Blood, sweat, & tears

It’s been on my mind ever since my post about “hell on wheels” to learn more about the how and why of U.S. expansion to territories west of the Mississippi River, especially the period between the end of the American Civil War and the early years of the 20th century. Part of my interest is because I was born in North Dakota, where, as early as 1914, my grandfather may have been a homesteader himself. Beyond that, however, is a general fascination with the courage, determination, vision, and, sometimes, desperation required for people to, first, make their way to undeveloped territories and, later, to do the hard work needed to turn forest, prairie, or mountainside lands into something that would sustain a family.

By now you probably aren’t surprised to learn that my phrase for this week is “land office business” referring, of course, to the process for 19th and early 20th century settlers and miners to establish their claims to public lands—they were often so anxious to do so that they lined up at the door of the local land office well before it opened for a day’s business. I have no idea how often “land office business” is used in contemporary conversation, but most native (American) English speakers will likely associate the phrase with a higher than expected volume of business.

The U.S. government established the General Land Office in 1812 to administer surveying, administration, and sale (and later, homestead distribution) of public domain lands. The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed anyone who had never taken up arms against the U.S. (e.g., the American Civil War), to file a claim for a federal land grant. The applicant had to be 21 years old or the head of a family, live on the land for five years, and show evidence of improvements. If an applicant was able to meet these requirements, the homestead was deeded to him.

Homesteading was a challenge. Only 40% or so of applicants were able satisfy the requirements to obtain title to their homesteads. Despite the difficulties, some 270 million acres of federal land were privatized between 1862 and 1910. That amounts to 10% of all lands in the United States!

Whether my grandfather acquired his property by homestead, inheritance, or purchase, I do know that he raised his family of 11 children there. At some point, probably during the 1930s, he received a government grant to plant fruit trees on land that was otherwise tree-barren prairie grassland. I don’t know whether he satisfied the grant’s requirements, but I am eyewitness to apple and pear trees, fenceline rhubarb, and other plantings that existed in Grandpa’s orchard between, say, 1958 and 1962 or so.

I can’t recall how old I was at the time, but I was in the orchard with Grandpa and Grandma and some combination of siblings and cousins when Grandma asked me to bring her a piece of string from the kitchen. She had broken a branch on an apple tree and wanted the string to tie the pieces together so they could heal. I couldn’t find the string Grandma directed me to, so I went back to the orchard. The first person I saw was Grandpa, so I asked him something like “where’s the string Grandma wants?” Well…

“Why does Grandma need string? She broke a branch??”

Based on Grandpa’s reaction, it didn’t take me long to realize that it was a B-I-G mistake for me to ask him about the string because he definitely was not happy about a branch of one of his pride-and-joy trees being damaged!

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Posted for Jenny Matlock’s AlphabeThursday study of the letter “L.” For Round 5 of this long-running meme, I am focusing on colloquialisms and idioms—words and phrases that are unique to a region or have meanings that aren’t necessarily discernible from the combined meanings of the individual words. I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s exploration of American English as much as I have.

5 thoughts on “Blood, sweat, & tears

  1. Wow.

    I loved this.

    Read it through twice and am now forwarding it to my husband.

    This era of time is quite fascinating…how our ancestors survived, thrived and made a new life in those tough times is both awe inspiring and life inspiring.

    I have so enjoyed this series you are sharing.

    This was one of my favorites for the week!

    Thank you for linking.


  2. I am always filled with awe when thinking about the pioneers and homesteaders in the USA..I wouldn’t have lasted 10 minutes! Loved your post
    Alison xx

  3. Having been brought up on Laura Ingalls Wilder, I’m hooked as soon as someone says “Dakota” or “homestead”. I thoroughly enjoyed this post today.

    ..and I wanted to thank you for your lovely comment on my post the other day. A much appreciated thought.

  4. Wanda, I totally agree with Brenda’s comments. The style and grace of your writing brings me back week after week. This weeks effort caused me to think. My granddad (of radio fame) had 189 acres in south central KY, I don’t remember ever hearing how he got his start, and I don’t remember any conversations about how large the farm was when he acquired it, or how much land he acquired after his start. He may have been a homesteader. Makes me very curious. — Bill

  5. I agree that the determination and courage of the homesteaders was amazing. My husband and I often comment that we are spoiled with our electronics and climate-controlled environment – we doubt very much that we would have been able to “make it” as a pioneer. Another great essay filled with little-known facts as well as personal stories – you excel at this type of writing.

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