American Background

Anderson - Amundson Family History
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~ American Background ~

by Neil Hofland (3b8a)


     Most people assume that their ancestors who were farmers got title to their farms through homesteading.  Actually the Homestead Act was not passed by Congress until May 20, 1862.  Before that time all land had to be purchased from either the government at $1.25 per acre or another owner at a higher price. 

     The Homestead Act provided that "any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such," and who had "never borne arms against the United States Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies," was entitled to file on 160 acres of land in certain areas or 80 acres in more favorable localities.

     All of the mid-western United States was surveyed into square sections 1 mile, or 1.6 kilometers, on a side.  Each section contained 640 acres, or 2.59 square kilometers (259 hectares).  A quarter of a section is 160 acres, or .6475 square kilometers (64.75 hectares).  This was larger than most of the "gards" in Norway and over 100 times larger than a "husmen's" place!

     A fee of $18.00 was charged for each 160 acres.  $14.00 was paid on making application and the balance when "final proof" was made.  The homesteader had to be on the land and start improving it within 6 months after the date of filing and had to plow 10 acres and plant crops and had to build a house.  He was further required to make it his permanent residence by living on the land for at least 7 months each year for 5 years from the date of first papers.  Any time after 5 years the homesteader could take out his final papers, provided that he did it within 7 1/2 years after first filing.

     The filing process consisted of giving evidence and sworn statements that the homesteader had fulfilled all requirements stipulated by the government land office.  If the evidence was satisfactory and sworn to by 2 witnesses, a patent, or title, was granted.  This last formality was called "proving up."

     You can imagine how wonderful this sounded to the peasantry of Norway and other countries.  Even before the Homestead Act land was cheap according to European standards.  The United States government sold unsettled land for $1.25 per acre.  Any person living on the land had the first right to buy it when the government put it up for sale.  Immigrants would settle on a piece of land and develop it while waiting for it to be put up for sale.  If they didn't have the money to pay for it when the government wanted to sell it, anyone else could bid for it at auction and they would lose the land and all the improvements they had made.  The immigrants would either buy land right away if they had any money or would work for wages and save until they could buy.  They tended to buy 40- or 80-acre farms rather than quarter sections, but it was still a lot of land and capable of supporting their families.

     Farms in those days and into the 20th century were self-sufficient units for most immigrants.  Most of what they raised was used by them.  There were livestock and poultry to feed as well as their families.  Any surplus was sold to buy things they couldn't raise. 

     The mid-west frontier did not grow and move in an even manner where section by section was occupied as the population and farms moved steadily westward.  Remember, the country was a wilderness.  There were no roads, no railroads, no farms, no people, and only a few widely scattered small settlements around a fort or fur trading post.

     As America was first settled the main means of transportation was the rivers and lakes.  Towns and cities sprung up at river junctions or around good harbors.  Before railroads, canals were dug to link the waterways.  Once a settlement was established it drew new settlers to the region.  When most of the better land was occupied, people would explore to the west looking for the choicest land they could find.  When suitable land was found, a new settlement was established or would grow around an existing outpost of civilization.

     By the beginning of significant Norwegian emigration in the 1840's, the line of the frontier was Illinois.  From the Fox River settlement Norwegians explored westward toward Iowa and northward into southeastern Wisconsin, and from there westward to Minnesota and the Dakotas.

     The settlement pattern continued.  As more settlers came to join friends and relatives, the better land would be taken.  The settlers would explore to the west, sometimes hundreds of miles, to find good land suitable for supporting a settlement.  They would move their families there and settle down.  The land between where they left and where they settled would be left for others to settle later.

     By 1850 the frontier had reached the Mississippi River, the border between Illinois and Wisconsin on the east and Iowa and Minnesota on the west.  At this time essentially everything west of the Mississippi in Minnesota was Indian territory and white men were not allowed to settle there.

     On July 23, 1851 the Treaty of Traverse Des Sioux was signed by the Indians and the government.  The Indians ceded 24,000,000 acres (9,720,000 hectares) --19,500,000 in southern Minnesota, 3,000,000 in northern Iowa, and 1,750,000 in what became eastern South Dakota--for a price of $1,665,000 for the 37,500 square miles.($44.40 per square mile or 6.9375 cents per acre).  $1,360,000 was set aside in a trust fund to earn 5% interest from the government for a period of 50 years.  This interest was to be used to pay the Indians $40,000 in cash annuities, $12,000 for a civilization fund to help them become farmers, $10,000 for yearly goods and provisions to be delivered to them, and $6,000 for education.  $305,000 was paid immediately to the Indians who were quickly swindled out of most of it by traders and half-breeds.

     This may seem like a small amount to pay but it must be remembered that the United States had purchased the entire Louisiana Territory from the French in 1803 for only $15,000,000.  This was an area of almost 1,000,000 square miles (2,590,000 square kilometers) extending from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border.  This more than doubled the size of the United States.  From it 4 states (Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska) and parts of 9 other states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Louisiana) were formed.  The French were paid $15 per square mile or 2.34375 cents per acre.

     In 1867 the United States purchased all of Alaska, 571,065 square miles (1,479,058  square kilometers), from Russia for $7,200,000 and it was referred to as "Seward's folly" after the man who had the vision to negotiate the purchase.  The Russian were paid $12.60 per square mile or 1.97 cents per acre. The Indians may not have made a good bargain in ceding their lands, but they did better than the French or Russians.

     At the time of the Traverse de Sioux treaty there were only about 35,000 to 50,000 total Indians living in southern Minnesota, northern Iowa and Nebraska, all of North and South Dakota, and most of Wyoming and Montana.  Probably more than two-thirds of the Sioux lived outside and to the west of the area that was ceded and had no part or interest in the treaty.  They were still nomads chasing the buffalo and other game.  The total number of Indians represented at the treaty was about 5000 to 7000.

     There was no way the Indian lifestyle could continue.  Game was becoming scarcer and the pressures for white men to occupy their lands and farm were too great.  The government and other well intentioned people decided to help and save the Indians.  The plan was to train the Indians to be farmers and white men.  It failed miserably for a number of reasons.  Indians were looked upon as savages and not treated with equality.  Their past way of life did not prepare them to adapt quickly enough, which was essentially immediately.  Annuities were granted to help them through the transition period and they learned to depend on the annuities and did not transition.  Because they lacked education, did not speak the language of the white man, and viewed nature and existence in a wholly different way, they were constantly abused and cheated by those who had the chance, especially the government and its agents.  Does any of this sound familiar with respect to the 1990's or whatever time you are reading this?

     Those of you familiar with government programs will not be surprised by any of this.  Government intervention, no matter how well intended, almost always makes things worse and brings about unintended consequences and corruption.  Solutions also cost at least 10, and usually many more, times as much as original estimates.

     On September 20, 1851 another 5,000,000 acres in the Red River Valley of what was to become North Dakota was ceded in a treaty at Pembina.  These 2 treaties brought the total land purchased from the Sioux Indians and opened to the immigrants to 40,000,000 acres of some of the richest and finest farmland in the world.

     Now the settlement pattern began to change a little because of all this new available land and the growth of the railroad system in America.

     The first railroad was established in America in 1830 and most of the expansion was in the eastern part of the nation where most of the people lived.  It wasn't until after the Civil War that significant construction began in the mid-west and west.  But when it began it became a race to see who could build the most miles of track.

     There was a reason for this.  The government gave subsidies to the railroad companies to build new lines.  In the mid-west these subsidies were free land.  Railroad companies were given alternating 1 square mile sections of land on both sides of any new line they built.  You can imagine what this led to.

     As the first expansion of railroad began in America the lines were laid out on some economic basis.  Major cities were linked together followed by linking minor cities.  Lines were built to connect with river traffic such as the line from Chicago west to Galena on the Mississippi River, which was in operation in the 1850's.  It didn't make any sense to build a railroad that couldn't make money by hauling freight and passengers.  Government subsidies changed the economics.  Now railroads were built to nowhere all across the mid-west.

     Railroad tycoons would study a map of the railroad routes and try to find an area where they could build between existing lines of track and thereby get free land along the new route. This land would then be sold to the settlers who wanted to locate their farms near railroad transportation because there were few and poor roads.

     Another way the railroad tycoons made money was by establishing towns along the routes.  The track was laid in increments of about 8 to 10 miles.  The equipment and supplies necessary to build that much track was deposited at the end of the existing track.  The next 8 to 10 miles would be built and the process repeated.  At each of these points the railroad would lay out a town and sell the lots to merchants, businesses, and professional people who would build houses and establish stores, shops, banks, newspapers, churches, and all the other parts of a new community to serve the surrounding farms.

     The railroads received over 131,000,000 acres of free land from the government.  By the 1920's and 1930's there was about 250,000 miles of track in the United States.  By 1989 this had declined to about 150,000 miles which is what it was 100 years earlier in 1889.

     Eventually roads were built along every section line in the upper mid-west dividing the rolling prairie into a giant checker board of square sections surrounded by roads on each side.  These were just dirt or gravel roads and it could take a long time to drive a wagon pulled by horses into the nearest town, especially in the winter when they were covered with snow or in the spring when the roads got muddy.  Some of the roads were built through low, swampy places and soon became unusable, but most survived.  Even with the use of roads and improvements in automobiles it could still be difficult to get to town so farmers tended to go to the closest one.

     When I was a youth during the 1940s, normally they would go to town only on Saturday evening.  They would bring in surplus produce to sell and would buy groceries and needed supplies.  Saturday evening was the busiest time of the week in the small farm towns.  The main street would be filled with people and children were racing all over town.  There was usually a double feature movie at the theater.  Townspeople would drive downtown and park their cars on Saturday afternoon so they would have a good seat to watch all the activity and be where friends could see them and come over to the car and talk.  It was the social event of the week.

     After World War II and into the 1950's and 1960's both automobiles and roads were greatly improved.  Saturday night in the nearest town died out as people bypassed the smaller towns for bigger ones with more goods and services.  Many of the small towns became practically deserted and business dried up and people left for the larger cities and towns.  There are places where thriving little communities once existed that now show not a trace that they ever existed, and many towns have numerous deserted and decaying stores and houses.

     The farmers and their families began to disappear also after World War II.  Over time the farms had become less self-contained family units with cows, chickens, pigs, gardens, and crops used to provide most of the needs of the family.  More and more farms became like businesses.  Livestock and crops were raised to produce surpluses large enough to be sold for cash.  This cash was then spent to buy things no longer produced on the farm, such as milk, butter, eggs, flour, etc.  Improvements in farm machinery and techniques made it possible to raise much larger crops.  The machinery and new techniques grew increasingly more expensive.  More land was required to raise large enough crops to pay for everything.  Farms of 160 acres or less became viewed as uneconomic using modern techniques and farmers would buy out their neighbors to double and triple the size of their farms.  This reduced the number of farms and farm families.

     More and more of the farm sites in the mid-west became abandoned and the buildings left to fall into decay and ruin.  In the discussions with my family members that follow, many farm sites are identified where our grandparents' families lived.  I have traveled to many of them and find deserted and ruined buildings.  No trace is left of some.  The buildings have been torn down and the trees removed and the area plowed and planted in crops.


Did They Make The Right Decision?  

     When our ancestors left Norway, or other countries, and came to America they did so with the expectation that life would be better here for themselves and their children in economic, social, and religious terms.  They were pursuing happiness.  I think they succeeded.  The first generation, those parents who emigrated, lived the life of pioneers in all its harshness and drudgery, but their lives would in all probability have been just as difficult or more so had they not become immigrants.  Most of them built up estates that exceeded that which they would have had if they had stayed in the "old country."  They owned larger and more prosperous farms than they could have expected to in Norway.  When we look today on how hard they worked and the conditions in which they lived, we are thankful we have it so much better.  But in those days everyone they knew worked hard and lived in similar conditions.  That's the way life used to be.  At least their work and lives improved their lot.

     The second generation, their children, still worked hard by today's standards but the quality of their lives improved even more.  My Grandmother and Grandfather Hofland were not wealthy farmers.  They were renters and never owned their own farm until Grandpa was 64 years of age, and then they bought one that had only 90 acres of field land and 70 acres of pasture and hay land.  However, they were never really needy.  They raised 10 children and always had enough to eat.  There were milk and dairy products and eggs and always potatoes.  It's true they never had much money and lived in some small and poorly built houses, but so did many other people.

     They started farming after their marriage with one cow and a few chickens and a team of horses.  Their conditions continually improved.  At one time around 1920 they owned 19 horses to do the field work and had 32 cows, plus calves, chickens, turkeys, geese, some pigs, and at least one dog.  They farmed a half section of land, 320 acres (1.295 square kilometers or 129.5 hectares).  They had a house, a big barn, a chicken coop, and several out buildings.  Did anyone living in Årdal have more?  I believe not many, if any, did.

     During the depression and drought of the 1930's they struggled through some tough times, but so did most other farmers.  They were even able to support some of their grown children who could get no work.  They never received any government support.  Grandma didn't file to collect social security payments for some years after she was 65.  "Hoflands never took charity," she said, "even during the depression when others did."  It took some convincing to make her believe that social security was not some form of welfare.

     The third and fourth generations had it even better.  Many had escaped the farm for businesses and salaried jobs in towns and cities.  Those that still farmed tended to have more prosperous farms than their parents did.  Technological improvements made life easier, and usually more prosperous, for all.  The 20th century has seen the greatest rise in the standard of living for the common man in history, at least for the descendants of Norwegian immigrants.

     The examples used above reflect the progress made through the generations of the Hoflands but the same holds true for my Mother's family (Anderson, then Danielson) as well.  They arrived in America a generation earlier and each generation had it better than the previous.  I am a 4th generation Hofland and a 5th generation Anderson/Danielson.

Introduction to Norwegian Immigration How Norwegian Immigration Started Norwegian Life in the 1800s

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