A Note from Cottonwood Corners

The Homestead Act of 1862 which was passed on May 20th accelerated the settlement of the western territory by granting adult heads of families 160 acres of surveyed public land.  Claimants were required to live on and “improve” their plot by cultivating the land.  After five years living on the land, the filer was entitled to the property, free and clear.

The act was not perfect.  It proved to be no panacea for poverty.  Comparatively few labors and farmers could afford to build a farm or acquire the necessary tools, seed, and livestock.  In the end, most of those who purchased land under the act came from areas quite close to their new homesteads (Iowans moved to Nebraska, Minnesotans to South Dakota, and so on).

Unfortunately, the act was framed so ambiguously that it seemed to invite fraud, and early modifications by Congress only compounded the problem.  Most of the land went to speculators, cattle owners, miners, loggers, and railroads.  Of some 500 million acres dispersed by the General Land Office between 1862 and 1904, only 80 million acres went to homesteaders.

Indeed, small farmers acquired more land under the Homestead Act in the 20th century than in the 19th.  After 1900, homesteading became popular west of the Missouri River.

The Homestead Act explicitly allowed single women to file for a claim and have their own land.  This was an opportunity which was hard to pass up for some women.  They packed up everything they could, left their current home, and moved to the Great Plains to try to “prove up” their land.

At the beginning of the 20th century, women homesteaders were a widely accepted phenomenon in South Dakota.  Lured by the promise of free land, these usually young, single women set out to acquire a plot of land that they would later sell at a satisfactory return or live on and make a profit.  Some of these ladies planned hopefully to later bring their homestead to a marriage as a kind of dowry.

A variety of historical resources make mention of the prevalence of “girl homesteaders” as they were commonly called. One scholar, Everett Dick, who wrote The Sod-House Frontier, 1884 – 1890: A Social History of the Northern Plains from the Creation of Kansas & Nebraska to the Admission of the Dakotas, maintained that “a noteworthy proportion of the first settlers were single or unattached women.”  Another writer estimated that, by 1887, as many as one-third of the homesteads in the Dakotas were held by women.”

Philip Rollins, writing in The Cowboy: An Unconventional History of Civilization on the Old-Time Cattle Range, wrote:  “A woman journeying alone upon the open Range was as safe as though in her own house.”

Whenever an area of the Rosebud was opened for settlement, there were always more applicants than available land.  If the applicant was married, he and his wife each assumed different roles in establishing the homestead.  He struggled to till the soil, plant and harvest the crop, secure a small herd of cattle, and improve the buildings and fences.  The wife focused on barnyard labor — raising chickens and milking the cows.  The eggs and butter were sold.  She was also required to feed and clothe the family.

The women on the early homesteads in Dakota faced drudgery and loneliness, cramped and unconventional living quarters, the threat of prairie fires and fierce blizzards, and the isolation of homesteads located miles from the nearest neighbor.  The vast majority of these homesteaders were successful.

A June 13, 1906 incident which occurred at Meers, S.D. (located on the old Deadwood Trail about 22 miles west of Fort Pierre) was reported in almost all the S.D. newspapers.  It also appeared in papers across the country.  It seems as though Joseph Langner and his frail young wife were headed to their homestead west of Meers.  She was barefooted and scantily clothed as she drove the stock.

When they reached Meers, she collapsed and was carried into the road house.  It was discovered that she was “in a delicate condition” and had multiple severe bruises which she received at the hands of her husband.  A board was used regularly to punish her.

Mr. Langner showed little concern for the condition of his wife and announced his intention to push on to the claim.  He planned to return the next day and take his wife to their future home if she were still alive.  “And,” he said, “if she is dead, all right.”

His actions aroused the ranchers in the area and the word quickly spread.  In a short time a mob of thirty had congregated to hang him.  The rope was placed around his neck and he was dangled from a tree.  He begged for his life and promised to return to Fort Pierre immediately to secure medical attention for his wife.

Upon his promising to return, he was spared being hung and quickly left for Fort Pierre.  At noon the next day a doctor arrived, but Joseph Langner never returned to Meers.  The doctor said that “Mrs. Langner would live.”

Surrounded by a mob of thirty infuriated ranchers, Langner was dangling by the neck from a dead tree on the banks of the Bad River.  He pleaded for his life and promised to do anything the mob might require.  That day, he came as close to being hung as anyone who survived a hanging!


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on May 17, 2023