The First Homestead

The first homestead sketch

Sketch of the first homestead

By Addison Erwin Sheldon, 1913

The free homestead law has been called the most important act for the welfare of the people ever passed in the United States. Under this law, any man or woman twenty-one years old or the head of a family can have 160 acres of land by living on it for five years and paying about $18 in fees. For the first 80 years of United States history, there were no free homesteads. The settlers were obliged to buy their land. The price was low but they were often very poor and in many cases lost their land after living upon and improving it because they had no money to pay for it.

In 1852 a party called the Free Soil party, demanded free homesteads for the people. In 1854 the first free homestead bill was introduced in Congress by Congressman Galusha A. Grow of Pennsylvania. The people of the West and poor people everywhere were in favor of the bill. There was strong opposition to it, however.

The first Homestead Act required the settler to pay twenty-five cents an acre for his land and was passed in 1860. This bill was vetoed by President Buchanan. It was not until May 20, 1862, that the free Homestead Act was finally passed and signed by President Abraham Lincoln. The law took effect on January 1, 1863.

Daniel Freeman, courtesy Library of Congress.

Daniel Freeman when older.

The first free homestead in the United States was taken by Daniel Freeman on Cub Creek in Gage County, Nebraska, about five miles northwest of Beatrice. Daniel Freeman was born in Ohio in 1826 and moved with his parents to Illinois in 1835. He was intensely interested in the free homestead bill from the time it was first introduced in Congress. Year after year he watched its progress and hoped for its passage and many times said that he wished to be the first man to take a homestead.

When the free homestead bill was signed Daniel Freeman was a soldier in the Union army. A few months later he was given a brief furlough and came to Nebraska to look over the beautiful country, then lying vacant, for a home. He found the place that suited him and started for the nearest United States land office, which was then at Brownville, Nebraska, arriving there on December 31, 1862.

The little town was thronged with settlers who had come there to take the land. That night there was a New Year’s Eve party at the hotel, which was attended by all. The new Homestead Act was to go into effect the next day but as New Year’s was a holiday the land office would not be open until January 2nd.

Mr. Freeman was under orders to join his regiment and expected to leave the next day. He told his story and his great desire to be the first homesteader in the United States. All the others agreed that he should have the first chance and with him persuaded a clerk in the land office to open the office a few minutes past midnight on January 1st for Daniel Freeman alone.

The Palmer-Epard Cabin built in 1867

The Palmer-Epard Cabin built in 1867 was originally located 14 miles northeast of Freeman’s homestead. The cabin was moved to Homestead National Monument in June of 1950. By Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

So it came that Daniel Freeman made homestead entry number one and afterward received homestead patent number one for 160 acres on Cub Creek near Beatrice. Thus Nebraska has the honor of having the first homestead in the United States. Since that time over 1,000,000 homesteaders have followed Daniel Freeman’s example, receiving over 120,000,000 acres of land as a free gift from our government. Of these homesteaders over 100,000 have lived in Nebraska. Nothing has helped so much in the settlement of the West as its free lands. One of the songs sung everywhere after the passage of the Homestead Act had for its refrain these words:

“Come along, come along, make no delay,
Come from every nation, come from every way,
Our lands they are broad enough, have no alarm
For Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm.”

Daniel Freeman served his country in the Union army until the close of the Civil War, in 1865. Then he brought his bride and settled on his Nebraska homestead. This has remained ever since the family home. Here their seven children grew to manhood and womanhood and here Mrs. Freeman lives with children and grandchildren.

Mr. Freeman died on December 30, 1908. This first homestead is a beautiful farm in the valley where the prairie and timber land join. The old log cabin with sod roof, which was the first home of the Freeman family, has long since disappeared.

The Freeman School, sometime in the 1880's. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

The Freeman School, sometime in the 1880’s. Photo courtesy National Park Service.

There is a brick house and orchard, and an old freighting road, from Missouri River to the mountains runs for nearly a mile through the place, with rows of giant cottonwoods planted by Mr. Freeman on either side. On the hill at one corner of the farm, overlooking the valley and the freighting road is the grave of Daniel Freeman. It is proposed that the United States shall purchase this first homestead from the Freeman family and make it a public park to commemorate what is regarded as the most important law passed by the United States and the place where that law was first applied.

Addison Erwin Sheldon, 1913. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated January 2020.

Excerpted from the book, History and Stories of Nebraska, by Addison Erwin Sheldon,  1913.  (now in the public domain.)  Addison Erwin Sheldon (1861-1943) was the director of the Nebraska Historical Society and wrote numerous books devoted to the history of Nebraska. Many of the photographs and illustrations in his many texts were also taken and drawn by Sheldon.

Freeman School

The Freeman School is recognized as the longest-running one-room schoolhouse in Nebraska, open from 1872 to 1967. The National Park Service has restored the interior to look much like it did in the 1880s. Photo by Kathy Alexander.

Follow-up to Sheldon’s Historic Tale:

Agnes Suiter Freeman continued to live on the homestead until shortly before her death in 1931. In 1936, by an act of the United States Congress, the site of Freeman’s homestead was recognized as the “first” homestead in the United States when it was designated the Homestead National Monument of America.  The national monument comprises the original homestead claim of Daniel Freeman,  the Freeman School, constructed in 1872, one other historic cabin, Freeman’s grave, and tree plantings. The property is administered by the National Park Service.  Homestead National Monument of America is located in southeastern Nebraska, 40 miles south of Lincoln and 4 miles west of Beatrice on NE Highway 4.

Contact Information:

Homestead National Monument
8523 W. State Highway 4
Beatrice, Nebraska 68310

Also See: 

The American Frontier

The Homestead Act – Creating Prosperity in America

Nebraska Main Page

Nebraska Photo Gallery