Free Land!

The Homestead National Monument highlights how the Homestead Act helped settle the American West.

In a time when many high school students can’t pinpoint the State of Nebraska on a map, I recently visited the Homestead National Monument–located in rural southeastern Nebraska, just a few miles from Beatrice (pop. about 12,500) and a few miles north of the Kansas state line. Despite its historical significance (more about this shortly), most people have never heard of the Homestead National Monument and don’t know why it is an important piece of American history.

The Homestead National Monument headuarters is a nondescript brown building that blends in with the landscape.

When arriving at the building, the parking lot was empty. There was the sound of a car on a two-lane road off in the distance, a few birds making their presence known in the trees, but the predominant sound was a steady wind blowing through the trees and the prairie grass surrounding this lonely Federal facility built to commemorate an important historical event unknown to most Americans.

I thought the door would be locked even though the guidebook said it was open on Sunday afternoon. On walking in a cheerful voice from behind a desk called out “Good afternoon. Welcome to the Homestead Monument.”

The Federal employee who greeted our small group at the door was dressed in a National Park Service uniform, neatly pressed and cleaned, smiling broadly and not showing any signs of disgruntlement or being otherwise inconvenienced by working on a beautiful spring weekend.

“Do you know about the Homestead Act?” the person in the uniform inquired?

“A little–but this seemed like a good place to learn more about it,” I told him.

According to his polished nametag, our host was Todd Arrington. As it turned out, in addition to being cheerful and delighted to be working, he was knowledgeable about the history of the site. After answering questions from these tourists about the Homestead Act and the reason for the monument being located at this particular spot, I asked if he was a park ranger.

“No,” he quickly responded. “I’m a historian for the Park Service.”

This GS-9 historian was effusive about the agency, its mission and his job in implementing that mission while also working on completing work for a doctorate in history. And, he indicated, “I can’t believe how lucky I was to get this job with the Federal government. Some of my colleagues worked as volunteers with the Service for years and were not able to become a full-time employee.”

If I were the Director of the Park Service, I would have given this guy an “on-the-spot” award for representing the agency so well at a slow time in a remote location when no one was looking over his shoulder.

I asked, “Why does he like the job so much?” He loves going to work in a beautiful location, talking about American history and contributing to an understanding of how the Homestead Act led to the settlement of the American west.

It wasn’t my intention to do a story on the Homestead Monument for But having been a personnel official for several agencies and writing about various federal cases involving unhappy people filing third party appeals for a number of years, this opportunity was too good to pass up. Located in a wooded area looking over the prairie that extends as far as they eye can see, is an enthusiastic, knowledgeable representative of the Federal Government taking time to explain our history to anyone with enough curiosity to stop by.

By the time he explained the historical exhibits in the building, given us a brief history of the old log cabin on the grounds, and explained aspects of the social significance of the American and European settlers who came to this remote part of the country in the mid-19th century, the trials and successes of these American pioneers seemed real and we could appreciate how they survived and their role in creating a new nation.

Under the Homestead Act, signed by President Lincoln in 1862, settlers who met minimal requirements could get 160 acres of land from the government. “Free Land!” became a rallying cry for immigrants and Americans who wanted to get a fresh start on their own piece of property.

The only cost was a filing fee. The result of this legislation was the settlement of the West by a flood of new immigrants to the American frontier.

For those who may appreciate the irony, this legislation, which resulted in opening up the western territories to settlers and was instrumental in getting settlers to go to the new frontier, is only two pages long.

The Homestead National Monument is built on a site granted to Daniel and Agnes Freeman in 1863 and it was one of the very first homestead claims in America.

There are apparently not a lot of media representatives visiting the Homestead Monument. When I explained the site and that we wanted to do a brief story on it, Mr. Arrington seemed surprised. After learning about, he asked for any human resources advice I might have for a Federal employee. (Our free advice for a relatively young employee: invest as much as you can in the TSP’s C fund on a regular basis.)

As we left this gem of a park, all the members in our group were expressing their delight with the park and the impressive, friendly historian. Thanks, Todd Arrington, for an outstanding encounter, and kudos to the National Park Service for yet another great park staffed by a great ambassador for your agency as well as for all Federal employees.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47