At the height of the Civil War (at President Lincoln's urging), the Homestead Act was passed, giving 160 acres of government land to any head of a household, who lived on the land (and made certain improvements) for five years. The law went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863.
At Beatrice, Nebraska, Daniel Freeman became the first recipients of a homestead parcel under the new law. Freeman, a Union soldier on leave, was attending a New Year's Eve party in Beatrice. At the party Freeman, who was to leave early the next morning to report to his outfit in St. Louis, persuaded one of the clerks of the land office to open up the office at midnight, so that Freeman might file his claim. That was accomplished and thus, Freeman became the first claimant of 160 acres of land under the new law. Presumably, his time in the Army counted toward the 5-year requirement to live on the land.
During the war years there were relatively few settlers to file a claim, but after the war this activity greatly accelerated. In April 1872 Russell Loomis (Mary's father) sold his 30 acre farm in Michigan and set out by train with his 11 year old son, Myron, to Nebraska City, to join his cousin, Wm. McKinney to look over land on which to settle in SW Nebraska.
McKinney had visited the area a year earlier with Freighter, Royal Buck and a party which included, among others, John Longnecker. He had returned from that trip with glowing stories of rich land to farm, flowing streams teeming with fish, and buffalo and wild game to hunt, all of which stirred Russell's imagination. He needed to see the land for himself.
Russell Loomis contracted with Royal Buck to haul his 4000 pounds of household goods and farm equipment, via ox cart to Red Willow Country. The oxen could cover 8 or 10 miles a day. (Towing two milk cows, not yet broken to the yoke did not speed up the trip.) They made the trip from Nebraska City to the claim on Red Willow Creek in three weeks. The trip was truly an adventure for Myron, who delighted in seeing buffalo by the thousands, and catching enough fish for the entire crew in just a few hours.
Russell immediately set out to make his claim into a home. The first day he hired one of the men to break out an acre of ground and began to plant corn as the sod was turned over. Their first shelter was made of woven willow boughs reinforced by poles. For the roof they used Mary's mother's proudest possession -- a brand new hand woven rag carpet.
Almost immediately Russell sent word that his wife and family should join them in Nebraska. In June 1872 Mrs. Loomis, her children, and her brother, Heman Cooley set out from their home in Michigan to relocate with Russell on his claim. The trip to Nebraska City took three days by train, on hard uncomfortable seats, in a train car heated by a stove at either end.
At the Missouri River the rail ended and the little party was ferried across to Nebraska City. There they camped for some time, while Mary's Uncle shopped around for a tent, a yoke of oxen, a milk cow, and wagon bows and cover. Mrs. Loomis had had the chassis for their wagon shipped from Michigan. By the time the prairie schooner was rigged for the trip to Red Willow County she had exactly 25 cents -- 25 cents for a 300 mile trip! Because of their limited finances, their menu was sparse -- soda crackers, milk and strained honey brought from home.
Mary's Uncle Heman walked beside the oxen, whip in hand. One of the children walked behind the cow, to keep her moving. The rest of the family rode on top of the household goods stowed in the wagon. Mother Loomis rode in the seat of the wagon, face covered with a large sunbonnet, carrying three-month old, George (Washington) in her arms. No one complained.
The town of Lincoln was a small village of some dozen unpainted houses and buildings. A crew of men was working on the railroad, which promised to cross the state. 125 miles west of Lincoln the little party camped near old Fort Kearney and heard about the Indian raids, when settlers took refuge in the confines of the walls of the fort. Here, also, stage coaches stopped to relay horses and leave the mail.
The journey was long -- and hot -- and dry, as they traveled from sunup until dusk. Mary had never been so thirsty. The oxen drank from an occasional buffalo wallow, but the family could not bring themselves to drink from those dirty, muddy puddles. When the night was upon them they came to a stream of running water. The boys ran down the steep bank to fill a tea kettle. They drank directly from the spout of the kettle. Nothing ever tasted so good!
For several days they fell in with a man and his son who were driving a team of horses, bound for Arapahoe. They had their pets, a dog and a cat. As Mary picked up the cat to stroke her by the fire the dog sprang at her and bit her quite severely on the head. The dog's owner smeared some salve and bandaged her wound. She was scarred, and badly frightened, but OK.
One day Mary was sitting on a trunk in the front part of the wagon. She must have dozed off and fell off the wagon behind the oxen. One wheel of the wagon passed over her arm. Uncle Heman saw the fall and shouted for the oxen to stop before the back wheels touched her body. A close call, which could have been a fatal accident, but thankfully only resulted in a lame arm.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity they approached the Republican Valley. Mrs. Loomis, riding in the front seat exclaimed, "I believe that's Russell coming." Even from a great distance they could recognize his walk. He had known their approximate arrival date and had come to meet them. All the children who could walk clambered out of the wagon and ran to meet their father. It was a joyful reunion.
The following morning, while driving the oxen through a buffalo wallow, one wheel of the wagon broke. The men traveled to Arapahoe to borrow a saw, axe, and drawing knife from their neighbor, and using a well-seasoned ash pole, which the beaver had gnawed on, made spokes of the timber, fitted them into the hub and wheel, to make a wheel that was almost as good as new, and one which lasted for another four years.
The children were so happy to be with their father once again that they ran along behind him as the wagon rolled along. They were barefoot and soon learned that in this country the abundance of cactus needles make running barefoot something you just don't do.
At last they climbed a sloping hill onto the divide until they came to the crest of the hill leading down into a beautiful little valley, shut away from the rest of the world, and to make it perfect, there was a wooded stream, which flowed lazily on its way to the Republican.
One of the first things to meet Mary's Mother's eyes was the now much faded rag carpet -- the roof of the willow shelter. It was only later that she told Mary how hurt she was at the time to see her prized carpet used for such a purpose, but at the time she was so happy that the family was once more united that she had not said anything.
The family lived in the tent they had brought and the willow shack only long enough till the men had enough logs to make a one-room long house. Later two more rooms were added and a room was fixed upstairs, where the boys slept.
And so it was, the beginning of the Loomis family in their new home in Southwest Nebraska, "A wild land where the only conveniences were air to breathe, water to drink, and a prairie moon to sleep by -- where the Indians and the rattlers were your deadliest enemies and every white man was your friend."
-- Source: Prairie Schooner Days, an unpublished manuscript by Mary Loomis McDonald