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Histories:  Trempealeau Co. Historical Accounts:

"Trempealeau County" by Clarence J. Gamroth: 

Volume 1A:

Miscellaneous:  Settling the Land in Trempealeau Co.

Homestead Act

In various parts of Trempealeau County, land was acquired under the Homestead Act of 1862 (see newspaper example below).  Old newspaper files of the Independence News Wave frequently printed official notices that such and such farm had complied with the law and was petitioning the Government to give title to the land.  The notice also gave the names of at least two persons who vouched that the applicant had complied with the provisions of the Homestead Act.   

Settlers were permitted to file a claim for the land prior to the Homestead Act.  This was done after the Indians' right to the lands were extinguished about 1837.  Some of the settlers were land speculators and soon sold out for a profit.

As mentioned above, this is an example of the newspaper articles printed.  This particular article ran in the Milwaukee Journal on 25 Feb 1962 and explained the Homestead Act:


Now 100 Years Old, It offered Quarter of a Billion Acres at 11¢ an Acre

One hundred years ago next Wednesday, congress passed the homestead law, setting off the settlement of more than a quarter billion acres of land in 1,400,000 patents.

Thousands of pioneers, many of them in Wisconsin, braved dust storms, blizzards, insect invasions and loneliness for the lure of a free farm.

Despite the heartaches, the homestead act and its subsequent amendments helped speed the building of the middle west and west.

Passage of the act came after years of political debate.  It was the culmination of the dream of agitators for free lands, who had banded together as the Free Soil party.  An earlier version had passed congress but was vetoed by President Buchanan.

Lincoln Signed Bill

Abraham Lincoln signed the second bill May 20, 1862, five days after he signed the act creating the agriculture department, and a few weeks before he signed the land grant college act.

The trials of the "homesteaders" are intermingled with similar adventures of other settlers, so chronicles centering on them are scarce.  But the prospect of free land (the fee usually was $18, or 11¢ an acre) brought out many persons unqualified for the rigors of frontier farming.  Failures abounded.

Polish Immigrants Arrived

Thomas J. Berto, who wrote a thesis on homesteading for the University of Wisconsin in 1909, called the Wisconsin river valley a "typical land district."  

Its headquarters originally were in Stevens Point, but in 1872 they were moved to Wausau.  It accounted for lands in Adams, Iron, Juneau, Lincoln, Oneida, Price, Vilas and Wood counties.  

The first year of homesteading brought 162 entries in Wisconsin.  They fell to 43 the next year.  But when the Civil war closed, numbers rose, hitting 800 in 1875, dropping to 365 in 1884 and later dropping steadily.

In Wisconsin, homesteading followed rail construction and the development of the lumber business.  The land district originally was 844,502 acres, and the average grant was 93.7 acres compared with 134.4 nationally.  Of 9,073 entries, 1,952 were canceled.

There was a surge when the Wisconsin Central railroad made Abbotsford a junction point.  Polish immigrants came into the area east of Stevens Point.

The law provided up to 160 acres for the head of a family who was 21 or older, a citizen or one who had declared his intention of citizenship.  There were some later exceptions.

To combat prairie dangers, settlers often grouped themselves into a community in the center of the section, each cabin and farmstead on its own quarter section.  Indians were feared, although they later became homesteaders under a special act.  So did Confederate soldiers.

The law not only settled the lands but helped build the towns, villages and roads.  Schoolhouses and churches followed.

To "prove up" their quarter section, settlers had to maintain five years of continuous residence or cultivation.  This was amended to include both.

"Willing to Defend Us"

Still there were manipulations of the intent of the law.  The "commutation clause," which allowed selling the land for $1.25 an acre after six months of residence, made petty speculators out of homesteaders.  They often acted as agents for persons building estates.

Among the arguments used in the bitter congressional debate which preceded passage was the somewhat heartless one that "settlement would place upon a distant frontier a force able and willing to defend us against hostile savages and save the expense of the army."  It also would subject the land to taxation and help the states, it was argued.

The act was spearheaded by Galusha A. Grow, congressman from Pennsylvania.  A strong humanitarian, he saw it as a means for producing great prosperity from the public lands.

By the turn of the century, only arid and semiarid lands were left to be homesteaded.

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