Clearly, it was not the best day in Daniel Freeman’s life. He’d been on the trail for over three weeks, and the weather had been turning cold. When he finally made it into town just after dusk, a room and a hot bath felt pretty good. Later, a stiff drink sounded like another good idea and the pretty saloon girl who poured it had just suggested a business deal that was, he reckoned, simply more than mortal man could resist. It never dawned on him that the saucy, loose-tongued little harlot was actually a saucy, loose-tongued sheriff’s deputy.
Thus was it that Daniel Freeman’s long, bad day got a little bit longer and a good deal worse. Luckily, Daniel was a man undaunted by adversity, and a rather remarkable man at that. He would be involved with the law at other, more auspicious occasions in his life, first, as a famous beneficiary of the law, and later as a litigant in a landmark case before the Nebraska Supreme Court. He was even a County Sheriff.
Daniel Freeman was born on April 26, 1826, in Preble County, Ohio. As a young man, he graduated from the Worthington Medical College in Cincinnati and set up a medical practice in Ottawa, Illinois. He married Elizabeth Wilber, who bestowed three children upon him.
Little more is known about Elizabeth, who is said to have passed away in 1861.
Shortly thereafter, Daniel bought a horse and enlisted in the 17th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment to join the Union Army in the Civil War as a private.
He was soon detached and entered the secret service of the Army, where he continued to the end of the war. His clandestine search for information took him into nearly every state in the Confederacy. He carefully examined and reported upon the defenses of the key cities in the south. He also led an expedition that defeated guerrilla forces in which the notable Colonel Dick Chiles was wounded and taken prisoner, and in which he captured the horses of Senator Stephen B. Fihins’ company, and came near capturing the senator himself in those days when Fihins was a simple Missouri bushwhacker.
Daniel was on secret duty as an army scout working out of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, a position that was rather like a wandering spy.
During his travels in that region, he happened upon a valley with a small stream called Cub Creek outside Beatrice, Nebraska. The setting, with its dark soil and abundant water, struck him as an ideal place to farm and build a family.
Having been an early supporter of the idea of the free distribution of land, Freeman knew that the Homestead Act of 1862 was shortly forthcoming and he determined that he would file a claim for a favored quarter-section of the Cub Creek valley before anyone else did.
If you follow politics at all, you can imagine the furor that developed over the Homestead Act, which in many ways seems so similar to our modern quarrels.
It was being proposed that the government simply give away western lands to encourage settlement.
This was met with a wall of resistance provided by the wealthy southern plantation owners and other monied interests who feared that lots of small farmers in northern states would vote down slavery. They argued that the Preemption Act of 1841, which allowed heads of households to purchase land for $1.25 per acre (about $25 per acre today) in 640-acre sections was the proper way to distribute the land, even though the price of a section was beyond the means of most men.
Several bills to establish homesteading had been brought before Congress as early as 1844, the most recent of which was passed by Congress in 1860 but vetoed by President Buchanan.
When Lincoln was elected and the southern states seceded from the union, that eliminated the resistance both in the White House and in Congress and Lincoln was able to sign the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862.
The act provided for a system where any American citizen, or anyone who intended to become an American citizen, could be given 160 acres, a quarter-section of land one half-mile square, if he or she would perform three qualifications: first, they had to file an application for the property, second, they were required to grow crops and build a residence of at least “12 by 14” (Some nefarious types tried to circumvent the law by building a 12-inch by 14-inch “residence” since the law did not specify feet.) Third, the applicants needed to live on the property for five years after which time they could file for a deed of title.
In late December, 1862, Daniel Freeman requested and was given furlough, allowing him to travel from Ft. Leavenworth to Brownville, Nebraska, along the Mississippi River where the U.S. Land Office was located.
There are numerous stories told about how late on New Year’s Eve, Daniel convinced the manager of the Brownville Land Office to open its doors at ten minutes past midnight on January 1, 1863, the date that the Homestead Act of 1862 went into effect. Which version is true may never be known, but whether he was aided by alcohol, salesmanship, a native charm or just good luck, Daniel became the official First Homesteader in America.
Daniel moved to his homestead alone and began to get to work. From there, he wrote a letter to Agnes Suiter, of LeClaire Iowa proposing marriage. Agnes had been engaged to marry Daniel’s brother, who was killed in the war.
It is hard to imagine exactly how Daniel might have phrased such a letter, but apparently he did so skillfully enough that Agnes accepted his proposal.
They were married in her parents’ home February 8, 1865.
Homesteading was not an easy job for the first homesteaders, or for any of the ones that came after.
The process of filing a claim and eventually gaining ownership of the land was called “proving up”, a term that suggested challenge and the need for a plucky attitude, which was quite appropriate to the situation.
When Daniel and Agnes first began their homestead life together, even the railroad hadn’t arrived yet which would take another four years.
We know that Dan and Agnes were made of fairly stern material in that they lasted out the five years. Many of the early homesteaders simply failed. The weather on the northern plains was less welcoming than the warmer, moister eastern lands they’d known before, and it was a lonely, hard life that many were simply not prepared for, having little or no experience in farming and few resources other than their own labor.
As part of their “proving up” they had to have two witnesses swear to the fact that Daniel and Agnes had built a home and cultivated crops. In an affidavit signed by two of their neighbors, Daniel says that the house they built was “part log and part frame 14 by 20 feet one-story with two doors, two windows, shingle roof, board floors and is a comfortable house to live in.”
I find it nothing less than remarkable the amount of work the couple was able to perform in five years with hand tools and animal power, because the “Proof of Improvements” affidavit also states that Daniel “plowed, fenced and cultivated about 35 acres of said land and has made the following improvements thereon to wit: built a stable, a sheep-shed, 100-foot long corn crib and has forty apple and about 400 peach trees set out.”
I should point out here that my inclusion of Agnes in all the proceedings has perhaps more to do with my twenty-first century sensibilities than existed in reality. We have no photographs of Agnes and she is only mentioned in the affidavit as “wife” when it says that Daniel was “…the head of a family consisting of a wife and two children.” Nor is her name mentioned on the Homestead Certificate. Agnes went on to bear Daniel a total of eight children, one which died in infancy.
Daniel and Agnes prospered, raised children and lived out their lives on the homestead. They were able to buy adjoining land and over the years, several homes and other buildings were built, and the homestead expanded.
In 1899, one Edith Beecher was teaching at the Freeman School near the homestead. Her curriculum featured religious instruction, including reading passages from the Bible, offering prayers, and leading hymns.
Daniel claimed that this was a violation of the separation of church and state, and demanded that she stop, to which Beecher replied that she had been given permission to do so by the school board.
Once again, Daniel’s steadfast determination reared its head.
When he took the complaint to the school board, they sided with Beecher. He then filed suit in the Gage County Circuit Court, which found in favor of the school board. Never one to be easily deterred, Daniel appealed the case all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court, which found Beecher’s actions unconstitutional under the Nebraska State Constitution.
Besides working on the homestead, Daniel continued to practice medicine and also served as Gage County Coroner and Gage County Sheriff on different occasions.
Before fading into obscurity however, he made one last appearance in history when, in September of 1901, the Omaha World-Herald mistakenly stated that an individual named Marion Gore was the First Homesteader under the act of 1862.
Daniel, who was 76 at the time, wasted no time in setting them straight. The resulting news story furnished the photo of Daniel used on the first page of this article.
One can easily imagine the editor of the World-Herald trying to placate the irate Daniel Freeman when he wrote these lines:
“He is a man of strong will and which a loyal and steadfast friend he is also a steadfast enemy and right good hater. He was an abolitionist and a great friend of Abraham Lincoln.
His opinions never stagnated and his convictions never go to bed.
He is on the front line of reformers today; he takes a deep and intelligent interest in all public affairs and is an outspoken radical on all questions.
He is bitterly hostile to sectarian teachings in the public schools and has a suit now pending in the Supreme Court, to present religious services and bible reading in the public school district.
It is characteristic of him to never cease trying to accomplish whatever he once undertakes to do. It was this feature of persistence that caused him to prevail upon the register and receiver of the land office at Brownville to remain awake with him until the clock struck 12 and January 1, 1863 had come, so that he might secure the first homestead. His application was filed within few minutes after the New Year’s arrival.
He lives in comfort here, content with his lot, and doing as he sees it, his duty, as a valiant man, respected by the people among whom he has lived so long.”
Daniel and Agnes would both live on the homestead for the rest of their natural lives, Daniel passing in 1908, and Agnes in 1931.
Their original homestead is now the Homestead National Monument and is maintained by the National Park Service.