Story Keeper #4–A Wilderness Home


leantoThe first winter my great-great-grandfather spent on his homestead consisted of a miserable existence. Proving up a land claim to meet the requirements of the Homestead Act and later the Donation Land Act of 1850 meant living on it for four years, constructing dwellings, and defining boundaries to make the acreage habitable. But it didn’t begin that way.

One friend had traveled west with him and together they erected a lean-to with a semi-sturdy roof, borrowing tools from his closest neighbor, Bristow, who had arrived a year earlier. My great-great-grandfather whittled out a chair so he wouldn’t have to sit on the muddy ground and constructed a table to go with it.

He hunted wild game and bought wheat from the first crop raised by Bristow. He boiled the grain, sometimes all night, until it was palatable and ate meat without any salt or seasoning from the animals he shot. Food merely kept him alive, but wasn’t necessarily enjoyable.

Visits to the Skinners, even though they were fifteen miles away by horseback, always produced a better meal. Mrs. Skinner never let him go home hungry and he reported she was a fine cook. When I discovered these details, I had to laugh. Some things never change—what mother today would send a handsome bachelor away on an empty stomach?

The winter lingered with heavy snows and an abundance of rain, making the job of securing his claim that much more difficult. He continued on in spite of the elements, splitting logs to make fence rails, and later erecting a cabin. By spring, three hundred twenty acres were secured. Adding a flock of sheep and a herd of cattle would be his next step—he couldn’t survive here without them.

Considering all the hardships and the hunt for food he’d endured crossing the Plains, my great-great-grandfather thought he’d arrived in Utopia. Everything he could want waited here for the taking, including an additional three hundred twenty acres he staked out for an important next step in his life—a wife. That part of his story wouldn’t happen for another two years and after another crossing the Plains a second time.


All The Way West, H.H. Huntington, 1984

The Golden Frontier, The recollections of Herman Francis Reinhart, 1851-1869, edited by Doyce B. Nunn, Jr. 1962

Photo courtesy of free stock photos online

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