Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Timber Culture Act — by Ellen O'Connell

Because of a slot switch, I’m doing two posts this month close together, so it seems fitting they be on related subjects. That’s only my excuse, however. My guess is most of the writers who participate in this blog (and who visit it) are like me—you start out researching something you need to know and end up spending extra hours following up on all sorts of interesting tidbits that turned up in the original research.

That’s what happened to me in my research on the Preemption and Homestead Acts that I talked about in my last post. I needed to know how settlers acquired title to land before the Homestead Act and exactly what the requirements of the Homestead Act were. Did I stop there? Of course not. I saw all sorts of fascinating information I just had to pursue.

One of the most extraordinary, in my opinion, was the Timber Culture Act. This Act was passed in 1873. It allowed settlers to claim an additional 160 acres of land if they planted trees on 40 of those acres (later reduced to 10). The Act was authored by Senator Phineas W. Hitchcock of Nebraska.

One of the references I saw called the Act “farcical,” and that’s how it strikes me. I know some of the land available for homestead had to be different, but I live in Colorado. I’ve driven over vast parts of Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming and bits of Nevada, Montana, South Dakota, New Mexico, and Arizona. If some ignorant politician from the East who had never seen the Great Plains proposed such a law, I could understand it. How on earth a senator from Nebraska could is beyond me.

The sources I found all state that you had to plant 2,700 trees per acre, and I keep thinking they must have that wrong that it must have been 2,700 trees per ten acres. I’m not sure if you planted trees as close as petunias you could fit 2,700 on an acre. Yet I also see that at prove-up time, you were supposed to have 675 living trees per acre, so maybe it really was 2,700.

Considering the dry lands of the West and that we’re talking pre-irrigation times here, I can’t believe anyone could have complied except those fortunate few who homesteaded in areas other than the treeless plains that the Act was passed to improve. And if your Oregon or Washington homestead was already covered with trees, where would you plant another 2,700 per acre?

The settler had 8 years to prove his tree claim and could get a 5-year extension. Evidently some plopped down on the land for 13 rent-free years. Of course ranchers had employees filing claims left and right (true of the Homestead Act also).

The purpose of the law was to give settlers the opportunity obtain an additional 160 acres (after their Homestead Act claim on 160 acres), to provide a future source of wood on the woodless Great Plains, and hopefully to make the arid climate more humid (which might work at the rate of 2,700 trees per acre if they actually ever grew, which they wouldn’t). Nebraska did a lot of other things to encourage tree planting, another research black hole I’m not diving down today.

So the Timber Culture Act was a massive failure and repealed in 1891. In 1884 a Land Office representative estimated that as high as 90% of the timber claims had no trees, although about 20% of homesteaders also filed tree claims and more than 2 million acres were eventually considered proved and claimants got title. I found one site that said in 1974 a C.B. McIntosh visited 49 of the tracts given final certification and found that only one of those still had trees. Cynic that I am, I wonder if the "still" in that statement should have been "ever."

Even that One is hard for me to believe. As a Colorado resident, I have to tell you I’m laughing again just typing this. I look outside, try to imagine 2,700 trees on an acre, try to imagine keeping them alive in the days when irrigation meant hauling water, and can’t get over the foolishness. Even if a family had a well or a nearby source of water and hauled water day and night throughout the summer months, all I see is the family dying of exhaustion and the trees dying a few days later. That's if the baby trees lived long enough to die from lack of water and didn't get eaten by grasshoppers first.

Then there was the Desert Land Act of 1877—I’m not pursuing that one. I’m not. I’m not.

Above Creative Commons photo is by Patricia D. Duncan and is of rare undisturbed (unplowed) tall grass prairie with a stand of cottonwood trees in the northeast corner of Kansas.


Jacquie Rogers said...

That's a lot of trees! Wonder if anyone actually did it. I also wonder if he knows what an acre is. Holy moly. Wow, I didn't know any of this. Are you sure you're not going to tell us about the Desert Land Act?

Ellen O'Connell said...

Not only is it a lot of trees, remember the original Act required you to plant 40 out of 160 acres in trees. At 2,700 per acre that would be 108,000. Later the requirement was reduced to 10 acres, but that's still 27,000. I don't care how big and vigorous families were, I can't imagine setting out to plant and water 27,000 seedlings in Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, etc., in say 1880. If only the Act had been authored by some Easterner who never got west of the Adirondacks, it would be easier to believe somehow.

Desert Land Act. No, nope, not. Not going to investigate. Never. Not me. No.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Ellen, thanks for this post. I had never heard of this Act. For years, my husband and I had an orchard. At one time, we had 1200 trees. We even experimented with the Israeli method of planting trees close and laying irrigation liness. The orchard was on about ten acres. Beliece me, the Israeli method did not work because we didn't have enough water in our well to irrigate that many trees. As you pointed out, there is no way anyone could grow 2700 trees per acre! All I can say is...Politicians!

Ellen O'Connell said...

Hey, Caroline, it's nice to hear from someone who knows for sure. There are tree farms near here. I look at them, look at acre lots and just don't see 2,700 on an acre, even cheek by jowl the way the farms have them. They do have irrigation lines running up and down the rows, of course, although I don't know if that's the Israeli method. I'm on a well too and hadn't even thought of the limitation of quantity of water, just the labor involved. Maybe it should be a comfort to know the government was infected with idiots back then too, but somehow it's not.

Lyn Horner said...

Ellen, you've outdone yourself. What great information! I wonder how many americans have even heard of the Timber culture Act. I don't think it was ever mentioned in american History class. That may say a lot about how unsuccessful it was. Still, this bit of crazy legislation could make for an interesting plot device. Thanks much!

Devon Matthews said...

I thought nothing about politicians could surprise me anymore, but this surprised me. LOL! Wonder what 2,700 trees on an acre would look like. We have nearly an acre here and when we first bought the place, it was very woodsy with all the big, native trees. Through the years, we've had to have most of them removed--all tolled between 40 and 45 trees. 2,700? Nope. No way. Great post, Ellen. :)

Ellen O'Connell said...

Thanks, ladies. The trouble with using obscure bits of history like this in our stories is explaining it well enough for a reader to understand without it being an info dump. I'm having that problem already with the preemption concept in my current book.

Meg said...

I remember reading the First Four Years in the Little House series, when Laura's husband Almanzo Wilder took out a tree claim and failed. If trees were supposed to grow on prairie land, they'd have been there already! LOL Besides cottonwoods near creeks, of course. Great post, Ellen!

Theresa Young said...

Forestry was the buzz word in the 1870's. The T.C. act was a culmination of public sentiment. I study this topic and dedicate a whole chapter of my masters thesis to this topic, very cool stuff. And by the way, it was possible and many did accomplish their goals and acquire the 160 acres.

My works have yet to be published, but here is an article you might find interesting.

Theresa Young