As we debate immigration policy in the United States, it might be helpful for all of us to take an educational road trip to the little town of Beatrice Nebraska.
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Nebraska and the Homestead Act of 1862
When most people think of European immigration to the U.S., they think of 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.
However, did you know that Ellis Island was opened as a result of 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. Of course, you had to live on the land for five years, build a home, 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.
Celebrating 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.
My great-grandfather homesteaded 160 acres in Grant County Arkansas. My ancestors came to the U.S. from Scotland via Ireland. Ancestry tests show a hodge podge of Great Britain in our DNA. Yet, in Beatrice Nebraska, people like me — descendants of homesteaders — are welcomed as honored guests. You could be, too.
Visiting the Homestead National Historic Park in Nebraska
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. Homesteaders received land in 30 states, from Florida to Alaska. The last claim was filed in Alaska in 1988.
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, held the second week of June each year. They have 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.
Tip: When you are at the Homestead National Historic Park, you are not far from Nebraska City, the home of Arbor Day.