RUGBY, N.D. - It was standing room only in the Econolodge's conference room in Rugby, N.D., when Darrell Dorgan introduced D. Jerome Tweton, history professor emeritus at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, for a talk on North Dakota's...
RUGBY, N.D. - It was standing room only in the Econolodge's conference room in Rugby, N.D., when Darrell Dorgan introduced D. Jerome Tweton, history professor emeritus at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, for a talk on North Dakota's homesteaders and sodbusters.
"The 1862 Homestead Act is the one thing we have in common," Dorgan says. "I can walk down the street in Rugby and everybody I see, we have that in common.
"Their parents, their grandparents, their great-grandparents, they came here for that shot at the American dream."
Tweton has been talking about homesteaders for the past two years. His research began in earnest while recuperating from surgery. He decided to read each of the 5,000 homesteader surveys conducted in the 1930s, when the federal government put displaced citizens to work on civic projects.
"The surveys varied a great deal," Tweton remembers. "The longest one was, I think, around 200 pages. Most were about 15 pages. There was a wide array of ethnic groups interviewed, Icelanders, Swedes, Scots, Irish, a broad spectrum.
"Germans from Russia were very sparse in their language. They were known to say 'life was tough' and that was it," he says with a smile. "The Norwegians were very long-winded."
Tweton says that although the surveys are informative, and often entertaining, it is important to note the context in which they were conducted.
"All of the questions, except for family history, dealt with what life was like. What did you eat, what medicines did you have, with great emphasis on what we might call the bad side of life.
"What was your worst blizzard, what was your worst grass fire? How many people died? How many children did you have and how many of them were sick? Sort of emphasizing what we would call the difficult aspects of homesteading."
Tweton says the interviewers' focus on the dark side of homesteading makes it easy to overlook the joys and achievements that were certainly there.
"Most of the interviewers in the 1930s were people who needed jobs. Very few of them asked, 'how happy were you and how good was it?' Well, there are examples of good," Tweton says.
Tweton says another common misconception about early settlers in the Northern Plains is that everyone who broke sod was a homesteader. His research shows that, while homesteaders did settle about 6 million acres of North Dakota's land, even more land already had been claimed by somebody else and later was purchased by subsequent waves of settlers after the original 1862 Homestead Act.
The original settlement boom after that act was followed by a lull in the late 1880s, largely because of a significant drop in wheat prices. A second boom followed in the early 1900s, when wheat prices rebounded and even skyrocketed, making farming more profitable.
At the same time, waves of immigrants came from Europe, many fleeing political unrest or other social problems.
Even more important, in the early 1900s, the Northern Pacific railway, which had been given about one-fourth of North Dakota's land at the beginning of western expansion, completed its rail lines throughout the state and began selling some of its land.
Railroad land was more expensive than the price of homesteading, but it was easier for settlers to buy the land outright than to prove it up as required in the original Homestead Act. The railroad also kicked off an ambitious advertising campaign, encouraging settlement in North Dakota and South Dakota to provide more customers for their newly completed rail line.
Although most North Dakotans trace their roots to honest, hard-working folk, Tweton says that wasn't the original plan for western expansion. He says labor historians tell a very different tale.
"Do you know what the Homestead Act of 1862 was intended to do? To get the hoodlums and crooks off the streets of Philadelphia, New York City and Boston," he says.
"It would be the cure for the cities if these people, poverty-stricken, miserable, unemployed crooks, could take 160 acres out there in Ohio, or Iowa or Minnesota, and the folks out east would be rid of them," Tweton says.
The plan had one important flaw. This destitute, eastern riff-raff didn't have the $600 to $1,000 it required to get a farm off the ground. Most of the original homesteaders were people who had worked out east, or in Chicago, for several years, saving up enough money to purchase farm supplies.
Tweton says he's found records of at least 50 physicians among the original settlers in North Dakota.
"They came out here for their health. The stinky city was giving them asthma and all kinds of lung problems.
"Their own doctors said, go to Dakota and recover, and they did."
Stories worth hearing
The North Dakota Humanities Council has compiled some of Tweton's research and writings into a publication titled "Land Crazy: North Dakota's Homestead Era." In addition, Tweton co-edited a series of books called "The Way It Was" based on firsthand recollections of original settlers. Six volumes cover topics including "Norwegian Homesteaders" and "Cowboys and Ranchers."
Dorgan says North Dakotans are eager to learn about their homesteading roots.
"I think people regret that they didn't sit down with Grandma or Grandpa or Great-grandpa and listen to their stories. I think there are a lot of regrets, and they're trying to reach back and learn what happened."