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Homestead History
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cabin interior photo
Interior of an old-time ranch, Powder River. L.A. Huffman, Photographer. Montana Historical Society, Helena.
he Act's minimal and seemingly lenient requirements proved insurmountable for many would-be homesteaders. Many homesteaders took claims with little or no farming experience, and growing crops in the harsh conditions of the West was a difficult task for even the most seasoned farmers. Many homesteads in the arid plains were too small to yield a profitable crop, and the cost of irrigation far exceeded the value of the land. Over the 124-year history of the Act, more than 2 million individuals filed claims. Of these, only 783,000 -- less than half -- ultimately obtained the deeds for their homesteads.

espite the odds, thousands of settlers from all walks of life -- including single women, recently freed slaves, and newly arrived immigrants -- went to the frontier to meet the challenge of "proving up" their claims and keeping their "free" land. A popular camp song of the 1870s cheered,

John Bakken sod house, John McCarthy, 1861. North Dakota. Fred Hultstrand History in Pictures Collection.
"Come along, come along, don't be alarmed;

Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm!"


The participants in The Frontier House will be settling in southern Montana under conditions of life there in 1883 -- a scant 12 years after the first homestead was claimed in the Territory. Prior to the early 1870s, Montana had gone through a series of cycles of boom and bust. Following its exploration by Lewis and Clark in 1805-06, the area was exploited by fur trappers in the 1810s and 1820s. In the 1860s, gold was discovered, and one early miner wrote enthusiastically that the vein of gold was so rich that "you could pull up a sagebrush and shake a dollar's worth of dust from its roots." As the availability of mining claims and mining yields dwindled, and as other areas of the West became populated, more and more settlers looked toward the unclaimed homesteads in the Montana Territory as a means by which to make their fortunes.

Wolfer, the two-wheeled outfit used in the rough country. L.A. Huffman. Montana Historical Society.

frontier fact Between 1880 and 1890, the population of Montana grew from 39,000 to 143,000.
Montana's homesteads were claimed by a wide variety of individuals for a wide variety of reasons. For many, Montana promised an easier, more prosperous life than in the "settled" parts of the country. Montana pioneer Marie Tintinger Nevin recalled:

"Several letters came from my brothers, telling what a wonderful climate Montana had, and how the livestock grazed on the range the year around. That sounded good to us back in the cold northern part of Iowa, where we had to hover around the stove to keep from freezing and where the blizzards were so bad they had to have lines stretched from houses to barns, to find their way from house to barn and back during a Northerner."

Even for those who were already in the West, Montana held possibilities. Bartley Curtis, who came to the Territory as a child in the 1880s, reported that in South Dakota,

Hunt's Remedy Ad
Helena, May 21, 1880
"Somehow or other the things that they could grow well out there just wasn't doing any good. There was just this bald, bare prairie. So my father decided he would migrate, that he would up and get out of that country."

For others, the decision to head to Montana was more haphazard. I.D. O'Donnell, who was living in Chicago, was out of a job and looking for a new place to settle:

"I had about $30.00 in my possession, and I had bought a train ticket. At the time, there was a rush toward the homestead land of South Dakota. We studied maps trying to decide where to go where we could earn a living. Miles City [Montana] was then the head of the rails for the Northern Pacific Railroad. I turned to my friend and I said, 'Let's go to the end.'"

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