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The First Homesteader

by Neil Shelton

Clearly, it was not the best day in Daniel's life.  He'd been on the trail for over three weeks, and the weather had been turning cold.  When he finally made it into town just after dusk, a room and a hot bath felt pretty good.  Later, a stiff drink sounded like another good idea and the pretty saloon girl who poured it had just suggested a business deal that was, he reckoned, simply more than mortal man could resist.  It never dawned on him that the saucy, loose-tongued little harlot was actually a saucy, loose-tongued sheriff's deputy.

Thus was it that Daniel Freeman's long, bad day got a little bit longer and a good deal worse.  Luckily, Daniel was a man undaunted by adversity, and a rather remarkable man at that.  He would be involved with the law at other, more auspicious occasions in his life, first, as a famous beneficiary of the law, and later as a litigant in a landmark case before the Nebraska Supreme Court.  He was even a County Sheriff.

 Daniel Freeman was born on April 26, 1826 in Preble County, Ohio.  As a young man, he graduated from the Worthington Medical College in Cincinnati and set up a medical practice in Ottawa, Illinois.  He married Elizabeth Wilber, who bestowed three children upon him.

Little more is known about Elizabeth, who is said to have passed away in 1861. 

Shortly thereafter, Daniel bought a horse and enlisted in the 17th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment to join the Union Army in the Civil War as a private. 

He was soon detached and entered the secret service of the Army, where he continued to the end of the war.  His clandestine search for information took him into nearly every state in the Confederacy.  He carefully examined and reported upon the defenses of the key cities in the south.  He also led an expedition that defeated guerrilla forces in which the notable Colonel Dick Chiles was wounded and taken prisoner, and in which he captured the horses of Senator Stephen B. Fihins' company, and came near capturing the senator himself in those days when Fihins was a simple Missouri bushwhacker.

Before the Homestead Act, land was commonly available available for $1.25 per acre, or about $25 in today's currency.  Click to enlarge

Daniel was on secret duty as an army scout working out of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, a position that was rather like a wandering spy.

During his travels in that region he happened upon a valley with a small stream called Cub Creek outside Beatrice, Nebraska.  The setting, with its dark soil and abundant water struck him as an ideal place to farm and build a family.

Having been an early supporter of the idea of the free distribution of land, Freeman knew that the Homestead Act of 1862 was shortly forthcoming and he determined that he would file a claim for a favored quarter-section of the Cub Creek valley before anyone else did.

* * *

If you follow politics at all, you can imagine the furor that developed over the Homestead Act, which in many ways seems so similar to our modern quarrels. 

It was being proposed that the government simply give away western lands to encourage settlement.   

This was met with a wall of resistance provided by the wealthy southern plantation owners and other monied interests who feared that lots of small farmers in northern states would vote down slavery.  They argued that the Preemption Act of 1841, which allowed heads of households to purchase land for $1.25 per acre (about $25 per acre today) in 640-acre sections was the proper way to distribute the land, even though the price of a section was beyond the means of most men.

Several bills to establish homesteading had been brought before congress as early as 1844, the most recent of which was passed by Congress in 1860 but  vetoed by President Buchanan.

When Lincoln was elected and the southern states seceded from the union, that eliminated the resistance both in the White House and in Congress and Lincoln was able to sign the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862.

The act provided for a system where any American citizen, or anyone who intended to become an American citizen, could be given 160 acres, a quarter-section of land one half-mile square, if he or she would perform three qualifications:  first, they had to file an application for the property,  second, they were required to grow crops and build a residence of at least "12  by 14" (Some nefarious types tried to circumvent the law by building a 12-inch by 14-inch "residence" since the law did not specify feet.) Third, the applicants needed to live on the property for five years after which time they could file for a deed of title.

* * *

 In late December, 1862, Daniel Freeman requested and was given furlough, allowing him to travel from Ft. Leavenworth to Brownville, Nebraska, along the Mississippi River where the U.S. Land Office was located.

There are numerous stories told about how late on New Year's Eve, Daniel convinced the manager of the Brownville Land Office to open its doors at ten minutes past midnight on January 1, 1863, the date that the Homestead Act of 1862 went into effect.  Which version is true may never be known, but whether he was aided by alcohol, salesmanship, a native charm or just good luck, Daniel became the official First Homesteader in America.

Daniel moved to his homestead alone and began to get to work.  From there, he wrote a letter to Agnes Suiter, of LeClaire Iowa proposing marriage. Agnes had been engaged to marry Daniel's brother, who was killed in the war.

It is hard to imagine exactly how Daniel might have phrased such a letter, but apparently he did so skillfully enough that Agnes accepted his proposal.

They were married in her parents' home February 8, 1865.

Homesteading was not an easy job for the first homesteaders, or for any of the ones that came after.

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