That’s what happened to me in my research on the Preemption and Homestead Acts that I talked about in my last post. I needed to know how settlers acquired title to land before the Homestead Act and exactly what the requirements of the Homestead Act were. Did I stop there? Of course not. I saw all sorts of fascinating information I just had to pursue.
One of the most extraordinary, in my opinion, was the Timber Culture Act. This Act was passed in 1873. It allowed settlers to claim an additional 160 acres of land if they planted trees on 40 of those acres (later reduced to 10). The Act was authored by Senator Phineas W. Hitchcock of Nebraska.
One of the references I saw called the Act “farcical,” and that’s how it strikes me. I know some of the land available for homestead had to be different, but I live in Colorado. I’ve driven over vast parts of Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming and bits of Nevada, Montana, South Dakota, New Mexico, and Arizona. If some ignorant politician from the East who had never seen the Great Plains proposed such a law, I could understand it. How on earth a senator from Nebraska could is beyond me.
The sources I found all state that you had to plant 2,700 trees per acre, and I keep thinking they must have that wrong that it must have been 2,700 trees per ten acres. I’m not sure if you planted trees as close as petunias you could fit 2,700 on an acre. Yet I also see that at prove-up time, you were supposed to have 675 living trees per acre, so maybe it really was 2,700.
Considering the dry lands of the West and that we’re talking pre-irrigation times here, I can’t believe anyone could have complied except those fortunate few who homesteaded in areas other than the treeless plains that the Act was passed to improve. And if your Oregon or Washington homestead was already covered with trees, where would you plant another 2,700 per acre?
The settler had 8 years to prove his tree claim and could get a 5-year extension. Evidently some plopped down on the land for 13 rent-free years. Of course ranchers had employees filing claims left and right (true of the Homestead Act also).
The purpose of the law was to give settlers the opportunity obtain an additional 160 acres (after their Homestead Act claim on 160 acres), to provide a future source of wood on the woodless Great Plains, and hopefully to make the arid climate more humid (which might work at the rate of 2,700 trees per acre if they actually ever grew, which they wouldn’t). Nebraska did a lot of other things to encourage tree planting, another research black hole I’m not diving down today.
So the Timber Culture Act was a massive failure and repealed in 1891. In 1884 a Land Office representative estimated that as high as 90% of the timber claims had no trees, although about 20% of homesteaders also filed tree claims and more than 2 million acres were eventually considered proved and claimants got title. I found one site that said in 1974 a C.B. McIntosh visited 49 of the tracts given final certification and found that only one of those still had trees. Cynic that I am, I wonder if the "still" in that statement should have been "ever."
Even that One is hard for me to believe. As a Colorado resident, I have to tell you I’m laughing again just typing this. I look outside, try to imagine 2,700 trees on an acre, try to imagine keeping them alive in the days when irrigation meant hauling water, and can’t get over the foolishness. Even if a family had a well or a nearby source of water and hauled water day and night throughout the summer months, all I see is the family dying of exhaustion and the trees dying a few days later. That's if the baby trees lived long enough to die from lack of water and didn't get eaten by grasshoppers first.
Then there was the Desert Land Act of 1877—I’m not pursuing that one. I’m not. I’m not.
Above Creative Commons photo is by Patricia D. Duncan and is of rare undisturbed (unplowed) tall grass prairie with a stand of cottonwood trees in the northeast corner of Kansas.