The Homestead Act Was Born 150 Years Ago, 50 Years Before New Mexico Became a State
How does living in an adobe on the Rio Grande in the 1870s sound?
When someone mentions homesteading, I immediately picture—thanks to all of those Solomon Butcher photos of the late 19th century—a little sod house on the Nebraska prairie. But when someone asks where I would have staked my Western homestead, I usually think of a little adobe house on the Rio Grande in 1870s New Mexico Territory (a safe distance from both dangerous Lincoln County and the corrupt Santa Fe Ring). Considering my housekeeping skills and bank statements, a cheap one-room house built of dirt and grass sounds about right for me. But those “soddies” had their drawbacks, like insects mating on the floor, rattlesnakes sunning themselves on the windowsills, rain dripping on bare heads during storms, and parched earth and grass falling from the roof like rain during droughts. I definitely would have fared better in a house of adobe bricks—that is, had I been able to find kind souls to build the thing for me (true, Habitat for Humanity did not yet exist, but my would-be neighbors, the Pueblo Indians, were reportedly pretty good at that kind of thing).
Talk of homesteads and New Mexico is rife right now, at least in certain circles and homes (my brick-and-wood townhouse, for instance), because of two significant 2012 anniversaries: 150 years ago on May 20 President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the original Homestead Act, and 100 years ago on January 6 New Mexico kissed its territorial days goodbye to become the 47th state. In passing, I should mention that Arizona soon after became No. 48, and I have given that “state across the border” some thought, too, although New Mexico has come first in my mind ever since I chose the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque over the University of Arizona in Tucson. There was no going back once I decided to write my historiography class term paper about Milton J. Yarberry, Albuquerque’s first marshal, and Bernalillo County Sheriff Perfecto Armijo instead of Wyatt “Lion of Tombstone” Earp and Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan. Funny how we don’t hear much about Yarberry and Armijo these days. Could I pick ’em, or what?
In this issue we commemorate statehood for the Land of Enchantment (and, yes, that little old Grand Canyon State, too) with a double dose of Southwest-flavored history in a feature article by Johnny Boggs. While Boggs now lives in Santa Fe, he is a native South Carolinian, spent many years as a newspaperman in Texas and has some favorite haunts in Arizona. You’ll find he gives equal historical time to the two contiguous states—never mind that elsewhere in this issue he ranks the Top 10 reasons he would have rather lived in frontier Las Vegas (the New Mexico one) than Tombstone (the one and only Arizona one). For more on the unsung Las Vegas see the 1988 book Wildest of the Wild West, by Ohio-born author Howard Bryan, who came to New Mexico 36 years after statehood and who died in Albuquerque at 91 last September—just missing his adopted state’s 100th anniversary.
To commemorate the Homestead Act—which opened the Western prairies to cash-poor settlers—we present our cover story by Blake Bell, historian for the Homestead National Monument of America in Beatrice, Neb., and accompany it with some of those bewitching Butcher photos. Little did I know that not until 1976 (1986 in Alaska) did the U.S. government end homesteading or that more people put down homesteads in Montana (151,600) North Dakota (118,472) and Colorado (107, 618) through the years than in Nebraska (104,260). New Mexico is No. 8 on the list (87,312), while Arizona is way down at No. 23 (20,268). Yet today, according to the 2010 census, Arizona has three times as many residents as New Mexico. I don’t have that all figured out yet, but I’m working on it.