Judith Sutherland:Dreams of farm ownership drove homesteading movement in West


“She sat in the quiet doorway, shaded from the little Riverboro world by the overhanging elms. A wide sense of thankfulness and peace possessed her, as she looked at the autumn landscape, listened to the rumble of a wagon on the bridge, and heard the call of the river as it dashed to the sea.

“She put up her hand softly and touched first the shining brass knocker and then the red bricks, glowing in the October sun.

“It was home; her roof, her garden, her green acres, her dear trees; it was shelter for the little family at Sunnybrook; her mother would have once more the companionship of her sister and the friends of her girlhood; the children would have teachers and playmates…”

from Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin, 1903

Part Two

For those looking to their future in the early 1900s, many best-selling novels published during this time carried a strong, solid, similar theme – the dream of inheriting a farm – a happy, safe place to live a quiet, tranquil life.

It was a dream that helped to drive the homesteading of the great west.

“To inherit a farm was as happy a fate as could be imagined. It was to inherit the earth,” writes author Jonathan Raban in Bad Land: An American Romance.

To inherit a farm by virtue of simple action and bravery seemed almost too good to be true.

For those who sat in their parlor in the evening reading Call of The Wild, or A Girl of the Limberlost, the realization that a homestead in Montana was quite possible had to have been quite alluring. Not only was it possible, it was being encouraged from many corners of the world.

The Milwaukee Road Railroad printed and widely distributed a book which detailed the extraordinarily fertile and adventuresome lands of Montana.

“To have a home with no landlord, no rent, no mortgage…to be the lone plowman of one’s own acres…a homestead would combine the call of the wild with the warmth and security of Sunnybrook Farm,” writes Raban.

In researching his book, Raban tells that he met up with a friend who is the grandson of homesteaders. During lunch, they discussed some of these published best-sellers that likely helped to drive the desire to become a homesteading farmer.

The man was not only familiar with such books as The Simple Life and Girl of the Limberlost, but they were a part of his family’s lingo.

“Where did you run across these books?” Raban asked his friend. The answer? They were all found in his grandmother’s house, treasured objects from her own early homesteading days.

When I picture those traveling west, it is the covered wagon with family and belongings inside that I see. But, in reality, many traveled by train, an “emigrant” car at the back of the train holding their furniture, their farm implements and their livestock.

Many were old hands at long journeys, having arrived in the U.S. in recent years, then working various jobs to save up enough money to survive the first winter on a Montana homestead.

Some of these people were accused of “wanting something for nothing,” a term that echoes mightily.

Next week: surviving the early harvests.


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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, and three grandchildren.