The landmark U.S. law that fueled a Western land rush, helped define the American spirit, and inadvertently triggered the Dust Bowl turns 150 next month. And across the West, settler cabins that owe their existence to the 1862 Homestead Act still stand testament to their owners’ luck and perseverance …or hardship and failure. (Images courtesty: USFWS Headquarters)
Several of these historic homesteads are on national wildlife refuges in Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming, where visitors can see them and learn about their owners’ travails.
At some sites, such as the historic Miller Ranch at National Elk Refuge in Wyoming or the Whaley homestead on Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge in Montana, visitors may find a complete, stabilized or preserved structure. At others, such as the Anna Flook Homestead at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in Oregon, they may find a “sagging remnant of log walls,” says Refuge System visitor services specialist Shannon Heath. Regardless, she says, the discoveries will “bring to mind the struggle of pioneer settlers who came to the West in search of freedom and new beginnings on land that demanded backbreaking toil for limited yield.”
Passed by Congress on May 20, 1862, the Homestead Act promised 160 Western acres to each settler who agreed to cultivate them for five years. Eligibility was limited to citizens (or prospective citizens) 21 and older who had never fought the government (thus excluding Confederate soldiers and former soldiers). Women and minorities could also claim land – a first.
So great was the demand that the United States handed over 10 percent of its lands – 270 million acres – to private citizens.
But harsh conditions forced many settlers to quit. West of the Mississippi, homesteaders found land with thin soil, unreliable moisture and a short growing season. In some places, over-farming destabilized fragile soils. Some failed or unclaimed land parcels ultimately became national wildlife refuges that now conserve wildlife and wildlife habitat.
Here are some historic homesteads you can visit in the National Wildlife Refuge System:
Whaley Homestead, Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge. A sign out front identifies the 1885 farmhouse of retired Indian Agent Peter Whaley and his wife Hannah. The house, now on the National Register of Historic Places, is made of logs covered in clapboard. Period farm implements are scattered nearby, as if their operators just took a break. “If you close your eyes, you can envision how those people lived 150 years ago,” says refuge outdoor recreation planner Bob Danley. “It’s pretty incredible.” The house is closed but visitors can approach it.
Shambow Homestead, Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge: On land claimed by homesteaders Levi and Mary Jane Shambow, Levi and his son William built an unusual house of vertical log walls, now covered in asphalt siding. Levi, a Union veteran of the Civil War, operated a nearby stage stop en route to Yellowstone National Park. The house is normally closed, but ask at the visitor center or email manager Bill West (Bill_West@fws.gov), and someone may open it for you.
Last Chance Ranch, Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge: George B. Hapgood regarded this 19th-century homestead, which he built near a high desert spring, as his last chance to raise livestock. To the original wood plank walls he later added a stone addition. The refuge rehabilitated the ranch house exterior in 2000 and 2001. Visitors can drive to the ranch and enter it; the interior is unfinished and unfurnished.
Anna Flook Homestead, Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge: Women could be homesteaders, too. Kansas housekeeper Anna Flook built a log cabin, then a schoolhouse on this plot with a creek in central Oregon’s high desert. Land records refer to her as Mrs. Anna Flook but contain no mention of a Mr. Flook. Stop by the refuge office for directions to walk to the house. The refuge plans to seek funds to stabilize and interpret the structure.
Whitcomb-Cole Cabin, Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge: The homestead cabin, restored about 10 years ago, is open to the public. It is located near refuge headquarters.
Hartnett Homestead, Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge: Visitors can walk around and inside the stabilized Charles Harnett barn, located close to the refuge headquarters in scenic Bear Creek Valley. The refuge plans to install an interpretive panel and make the property a stop on a refuge driving tour. It is also seeking funds to complete restoration work.
Miller Ranch, National Elk Refuge: Each year from about Memorial Day to Labor Day, visitors can enter three rooms of the 19th-century ranch of Grace and Robert Miller, restored with period furnishings. Check exact dates here. A fourth room is a bookstore. When, in the early 20th century, growth of nearby Jackson disrupted elk migration and elk began starving, Robert Miller helped bring the issue to public.