Home, home on the range: Grampa Smith’s homestead

Posted on February 6, 2016


Once upon a time, a long time ago, my grandfather was 16 years old and trying to find a place for himself in the world.  Armed with a romantic streak and a love for history, he headed west along the National Road and kept going.  The way my grandmother told it, he made his way as a farmhand, a water boy on a railroad repair crew, a logger, a teamster, a cooper’s helper, and eventually as a ranch hand at the Sod House ranch and the Riddle ranch in Harney County, Oregon.  She also said he was a foreman at one of the big ranches out there-one that ran 50,000 head of cattle.

Sod_House_Ranch_bunkhouse-FWS photo Wikimedia

Bunkhouse at the Sod House ranch-Fish and Wildlife Service photo via Wikipedia

The way my grandfather told it, he did all that and spent time with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. I suspect a bit of fiction in the family narrative.

It is true that he turned up in the 1910 Census as a Foreman at a Ranch. It is true that when he turned 21 in 1906 he entered a homestead claim on 160 and 44/100 acres in Sections 3 and 4, Township 27 South, Range 30 East, Willamette Meridian, Oregon.  (He entered another claim on 39.62 acres of Desert Land shortly thereafter, but that claim was canceled.)

Homestead land entry clip two

That puts Grampa’s claim right on the south shore of Malheur Lake.  Way to go, Grampa.  160 lakefront acres for $16.00!

Plat map detail

1886 survey

The Homestead Act required that a settler undertake basic agricultural improvements and reside on the land for five years.  In 1911 Grampa proved his claim and received his Land Patent.

Grampa Smith's Land Patent

Land Patent, Roy C Smith, 1911

Grampa did not stay in Oregon very long after proving his claim.  I always believed that he sold out to raise a stake . . . or that he was a straw man to begin with. Lots of big ranches became enormous ranches by arranging for associates to acquire homestead land that would then become grazing land with attached water rights.

On the other hand, the homesteading “boom” was brief in Harney County. The region is mostly high desert, and there was an extended drought in the 1910s. Maybe Grampa just went bust.  Or figured it would go that way.

In any case, the family narrative says that he headed east with some hard-earned cash. By 1916 Grampa was in Minnesota looking for a wife, and our family history took a decided turn toward the Great Lakes.

Still, I was curious about that 160 acres.  I did a little mousing around in the history of the area.  I knew that it had long been home to the Northern Paiutes.  I knew that it was part of lengthy “negotiations” between imperial Great Britain and the upstart United States.  I knew that during the 1870s the Paiutes were forced onto a reservation there, and that in 1879 even the promise of the reservation was broken.  I knew that the conventional wisdom was that the land wasn’t good for anything but raising cattle, but that it was pretty darned good for that–if you could control a source of water.

I learned that Grampa’s particular piece eventually became part of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.  The refuge was created in 1908, during the administration of Teddy Roosevelt, from unclaimed public lands, and expanded over the years through purchase of privately held land. I never did a title search on Grampa’s land, but the chances are good that it became part of the holdings of the Eastern Oregon Livestock Company, which were in turn sold to the United States in 1935 as an addition to the Malheur Refuge.

All that research was awhile ago.  Since then, thanks to my obsession with Antrim County Civil War veterans, I’ve learned a lot more about homesteading and about the public lands in general.  I spend a lot of time with historic Government Land Office records on the BLM website.  I pored over Paul W Gates’s monumental History of Public Land Law Development, now out of print, which I borrowed from the MSU library, and which you can find online here. That was instructive.

In recent weeks the history of the public lands, particularly the public lands in Harney County Oregon, has been much on my mind. On January 2 a group of armed men from Nevada, Arizona and Montana, described by themselves as patriots and as a militia, occupied the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. As this is written, many of them, including the leaders, have been arrested and indicted. One is dead, killed during the arrests. Four continue to occupy the Refuge.

I take it all personally.

I am not going to try to untangle all of that for you. I have listened to a great deal of the radio coverage from Oregon Public Broadcasting, and have found it thoughtful, illuminating, and blessedly local.  I refer you there for many, many local perspectives on the issue. [Useful update: OPB is assembling all its stories on Malheur into An Armed Occupation in Eastern Oregon.]

It is heartbreaking to hear the people of Harney County describe the anguish they feel over the occupation and the way it has torn up their community. Recently some of the folks in Burns and Hines have begun tying orange ribbons–symbolizing unity–at various places around their hometowns.  Towns that, had Grampa made different choices in 1916, might have been my hometown.

This post is by way of being a great big orange bow tied around the Writing Studio and Bait Shop in neighborly solidarity with the folks in Harney County who want nothing more than to be left in peace to repair their torn-up relationships.

As for that 160 and 44/100ths acres that Grampa homesteaded, it is now public land.  “The public lands” belong to all Americans: me, and you, and that guy over there.  We welcome visitors from all over the world.  All of us get to use them.  Not just this guy or that guy but all of us.  If there’s a reason to change the way all of us use the land, all of us get to ponder that.  All of us get to decide.  Not just–especially not just–those guys over there who brought guns to the conversation.  All of us.  That’s what the “public” part means.  And that’s what the American part means, too.