Memories of Mellette County homestead days

By Kristan Krogman

April 15 marks a special date in the history of Mellette County. It was on that date in 1912 that homesteaders began filing on the land. Excitement prevailed as the promise of growth for the young county took root. 

Many from most everywhere across the nation made inquiries in letters to folks in the area and the local commercial club. In a letter included in the Mellette County News that was sent to the first few thousand inquiries, chickens, brood mares, milk cows, were among the things suggested to bring along. “All clothing and eatables and the necessaries of life are here in abundance and you can buy them as cheap as you can anywhere,” it said. Thousands consequently registered and then awaited correspondence with further instruction.

Homesteaders, after having registered, were assigned numbers by drawing and consequently notified, based on the numbers they drew, to appear in White River on a certain date to select a tract of homestead land. The land was graded and assigned a price ranging from $6.00 down to 25¢. Those with the highest numbers had first choice in selection of the land.

The first numbers were drawn Monday, April 15 and despite a heavy ran just days before, most all of the homesteaders with early numbers made it to White River to make their selections. “J.H. Wood of the Chamberlain Land Office is in full charge of the filing and is handling it with much credit to himself and the land department, -- everything is going off smoothly.” (April 18, 1912, MC News)

Forty two out of the first 50 numbers called responded and made selections within only a few days. Homesteaders had fifteen days after their number was called to respond and make selection and payment. By the time the fifteen days were up for the first fifty numbers, all fifty had paid the money and filed on the land. Three later dropped out and the land went back into the pool of available quarters. Most of the land taken by those with early numbers was in the eastern portion of the county and ranged in the $3-$5 dollar range. 

Filings continued in the weeks ahead. The first week, there were three hundred numbers called. It was later reported that of those first 300 numbers, 230 responded and made selections and out of those 230, only fifteen failed to follow through with filing and paying.

The Spring filings closed on Monday, May 27, after 4,000 numbers had been called. The May 30 Mellette County News reported that 682 responded and made selections and actual filings, though the fifteen days was not up for the final 194 numbers and some of those were expected to make selections. 

“It has been one of the most successful filings ever conducted by Uncle Sam. We do not mean by this that there has been more good land given away and less complaint by the number holders but we do mean to say that this has been the quietest, best conducted, best and most orderly crowd. There has been no gambling, no boozing, no fighting and very little complaint on the part of the number holders regarding their treatment and accommodations and of the land.”

A list of the first 100 filers was printed in the MC News on April 18, 1912, though because number holders were allowed to make their selections up to fifteen days following the drawing, some of the names were unavailable. It is also possible that for some of those holding the numbers, no selection or official filing was ever made.  

Among the names missing in the first 100 are numbers 15, 28, 29, 30, 42, 46, 47, 48, 54, 74, 77, 84. (If you have evidence in a family history or some other record that lists one of the unaccounted for names, you can contact us here at the office, 259-3642. Visit our website at www.mellettecountynews.com for a complete list of those who filed with the first 100 numbers.)

Two interesting side notes that came out of the Spring homesteading were reported in the pages of the Mellette County News from 1912.

Filer No. 1, Mary J. Kendall of Rapid City selected NE 1-4, Sec 15, Twp 41, R26, seven miles northeast of Wood. In the May 16, 1912, edition of the Mellette County News, the sale of that land was reported due to relinquishment by Mrs. Kendall. J.G. Renwich of Harrisonville, Missouri, purchased the land. “Mr. and Mrs. Kendall are poor people and did not have the money to prove up their claim and improve it,” read the article. “Mr. Kendall being a cripple, Mrs. Kendall is the support of the family and this is done by selling fruit and vegetables on the streets in Rapid City, their home. With the money they received they can now build them a home and pay for it and live comfort, which  perhaps is much better than undertaking to prove up on their claim.”

Another homesteader, Benie Heney, No. 37, was the first homesteader in Mellette County to put up his shack and begin his residence. Unmarried and without a family, he selected land near Col. Jordan’s ranch south of Wood. It was less than two months after having selected his land that he suffered injuries in an accident that took his life. 

He “met with a bad accident last Sunday (May 26, 1912), while driving a team hitched to a corn planter. Mr. Heney stopped the team which was a pair of bronchos, in order to fix something about the harness and while doing so, the team became frightened and started to run, knocking Heney down and running over him.” The following week, in the June 6 edition, his neck having been stepped on by one of the horses, his death was reported.

Later, in the July 11 edition, it was reported that another round of filing was to begin on August 15 “and enough numbers will be called to take up all of the best of the land that remains.” It was then reported that only two thousand of the remaining four thousand numbers would be called. “After that the squatter will have their turn and no doubt will squat on all that is open.” 

At the start of the second round of filing, there were 800 open quarters of land in the county. With farm land held at a premium and much of the best of that taken in the first round in the Spring, it was a question as to how many of the number holders would elect to respond to the calling of their number. Only a “scattering few” quarters of land remained valued between $2 and $3 and any valued at greater than that was taken in the Spring. In the $1-$2 range there remained 264; 278 in the range of 75¢-$1; and 249 in the 75¢-25¢ range. 

The September 5, 1912, edition read as follows: “The last of the eight thousand number holders in the Rosebud and Pine Ridge land filing closed yesterday. The last man to file was Mr. M. Dunleary of Howard, Nebr. In the second filing, 135 responded and made selections. There are still 600 claims open to settlement and these will be thrown open to the squatter on October 1st at 9 o’clock. There are still many quarters of good land open to entry.”

The homesteaders faced hardships both expected and unexpected and encountered things we can only imagine today. The lifestyle and fortitude they displayed made the country what it is today, and those who have followed in their footsteps can only think back on their predecessors with wonderment and gratitude.

 Box F, White River, SD 57579 • 605-259-3642 • mcnews@gwtc.net

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