Homestead Act to be displayed in Nebraska - Omaha.com
Published Tuesday, April 24, 2012 at 12:01 am / Updated at 9:43 am
Homestead Act to be displayed in Nebraska

WASHINGTON — Abraham Lincoln.

No title. No showy script. Just the name.

These are the final two words penned on the final corner of four pages of parchment that make up the Homestead Act of 1862.

The historic Homestead Act — with its plain presidential penmanship — is making a rare trip outside a dark, locked vault at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

It goes on public display Wednesday at Homestead National Monument of America near Beatrice, the first time all four pages have been displayed outside of the nation's capital.

The temporary exhibition commemorates the 150th anniversary of the document and the frontier homesteading rush it launched to help develop the American West.

The act will be showcased in a state where 45 percent of the land was claimed by homesteaders. None of the other 29 homestead states had a greater percentage.

Nebraskans descended from homesteaders include author Willa Cather, football coach Tom Osborne, actress Marg Helgenberger, aviation pioneer Evelyn Sharpe and former Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter.

The document's journey to Nebraska began in a National Archives conservation lab, where the pages were prepared last week for shipment. Each page was framed in a sealed sandwich of polyester, mat board, acrylic and Tyvek — the synthetic material used in house wrap and overnight mail envelopes — designed to protect the document from chemical and physical damage.

Annie Wilker, a senior conservator, said the condition of the old ink and parchment indicates that government officials over the years recognized the need for care.

“This was in such good shape that it didn't need any treatment at all before we packed it up,” she said. “The only real damage I can see is the fading of the ink, which we can't do anything about.”

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Click on the image for a larger view. NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION

More on the Homestead Act of 1862 exhibit

"The written word endures" at archives -- read more about the volunteer effort to digitize Nebraska's homestead records.

About the act

The Homestead Act of 1862, enacted during the Civil War, provided that any adult who had never borne arms against the U.S. government could claim 160 acres of undeveloped federal land west of the Mississippi River.

Claimants generally were required to “improve” the plot by building a dwelling and cultivating the land. After five years, the original filer was entitled to the property at no cost except a small registration fee.

After the Civil War, Union soldiers could deduct the time they had served from the residency requirements.

The act proved no panacea for poverty. Comparatively few laborers and farmers could afford to build a farm or acquire the necessary tools, seed and livestock.

Most of those who claimed land under the act came from areas close to their new homesteads (Iowans moved to Nebraska, Minnesotans to South Dakota).

The act was framed so ambiguously that it invited fraud. Most of the land went to speculators, cattlemen, miners, lumbermen and railroads.

Of about 500 million acres disbursed by the General Land Office between 1862 and 1904, only 80 million acres went to homesteaders. Small farmers acquired more land under the Homestead Act in the 20th century than in the 19th.

Source: National Archives and Records Administration

Exhibit schedule

When: Public viewing begins 10 a.m. Wednesday

Where: Homestead National Monument's Heritage Center, four miles west of Beatrice on Nebraska Highway 4

Wednesday events: Addresses by Greg Bradsher, senior archivist at the National Archives, about the Homestead Act; and Matthew Wasniewski, historian of the U.S. House of Representatives, about the timing and context of the act during the Civil War

Naturalization ceremony: U.S. Senior Judge Warren K. Urbom will swear in 65 immigrants as new citizens at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the Education Center courtyard.

Regular Homestead Act viewing: 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends through May 28 Admission: Free

About the monument: Homestead National Monument is a unit of the National Park Service. It commemorates the nation's first homestead, claimed by Daniel Freeman on Jan. 1, 1863.

Coup for Nebraska

WASHINGTON — Nebraska's exhibit of the Homestead Act of 1862 marks the first time all four pages have traveled out of Washington.

Archives officials considered publicly displaying the four pages in the nation's capital before they were shipped to Homestead National Monument near Beatrice but rejected the idea to preserve the historic coup for Nebraska, said Miriam Kleiman, an archives spokeswoman.

Even on the rare occasion that the document is displayed in Washington, usually only the first and fourth pages are shown, she said.

The document will be displayed under strict temperature, humidity and lighting controls. The viewing area at Homestead National Monument's Heritage Center will be nearly as dark as the National Archives rotunda, where the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are displayed.

Light falling on the three documents in the rotunda is limited to two foot-candles, a measurement of the intensity of light. One foot-candle is equivalent to the light produced by a standard candle burning one foot from a given surface.

The Homestead Act will be illuminated by three foot-candles of light.

“It's dark,” Kleiman said.

— David Hendee


Still, the parchment tells its story. Parchment is animal skin soaked in lye to release hair, then scraped of fat and stretched.

The Homestead Act parchment is most likely calf skin, Wilker said. Light orange blotches on each page are residual fat that aged and discolored.

The first page is the dirtiest of the four, indicating that it was handled and displayed more over the years, Wilker said. Finger smudges are barely visible on the edge of the page. A fingerprint is visible on the last page.

Three paper-punch-size holes and many pinprick holes along the left of each page show that the act was bound at one time. Multiple pinpricks show that the document may have been sewn over the years into more than one binder, Wilker said.

More evidence of past binding is seen in undulations along the right edge of each page, where the parchment was more exposed to moisture and temperature fluctuations, Wilker said.

The document was kept at the U.S. State Department before being moved to the newly constructed National Archives in the 1930s.

The first page was passed through a printing press, creating “Congress of the United States'' and other boilerplate headings and blank spaces that became the Homestead Act.

The text is handwritten in iron gall ink on faint turquoise ruling lines. The ink is sensitive to light and fades with exposure. Faded, hand-drawn red and blue lines border each page.

The ink on the second and third pages is darker than on the first and last, indicating that the outer two were exhibited more often, causing the ink to fade, Wilker said.

A few letters are missing pieces because of flaking ink. Ink tends to pop off parchment because it doesn't contract and expand at the same rate.

“But now here and in a stable environment, that isn't going to happen to it ever again,'' Wilker said.

A line on the second page of parchment is lighter than the rest of the page, a telltale sign of erasure.

“This ink is pretty permanent, so if someone made a mistake it couldn't simply be erased or washed off,” she said. “They had to use a knife to scrape down the parchment and rewrite the line.”

The Homestead Act is in better physical condition than some of nation's other great documents.

The Declaration of Independence is virtually illegible because of decades of exposure. The document hung above a fireplace and was exposed to direct light from a window in a government office for many years in the 19th century, said Miriam Kleiman, a National Archives spokeswoman.

The Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Lincoln several months after the Homestead Act, was printed on poor-quality paper, not parchment. It is so fragile that archivists say it can be shown no more than 24 hours a year.

Unlike the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights — which are on public display at the National Archives — the Homestead Act rarely leaves its vault.

And unlike many other historic documents that ended up at the archives from far-flung government offices, the pages have no vermin, fire or water damage, Kleiman said.

“Many were not protected,'' she said. “This has been protected.”

Lincoln signed the act into law on May 20, 1862, directly beneath the big, flowing signature of Solomon Foot of Vermont, president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate, and the bold scroll of Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania, speaker of the U.S. House.

In her work, Wilker treats documents signed by Lincoln and other presidents, including George Washington.

“It's always thrilling every time you see it, no matter how many times,'' she said.

Wilker glanced at the Homestead Act's final page.

“I'm surprised that Lincoln's signature is so small. It's very humble.''

Contact the writer: 402-444-1127, david.hendee@owh.com

Contact the writer: David Hendee

david.hendee@owh.com    |   402-444-1127

David covers a variety of news across Nebraska, particularly natural resources and rural issues and the State Game and Parks Commission.

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