May 20, 2012 marked the 150th Anniversary of the Homestead Act of 1862, which paved the way for some of the first agricultural settlement of Montana Territory. From the earliest homesteaders of the 1860s and 1870s arriving in wagons, to the homesteaders of the early 1900s who came in droves by train, the story of Montana cannot be told without looking deeply into the impact of this one piece of legislation.
As homesteaders moved in, vast areas of prairie were fenced and later plowed to plant crops.
The law allowed citizens to claim 160 acres of surveyed government land. To gain full title to the land, they had to "prove up" or fulfill government criteria by building a house, planting crops, and staying on the land for five years. Once a homesteader proved up on a homestead claim and paid a small filing fee, he or she owned the land.
Modest tar-paper shacks and log cabins sprang up across Montana. The Gist Bunkhouse in Fergus County is a good example of a simple homestead cabin.
The first homestead in Montana was claimed in 1868 by a woman, near Helena. Through the end of the 19th century, most homestead settlement concentrated in the valleys and timbered lands of western Montana.
This homestead in Beaverhead County looks much as it did in the late 1890s.
Congress passed the Enlarged Homestead Act in 1909, increasing the land allotted from 160 acres to 320 acres. Between 1909 and 1919 more than 82,000 homesteaders flowed into Montana, many by train, arriving with all their belongings. The boom happened all across the West, but more people claimed more land in Montana than anywhere else. Much homestead settlement followed promotion by the railroads, which encouraged settlement of the vast open lands along their western lines.
Thousands of hopeful homesteaders passed through small town railroad depots, like the Milwaukee Road depot still standing in Geraldine.
They came from across the United States and all corners of the globe, looking for good land and a new chance in life. Montana's population brimmed with ethnic settlers, who brought the traditions, language and culture of their home countries along with them. They came individually, and in groups – sometimes in whole colonies to places like New Amsterdam and Dagmar, and settled dozens of new communities throughout the young state.
Between 1865 and 1914, people from what is now the Czech Republic settled in large numbers on the Great Plains. The community of Danvers in Fergus County was home to a significant Czech population.
The Act changed settlement patterns across the state, even within Indian reservations, after land was allotted to individual tribal members leaving extra parcels to be auctioned off to non-native settlers who established farmsteads and townsites within reservation boundaries.
Hundreds of rural schoolhouses were built in homestead communities across Montana. The Big Arm School, within the Flathead Indian Reservation, enrolled both tribal and non-tribal children. It was restored to its original appearance in 2010.
Twentieth-century settlement extended to areas of the state previously not claimed for agricultural purposes. Many of these lands were arid and marginal for farming, and ultimately did not sustain families who worked hard and made many sacrifices in their quest to make a living here.
The Alvin Young homestead recalls the thousands of homestead seekers who settled southeastern Montana after the close of the Indian Wars, and created rural communities that were spread across a vast landscape.
See, hear and experience the many facets of homesteading throughout 2012 and 2013 as the Homesteading Montana website is expanded with new photos, interviews, and writing. Bookmark Homesteading Montana and visit often to see and hear compelling stories of the people, the land, the buildings, and the many cultures of the most heavily homesteaded state in the country.
This joint project of the Montana Preservation Alliance and the Montana Bureau of Land Management commemorates a momentous government land grant program that forever changed the Montana landscape and culture we know today.
The Kerstein barn near Scobey stored grain, but was mostly used by local homesteaders as a dance hall.