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The Great American Desert | The Chrisman Sisters |
The Great American Desert
Mid-nineteenth-century maps of the United States labeled the mostly treeless region which includes
Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Eastern Colorado, Nebraska, and Oklahoma as "The Great American
Desert." In part, this is because the Great Plains states, between the 100th Meridian and the Rocky
Mountains, are largely arid, receiving less than half the annual rainfall of the eastern United States.
But both the maps and the term "desert" suggest an empty landscape. In truth, generations of Indian
tribes and communities had inhabited much of this region. When settlers like Mattie's family moved west,
native tribes were pushed further from their ancestral homes.
Settlers were drawn to the Great American Desert by broadsides from rail road companies
and the United States government advertising "Millions of Acres" of free and fertile land. At the same time,
the unusually rainy climate of the 1870s and early 1880s made the land more inviting to potential settlers.
Turning the plains into farmland helped the United States increase its population to the West. Through the
latter half of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century, the territories joined the
new nation as states: Kansas (1861), Nebraska (1867), Colorado (1876), North Dakota (1889), South Dakota
(1889), Montana (1889), and Oklahoma (1907).
The Homestead Act of 1862 enabled people like Uriah and Mattie Oblinger to
own land for the first time in their lives. Signed into law by President
Abraham Lincoln, the Homestead Act of 1862 opened up much of the West for settlement. The United States
government took land from American Indians through war, treaties and trading, and
declared this land "public domain," open to settlement by American
citizens. Western territories such as Nebraska were measured into square
mile sections and further divided into "quarter sections," or 160-acre lots (1/2 mile squares). According to
Any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one
years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become
such.... Who has never borne arms against the United States Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies,
was entitled to 160 free acres of land. For an $18 filing fee, the homesteader could have his or her piece of
While female heads-of-household could file claims on their own, many additions to the law that made
homesteading easier for groups of men did not apply to women. For example, the act required the pioneers to
live on the claim for five years; one amendment allowed Civil War veterans (such as Uriah Oblinger) to apply
time served in the army to the residency requirement.
The Chrisman Sisters
Each of the four Chrisman sisters filed three claims: a pre-emption, a
homestead, and a timber claim. Together, the Chrisman sisters' twelve claims totaled 1,920 acres. Many homesteaders found that 160 acres
could not support enough cattle or crops to sustain a family, so combining resources was a good solution.
The sisters took turns living with each other so they could fulfill the five-year residency requirement without living alone.
Before the Homestead Act of 1862, the Pre-emption Law of 1841 governed ownership of public land. It stated
that public land could be purchased for $1.25 an acre or purchased from a previous owner at an agreed-upon
price. The Timber Culture Act allowed a homesteader to file a claim on 160 acres if he or she promised to
plant and cultivate trees for eight years.
Settlement increased rapidly during the 1870s. Between 1870 and 1871 alone, 40,000 people moved to Nebraska
to claim their land. By the 1890s, however, after years of drought, grasshopper plague, and other hardships,
tens of thousands of people abandoned their homesteads and moved on to new adventures. After several decades,
looking to encourage cultivation of the land, President Theodore Roosevelt expanded the Homestead Act,
permitting land grants of 640 acres to farmers and ranchers. Many families responded to the promise of land
where they could build a home of their own and start a new life.
Ava Speece Day, a relative of the family pictured here, remembered hearing the story of her grandfather
leading his family in a search for land in Nebraska:
He led the first emigrant train to Cherry County. He drove one of his three wagons,
his son Den drove another and my mother, Rosetta, drove the third. She took care of her own team, greased
the wagon wheels, and she was just turned sixteen.
In search of economic and social freedom, thousands of former slaves and their families joined the mass
migration of Americans, seeking homesteads in the West after the Civil War. Those African Americans who moved from southern states
to Kansas after Reconstruction became known as Exodusters. In search of economic and social freedom, tens
of thousands of former slaves left the South between 1879 and 1881 and headed for homesteads in the West.
This "exodus" from the South occured largely between 1879 and 1881 and began on the Mississippi River, seen to
many as the Red Sea that, when crossed, would lead to freedom.
Although the Exodusters founded close to 20 African American towns in Kansas, others moved on to Nebraska,
Colorado, and Oklahoma. The Shores and their relatives, the Speeces, lived near Westerville in Custer County,
Nebraska. Solomon Butcher, whose photographs document the history of Custer County, took a
photograph of the Shores family in front of their home in 1887. The two
families' photographs are often used to document the presence of African Americans on the western frontier.