The landmark law that fueled a Western land rush, helped define the American spirit and inadvertently triggered the Dust Bowl turned 150 this year. And across the West, settler cabins that owe their existence to the 1862 Homestead Act stand testament to their owners luck and perseverance … or hardship and failure.
Several of these historic homesteads are on national wildlife refuges.
At some sites visitors can find a complete, stabilized or preserved structure. At others, they can find a sagging remnant of log walls, says National Wildlife Refuge System visitor services specialist Shannon Heath. Regardless, she says, the discoveries will bring to mind the struggle of pioneer settlers who came to the West in search of freedom and new beginnings on land that demanded backbreaking toil for limited yield.
Passed by Congress on May 20, 1862, the Homestead Act promised 160 Western acres to each settler who agreed to cultivate them for five years. Eligibility was limited to citizens (or prospective citizens) 21 and older who had never fought the government (thus excluding Confederate soldiers). Women and minorities also could claim landa first.
Demand was so great the United States handed over 10 percent of its land270 million acresto private citizens. But harsh conditions forced many settlers to quit. Some failed or unclaimed land parcels ultimately became refuges.
Here are some historic homesteads in the Refuge System:
Whaley Homestead, Lee Metcalf Refuge, MT. The 1885 farmhouse of retired Indian agent Peter Whaley and wife Hannah is made of logs covered in clapboard. Period farm implements are scattered nearby, as if their operators just took a break. If you close your eyes, you can envision how those people lived 150 years ago, says refuge outdoor recreation planner Bob Danley. Its pretty incredible. The house is closed, but visitors can approach it.
Shambow Homestead, Red Rock Lakes Refuge, MT. On land claimed by homesteaders Levi and Mary Jane Shambow, Levi and son William built an unusual house of vertical log walls, now covered in asphalt siding. Levi operated a nearby stage stop en route to Yellowstone National Park. The house is closed, but can be opened upon visitors request.
Last Chance Ranch, Sheldon Refuge, NV. George B. Hapgood regarded this 19thcentury homestead, which he built near a high desert spring, as his last chance to raise livestock. To the original wood plank walls he later added a stone addition. The refuge rehabilitated the ranch house exterior in 200001. Visitors can enter the ranch; the interior is unfurnished.
Anna Flook Homestead, Hart Mountain Refuge, OR. Kansas housekeeper Anna Flook built a log cabin, then a schoolhouse on this plot with a creek in central Oregons high desert. Land records refer to her as Mrs. Anna Flook but contain no mention of a Mr. Flook. The refuge plans to seek funds to stabilize and interpret the structure.
WhitcombCole Cabin, Conboy Lake Refuge, WA. The homestead cabin, restored about 10 years ago, is open to the public.
Hartnett Homestead, Little Pend Oreille Refuge, WA. Visitors can enter the stabilized Charles Hartnett barn, located close to the refuge headquarters. The refuge plans to install an interpretive panel and make the property a drivingtour stop. It is also seeking funds to complete restoration work.
Miller Ranch, National Elk Refuge, WY. Each year from about Memorial Day to Labor Day, visitors can enter three rooms of the 19thcentury ranch of Grace and Robert Miller, restored with period furnishings. A fourth room is a bookstore. When, in the early 20th century, growth of nearby Jackson disrupted elk migration and elk began starving, Robert Miller helped bring the issue to public attention and push for winter feeding of the animals.
Susan Morse is a writereditor in the Refuge Systems Branch of Communications.