Not everyone in these United States thinks the Homestead Act of 1862 is worth celebrating. If I were Native, I don't know that it would thrill me to remember how the U.S. Government deemed it their privilege to give away land they considered, well, empty. vacant.
Lighting candles for the Homestead Act is like making Columbus Day a holiday: isn't it wonderful that Columbus "discovered" the Americas? After all, nothing was here before the Nina, Pinta, and the Sante Maria beached on the Bahamas.
Millions of white Americans (not all, but a vast majority), got their starts in this new country by way of land divvied up from millions of acres simply assumed to be the public domain (use the word public with an asterisk). Dozens and dozens of states were drawn-and- quartered for Yankees and all kinds of European white faces (here and there a black one too).
Willa Cather's novels wax nostalgic about life out on the frontier of the Great Plains with more foreign neighbors than Switzerland. The ground beneath my feet here in central Nebraska was likely more multi-cultural in 1870 than it is today. Great-great grandchildren of those Euro-American pioneers have cause to celebrate because making a life out here on the Great Plains was no Laura Ingalls Wilder picnic.
The National Homestead Monument is here because this very 160-acre plot of land was the very first such piece of American soil to be given away to someone seeking "free" land, a man named Daniel Freeman, Civil War vet who filed a claim within minutes after midnight to get his order in first. And he did. As we speak, I'm sitting on what was Freeman's land (a phrase that has its own kind of ring).
Mr. Freeman may well be a hero here, beginning the march to unify the Americas of the two coasts, a movement far more spiritual than moral, something we still call "Manifest Destiny."
Yesterday, Native people stopped--for how long, no one knows--construction of a pipeline through reservation land. If you don't think that event is connected to the Homestead Act and Manifest Destiny, you're kidding yourself.
But Freeman himself, or so the story goes, had to work hard to be heroic. He never saw a fight he didn't like and made history in another famous way--or infamous.
An old man pushing his wife in a wheelchair was the first museum guest I spoke to yesterday. He took a look at the sign on my desk and told me he too was a writer. "No kidding?" I said, hoping to engage him a bit. One of his eyes had an annoying habit of moving away when he spoke. I'm guessing maybe 85 years old.
He told me he'd been writing congressmen and women all over the nation, telling them about humanism and Karl Marx and America on the road to perdition. "Is that right?" I said, and he reached in his pocket, took out a quarter-fold single piece of paper, and handed it to me as if to authenticate his claim. He wasn't making converts, only proving he was a writer. Then he left.
The letter quoted the American Family Association at great lengths. We've turned our backs on the gospel--that was gist--in schools especially. Single-space, single-side, every inch in print.
I didn't tell him that once upon a time this very same Daniel Freeman walked into Freeman School, just up the road from the monument (that's it right there), and discovered the teacher using the Bible to teach the kiddos English.
He didn't like it. She'd asked the school board, she told him; and she wasn't about to turn her back on the Lord. Freeman told her it was wrong because non-English speaking kids would be better off learning the language from Mcguffy Readers than Matthew, Mark, and Luke, in the KJV. In fact, he took the school board to court, right here in Beatrice.
He was a scrapper, old Freeman. So he kept going, argued his case before the Nebraska Supreme Court in Lincoln, who ruled in his favor in Daniel Freeman vs. John Scheve, Et. al. 1902. What's more, the U. S. Supreme Court in a series of decisions starting in 1948 (McCollum vs. Board of Education) used that ruling, begun right here, to argue for a distinct line between church and state in schools like this one.
Here at the museum, that story barely rates a footnote in the celebration of the Homestead Act, but it could be argued that the issue Daniel Freeman, the first homesteader, raised in the school bearing his name is just as significant an issue in American history as Lincoln's signing of the Homestead Act.
When the the woman who was in the wheelchair her husband had been pushing walked by (she was pushing it--I don't know what happened), I told her to tell her husband I'd read his letter. "He's quite a writer," I said. "You can tell him that the writer says he knows how to wield a pen."
"You read it?" she said, somewhat surprised. "He's quite a conservative." She looked at me, not as if to be excuse him, only to say he was, for better or for worse. Then she smiled. "He'll like that you said so," she told me.
Sort of amazing. Serendipitous, in fact. There I sat, staring at a life-sized image of the bearded Daniel Freeman, who might well have received a copy of that guy's letter 150 years ago.
And it's worth noting that just yesterday, a band of wild Indians held back a dozen massive caterpillars looking to lay an oil pipeline through sacred land. "The past isn't history," as Mister Faulkner used to say. "It's not even the past."