A Nebraska town was on the front lines of 19th century squatting

September 2, 2018

At the beginning of the 19th century, public land was not easy to come by for the average American.

At $2 an acre, with a required purchase of 320 acres, the cost proved too expensive for the average young man, who, at the time, was making about $10 per month.

By the 1830s, aspiring settlers wanted cheap land. So pressure began to build on Congress to establish preemption laws, legislation that allowed squatters to claim government land that they had improved.

And on the front lines of preemption was Brownville, Nebraska.

Preston Shires, instructor of history at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, will explain how the efforts of American farmers led to the establishment of the 1862 Homestead Act on Sunday at the Homestead National Monument of America in Beatrice.

The event will be part of a full Labor Day weekend of history activities at the Homestead monument, including a car show and old-fashioned spelling bee.

By granting 160 acres of land to claimants for free, the Homestead Act allowed nearly any man or woman an opportunity to stake a claim in exchange for building a dwelling and cultivating the land.

Shires, who this year published “Life in a Casket,” a historical fiction novel set in Brownville in 1857, will use his book to discuss what life was like in Nebraska leading up to the passage of the act, he said in an email.

Squatters were typically farmers who believed that the government was wrong to prevent them from settling the frontier.

“Squatters would enter lands, ideally after Indian titles had been extinguished, and establish farms,” Shires said. “The federal government had passed a law prohibiting this in 1807, but could not effectively enforce it.”

Short-term preemption laws, passed before the Homestead Act, would still charge squatters $1.25 per acre for a 160-acre claim. It also limited preemption to men and widows, excluding single women. The Homestead Act addressed both issues.

Most squatters entered Nebraska after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, Shires said.

“Brownville was at the forefront of preemption because a local government land office was set up in the town in 1857,” he said. “At that point, a claimant would advertise the day and hour he would present himself at the land office to prove up his claim.”

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