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.
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
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.
* * *
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
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.