Homesteading the Plains

Homesteading the Plains

Toward a New History

Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, and Rebecca S. Wingo

272 pages
6 photographs, 5 illustrations, 12 maps, 11 tables, 28 graphs, 4 charts, 2 appendixes, index


September 2017


$45.00 Add to Cart

About the Book

Homesteading the Plains offers a bold new look at the history of homesteading, overturning what for decades has been the orthodox scholarly view. The authors begin by noting the striking disparity between the public’s perception of homesteading as a cherished part of our national narrative and most scholars’ harshly negative and dismissive treatment.

Homesteading the Plains reexamines old data and draws from newly available digitized records to reassess the current interpretation’s four principal tenets: homesteading was a minor factor in farm formation, with most Western farmers purchasing their land; most homesteaders failed to prove up their claims; the homesteading process was rife with corruption and fraud; and homesteading caused Indian land dispossession. Using data instead of anecdotes and focusing mainly on the nineteenth century, Homesteading the Plains demonstrates that the first three tenets are wrong and the fourth only partially true. In short, the public’s perception of homesteading is perhaps more accurate than the one scholars have constructed.

Homesteading the Plains provides the basis for an understanding of homesteading that is startlingly different from current scholarly orthodoxy.

Author Bio

Richard Edwards is the director of the Center for Great Plains Studies and professor of economics at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He is the author of numerous books including Natives of a Dry Place: Stories of Dakota before the Oil Boom. Jacob K. Friefeld has a PhD in history from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, where he is also an instructor. Rebecca S. Wingo is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in digital liberal arts at Macalester College.


  "A welcome contribution to the understanding of our region."—Omaha World-Herald

"Homesteading the Plains provides the basis for an understanding of homesteading that is startlingly different from current scholarly orthodoxy."—Bob Edmonds, McCormick Messenger

“Homesteading encapsulates into a single term and a famous law a tangled history that becomes a simple success in popular memory and an increasingly marginal event in most scholarly accounts. Homesteading the Plains, the first major scholarly study in a generation, uses new data sources and new digital techniques to present a nuanced account of an important government program that scholars will need to reevaluate.”—Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University and author of Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America


Homesteading the Plains demolishes much conventional wisdom about homesteading. . . . This is the most thoughtful analysis of homesteading to appear in many years.”—Walter Nugent, emeritus professor of history at University of Notre Dame and author of Into the West: The Story of Its People

“[Homesteading the Plains] integrates an important spatial dimension into our understanding of the relationship between homesteading and Native American dispossession that has great potential for reshaping the history of land policy in the Americas.”—Sara Gregg, author of Managing the Mountains: Land Use Planning, the New Deal, and the Creation of a Federal Landscape in Appalachia

Homesteading the Plains unsettles longstanding homesteading myths and histories alike. Provocative and illuminating, it brings new data, technologies, and questions to open new historical terrain.”—Elizabeth Jameson, professor of history at the University of Calgary and past president of the Western Historical Association and coeditor of The Women’s West

“Solidly researched, clearly written, logically organized, and cogently argued. The publication of Homesteading the Plains will not only be a contribution to knowledge but also field-altering in terms of the way scholars must hereafter write and teach about the Homestead Act.”—R. Douglas Hurt, professor of history at Purdue University and author of The Big Empty: The Great Plains in the Twentieth Century 

“This careful empirical analysis provides a long overdue corrective to frequently cited but flawed ‘facts’ about homesteading in the nineteenth-century West. The authors persuasively demonstrate the impressive achievements of the Homestead Act and incisively evaluate the degree of fraud and Indian land dispossession on the homesteading frontier.”—Brian Q. Cannon, professor of history at Brigham Young University and author of Reopening the Frontier: Homesteading in the Modern West

Homesteading the Plains fundamentally alters the dominant frame for understanding the costs and consequences of settling the Great Plains. . . . This book upends many tired and baseless myths about the settlement of the continent. The authors tell a nuanced, fascinating national story that is regionally rooted and beautifully illustrated with tables, charts and maps.”—Karen V. Hansen, professor of Sociology and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Brandeis University and author of Encounter on the Great Plains: Scandinavian Settlers and the Dispossession of Dakota Indians, 1890–1930

“A provocative plea for a new history of the homestead laws. The authors present a compelling brief for historical revisionism that critiques dominant interpretations of the homestead laws. Anyone interested in understanding the place of these almost mythic laws in the American past must read Homesteading the Plains.”—Michael Grossberg, Sally M. Reahard Professor of History and Professor of Law at Indiana University and author of Governing the Hearth: Law and the Family in Nineteenth-Century America


Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
List of Tables
1. Competing Visions of Our Homesteading Past
2. Recalculating Homesteading’s Reach and Success
3. Evolving Views on Homesteading Fraud
4. Estimating the Extent of Fraud
5. Homesteading and Indian Land Dispossession
6. Women Proving Up Their Claims
7. Mapping Community Formation
8. Envisioning a New History of Homesteading
Appendix 1: An Annotated Review of GLO Circulars, 1862–1904
Appendix 2: Sources for Chapter 5 Graphs and Maps

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