Homestead Act of 1862 helped shape Wyoming

11/3/2012 8:15 AM
By Associated Press

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) — Crumbling wooden shacks and sagging windmills dot the landscape in this state.

They are tucked into the woods and can be found off highways and dirt roads — all these remnants left behind.

In his writing, historian Michael Cassity describes antique farming tools, abandoned and still resting in the sagebrush, as "dinosaur bones," remains of a past so distant they seem foreign.

On the Fawcett Ranch outside Newcastle, the Fawcett family's history is marked by a cottonwood tree, 23 feet in circumference. Mary Capps believes her grandfather, W.H. "Billy," planted it when he filed on a 160-acre plot of land in 1883.

On the Lost Springs Ranch near Keeline, the past can be found in a modest one-room house that still stands today. Though no longer in use, the home was built by Heinrich Amend in the early 1900s, on 160 acres that grew to 360 acres over the years. It had been his dream to own his own land.

This year marks 150 years since the Homestead Act of 1862, legislation that turned federal land over to the public to be homesteaded for free. The head of a household, at least 21 years of age, could file on 160 acres of land, and if he improved upon it in 5 years, he could "prove up."

The act was part of a larger set of laws passed from 1820 to 1916 that encouraged people to settle the land out here. What's more, these laws helped create a particular kind of society of small landowners and individual owner-operated farms and ranches that helped shape Wyoming in its early years, Cassity tells the Casper Star-Tribune (

"It was promoting that Jeffersonian idea, that vision of people who were free and who weren't beholden to someone else," said Cassity, who previously worked at the University of Wyoming.

Initially, it was the railroad that brought an influx of white settlers to Wyoming.

Communities formed along the Union Pacific Railroad, and when people realized this land — a big public domain — could feed a large amount of sheep and cattle, even more settlers emerged with their small herds.

Cattle ranching took off in the 1870s and early '80s, when many Texas longhorn cattle were driven north in the summer. It was called the "beef bonanza."

When the winter of 1886-1887 hit, harsh weather killed large amounts of cattle, closing many large ranches.

But where the short-lived "bonanza" ended, it gave way to a more dominant trend that had already taken hold: the small homestead, people who used homestead laws to make new lives for themselves here.

Some 457 farms were counted in the territory in 1880, and that number grew to 3,125 by 1890, according to research Cassity conducted for the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office. Ten years later, it had nearly doubled to 6,095.

At the time, the rest of the country was growing increasingly urban. The Civil War had been difficult on farmers, and people were being forced off their farms in the east and Midwest.

Because of a farm labor shortage during the war, farmers relied on horse- and mule-drawn equipment, which was expensive. Farmers bought more land to justify the expense, according to Cassity's research, but that required taking out a loan and mortgaging the farm. Many farms also shifted from self-sufficient to commercial, single-crop production. But at the same time, the country was experiencing a deflation.

So farmers had more debts and received less in return for their crops.

Cassity said they had a choice: move to the city or find a new place to farm.

"Wyoming is open, you have the land there available for settlement, and the homestead ideal has a special resonance for these people," he said. With the Homestead acts, the farmers wouldn't have to pay rent. They could own the land outright and become self-sufficient.

"It was very attractive for people."

Many of Wyoming's early homesteaders would have come from the Midwest, representing a number of different ethnicities.

Billy Fawcett, Mary Capps' grandfather, had been an entrepreneur all his life. He drove a freight wagon, became the first postmaster in Lead, S.D., and then ran a grocery store. He filed for land in Wyoming in 1883 and had a log cabin and horse corrals built. He and his family moved there permanently in 1899, after a fire in Lead destroyed the grocery store, Capps said.

Mary Engebretsen's paternal grandparents had a different reason for ending up in Wyoming.

Heinrich Amend and Anna Giess were Germans born in an oppressive Saratoff, Russia. Historically, German families were invited to Russia to teach the Russians how to farm. They were given land, but unrest and cruel treatment of the Germans was common, Engebretsen said.

"It was very horrible," she said. "You got your family together and left in the middle of the night."

The Amends fled to America on June 19, 1893. Less than a month later, the Amend and Giess families took the train to Lincoln, Neb. Heinrich and Anna married in 1900 and eight years later purchased land for a homestead near Keeline.

"I'm sure they started with a milk cow and chickens and eked out just enough for their family," Engebretsen said.

Early Wyoming farmers and ranchers dealt with challenges daily. But homesteading was a success, Cassity said.

Wyoming had 10,987 farms and ranches in 1910, and 89 percent of them were owner-operated. Perhaps most significantly, Cassity said, four out of five of those owner-operated farms and ranches had no mortgages.

"If you do not have to pay rent or mortgage, the operation is substantially different."

Homesteading was all about being free and self-sufficient. And it worked, Cassity said.

"I am persuaded of it," he said.

Cassity found that farming and ranching in Wyoming peaked in 1935, with 17,487 farms and ranches. The number declined after that and leveled off in the 1970s. But the face of ranching and farming had changed, from small homesteads to larger, more commercial operations.

Through all those years, Capps' and Engebretsen's family ranches survived and grew.

Hank and Gladys Amend purchased their own ranch in 1938 and over the next decades expanded by purchasing adjoining properties, including the first Amend homestead. Engebretsen and her husband, Chuck, live on and operate the Lost Springs Ranch today.

The Fawcett Ranch is still owned by the family and leased out for grazing and hay. And Capps lives there still, in a Victorian bungalow her grandfather built in 1904.

"It basically looks like the same house," she said.


Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune,

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