homesteaders actually committed any of the listed criminal acts. Although the list of potential ways to commit fraud appears lengthy, when the data is closely examined using modern quantitative tools, the level of fraud was less than previously claimed. To support their interpretation of the data the authors used digitized records in Nebraska, narrowing the scope to two counties seeking to examine the extent of fraud within the process. This technique closely scrutinized homesteads in Custer County (1885-1904) and Dawes County (1890-99), revealing that the rate of either fraud or corruption was much lower than some historians estimate. The use of such narrow case studies demonstrates that similar micro-histories might offer productive research on homesteading in other geographic areas. However, the reliance by these authors on such a limited data set is itself problematic since the choice of those particular counties in Nebraska may not be representative of the flaws and illegal activities that earlier studies on homesteading appeared to show.

As with the previous examples, when Edwards, Friefeld, and Wingo examine the role homesteading played in Native American land dispossession, the authors arrive at different conclusions through scrutiny of select geographical areas in Nebraska, Colorado, Montana, and the Dakota Territory. Their quantitative analysis of the data shows that results regarding land dispossession varied by region and time. The innovative technology and application of a geospatial lens to process data produced conclusions that are more specific than earlier studies, described by the authors as a scholarly consensus “linking homesteading and dispossession [that] has emerged without much examination of the evidence” (p. 16).

Overall, the authors’ detailed analysis of data within a limited geographical context provides a fact-driven template or method to revisit homesteading across the West. Furthermore, this study inspires more questions about how the regional nuances of homesteading contributed to US history on a larger scale.

Citation: Tracey Hanshew. Review of Edwards, Richard; Friefeld, Jacob K.; Wingo, Rebecca S., Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History. H-Texas, H-Net Reviews. July, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53155

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.