Few sites in the United States fully capture the American dream like a visit to Ellis Island in New York harbor in view of the Statue of Liberty. It is here that more than 12 million immigrants first stepped foot on American soil and began their lives, for better or worse, as citizens of the United States of America.
Did you know that Ellis Island was opened as a result of the flood of immigrants that came to the United States from Europe after Congress approved and Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862? That’s the act that gave away more than 270 million acres – more than 10 percent of the U.S. land mass – to anyone who would live on that land for five years, work the soil and make a life.
That was a dream come true for most of those Ellis Island immigrants. Land ownership was controlled by the wealthy gentry in Europe, so the peasants – possibly your ancestors – dreamed of owning land in America.
Descendants of Homesteaders
Your ancestors may not have made it as far west as many who came through Ellis Island, but many of them came for the dream that my family found. Yes, I am a descendant of a homesteader, and in Beatrice Nebraska, people like me – descendants of homesteaders – are welcomed as honored guests.
Beatrice Nebraska is where Daniel Freeman and his family homesteaded for nearly 50 years. His 160 acres is recognized as the very first claim filed in the Homestead Act, and so it is there that Congress located the Homestead National Monument.
The site of the Freeman Homestead was established as a unit of the National Park Service in 1936. You see the original Freeman Homestead and the graves of Daniel Freeman and his wife. There’s a one-room school house, and then there’s the interpretive center, one of the things the National Park Service does so well.
The building that houses the interpretive center is shaped like a plow, one of those fundamental tools that broke the prairie, and the backs of many men and women, while creating the most productive agricultural economy in the world.
Inside, you’ll be asked if you are the descendant of a homesteader. If so, you’ll sign a special guest book, receive a button and then be offered the opportunity to record the story of your family. But every visitor will learn that homesteading was more than something that happened in the Great Plains states. My ancestors homesteaded in Kansas and Arkansas, but homesteaders received land in 30 states, from Florida to Alaska.
The interpretive center does a great job of telling the story from the immigrant’s perspective, but they don’t overlook the impact on Native Americans. The Homestead Act was a decisive blow to their lifestyle, particularly the Plains Indians.
The first time I visited Beatrice was during the Homestead Days Celebration, which is held the second week of June each year. They had parades and barbecue contests and lots of costumed interpreters performing tasks of the period.
But the coolest thing I witnessed was a swearing in ceremony for 14 new citizens of the United States of America. And not a more beautiful place in the country for such an inspiring event to take place.