Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Summer 2008


Great Plains Quarterly Volume 28, Number 3, Summer 2008, pp. 181-90.


Copyright 2008 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


Data available to scholars on homesteading are of very poor quality-inconsistent, unreliable, inaccessible, incomplete-and surprisingly, they haven't been getting any better. Even basic questions such as how much homesteaded land was "proved up," how much land was commuted, or how many actual farms were created by homesteading cannot be answered with any assurance. Moreover, the answers given today mostly depend on quantitative studies completed forty or more years ago.

Why should this be? After all, we have witnessed in recent decades a staggering increase in the capacity and convenience of data handling by using computers. The publication of the Historical Statistics of the United States, Millennial Edition-a massive compendium expanded to five volumes (only two were needed for the 1975 edition) and available online-only hints at the enormous expansion of data now available to scholars. Any decent research library offers access to a huge menu of large electronic data sets, including databases of decennial and other censuses; surveys, polls, and publications of all sorts; and all manner of official, legal, commercial, and other records. Homesteading is an exception to this trend.

Part of the reason for the poor quality of data is that scholars have largely lost interest in homesteading. For four decades, with important exceptions noted below, few scholarly articles or books on the topic were published. The treatment of homesteading in college textbooks, encyclopedias, and the like has diminished, with homesteading becoming only one element, and often not a terribly important one, in the larger narrative of settlement.