- Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History by Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, and Rebecca S. Wingo
An exhibit at Saskatoon's Western Development Museum calls the Canadian homesteading experience "Winning the Prairie Gamble." Despite the many obstacles that homesteaders faced—including their own inexperience—settling and cultivating the land was generally a success. Tens of thousands gambled on the prairie and won. The American homesteading experience was another story altogether—at least according to standard historical accounts. What was a success story on the northern Canadian prairies was rife with problems on the Great Plains: Most farmers purchased their land holdings rather than staking a homestead claim; the homestead system was subject to abuse; most homesteaders failed to prove up; and homesteading conflicted with Indian settlement.
So, why the contrast? Maybe Canada learned from American mistakes, especially since homesteading in the three Canadian prairie provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta) did not boom until the American settlement frontier had closed in the 1890s. Maybe many of [End Page 622] those who settled the Canadian prairies came north from the Unites States with several years of practical experience trying to carve out a livelihood on the semi-arid plains. Or maybe the Canadian system allowed for expansion because the land initially reserved for railways, the Hudson's Bay Company, or schools was ultimately sold to homesteaders who found that a quarter-section was not large enough for commercial farming. Whatever the explanation, the accepted historical wisdom is that the American homesteading was largely a failure.
Homesteading the Plains challenges this negative assessment. Edwards, Friefeld, and Wingo argue that the American experience between 1863 and 1900 was actually positive and that the popular memory of settling the plains is more accurate. They reach this conclusion through a renewed statistical analysis of homestead records (now that the files have been digitized), supplemented by anecdotal information. What the new data reveal does not match what scholars have been saying for decades. Edwards, Friefeld, and Wingo found that roughly 60 percent of homesteaders succeeded in securing title to their land; homesteading was a major settlement activity (this statistic generally matches that for the Canadian experience). A related finding is that prior studies greatly exaggerated the level of homestead fraud; more than 90 percent of homestead patents were secured through valid applications.
The dispossession of Indian lands, however, is neither a simple nor a straightforward story. The authors offer contingent conclusions for the U.S. situation, depending on the state/territory and the timing of homestead entry on the land. In Canada, the federal government pressured Indian groups in the early twentieth century to reduce or surrender their reserve holdings to satisfy the demands of white newcomers for land.
Homesteading the Plains reads more like a scientific paper than a work of history. The writing is repetitive, if not pedantic. No sense of appreciation for the great human enterprise of homesteading enlivens the prose. Rather, the authors seem more intent on driving home their conclusions throughout the text, as if repeating them will give them greater currency.
What is evident in the pages of this book is a need for more work at the micro-level. The book has little to say about the range of factors—besides location, soil quality, and climate—that determined homesteaders' success in turning primitive farms into a commercial operation. Agricultural experience was obviously crucial, but how important were timing and capital? Did the isolation of settlers on individual homesteads make their pioneering challenges loom larger and lead to failure, especially if it meant no family support, and was the standard homestead grant too small for a successful, long-term operation? Answers to these and other questions will help to write "a new history" of homesteading. [End Page 623]