Behind the Tree Claims

When the early settlers first came to the Dakota Territory there were very few to no trees. The railroad company would plant trees as they went along to help mark their way, and the one in De Smet became known as the Lone Tree. This was the only tree in De Smet when the Ingalls family first arrived and it even made an appearance in The Long Winter. During Almanzo Wilder’s and Cap Garland’s brave trip for the wheat they used the “Lone Cottonwood” as a point of reference in the snow-covered prairie (Long Winter 270). Due to the lack of trees the government wanted to entice the settlers to plant trees, which was where the Timber Culture Act came in.

Many people know about the Homestead Act of 1862, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, which gave settlers 160 acres of land for $1.25 per acre. This act lured many people into the area with cheap land and the idea of moving west. However, there was another act that brought many people to the area and is less known. That is the Timber Culture Act of 1873. Senator Hitchcock from Nebraska described the goal of the act in a Senate debate, “the object of this bill is to encourage the growth of timber, not merely for the benefit of the soil, not merely for the value of the timber itself, but for its influence upon the climate.”[1] Some senators pushed for this act because the west needed timber for fuel, while other senators pushed it because they believed that the tree would bring more rainfall to the region. Either way the government wanted a way to entice settlers to plant trees.

With the Timber Culture Act settlers could get 160 acres, possibly in addition to their homestead land, to plant forty acres of trees on. Originally there was not an age requirement for the land; however, when the act was amended in 1874 the government made the requirements the same as the Homestead Act, twenty-one or head of household, and citizen or soon to be citizen. In this amendment, the government also made a schedule with certain “deadlines” for planting the trees. The act was amended a second time in 1878, which lowed the required acres of trees planted from forty to ten. It also helped out settlers as it made exceptions for trees that were destroyed due to the harsh climate.

Ultimately this act did not pan out as intended. It had many loopholes and flaws as some homesteaders got away without planting trees on their tree claims. If the homesteader was not able to plant all the trees they could preempt the land, which meant the homesteader could purchase the land and possibly sell it later. Due to loopholes like this, ultimately the act was repealed on March 3rd, 1891.

Almanzo had gotten his homestead and tree claim in 1879, 6 years before he married Laura. He had proved up his homestead in five years; however, he and Laura were not able to prove up their tree claim with in the allotted time, which was about eight years, and thus Almanzo preempted the land.[2] Laura talked about her and Almanzo’s tree claim in The First Four Years. She discussed how the trees were not doing well and they needed to have ten acres of trees planted. Their trees also had to be given extra care because “for years from now there must be the ten acres with the right number of growing trees in order to prove up on the tree claim and get a title to the land” (First Four Years 47). Laura wrote that by the end of her and Almanzo’s fourth year of marriage nearly all the trees on their ten acres were killed (First Four Years 121). There was no point in replanting them because either way they could not fulfill the requirements for the Timber Culture Act. In August of 1888 Almanzo filed an intent to preempt his land and then in 1890 he purchased the land for $200.2 The failure of Laura and Almanzo’s tree claim did not help their terrible first four years; however, their troubles were not unusual. As I had mentioned earlier, the Act was repealed in 1891 due to people preempting the land as the trees did not grow well out here.

Over time De Smet has been able to overcome the difficulty of growing trees and today there are a fair number of trees in the De Smet area. There is even a De Smet Forest which can be seen off Highway 14 on the eastern side of De Smet.


[1] C. Barron McIntosh, author. 1975. “Use and Abuse of the Timber Culture Act.” Annals Of The Association Of American Geographers no, 3: 347. JSTOR Journals, EBSCOhost (accessed June 30, 2017).


[2] Cleaveland, Nancy. 2011. “what happened to almanzo’s claims?” (accessed July 11, 2017).


One comment on “Behind the Tree Claims

  1. Nansie Cleaveland says:

    In your first paragraph, are you confusing the Lone Tree west of De Smet near the railroad track with the Lone Tree that stood between Lakes Henry and Thompson? The Twin Lakes tree is where Pa got the seedlings and was the tree mentioned in The Long Winter, and it was already a big tree in 1879 (2 feet in diameter and 50 feet tall).

    Some time prior to 1900 (according to an issue of the De Smet News from the 1970s), someone from the railroad or connected with the depot planted a cottonwood tree west of De Smet; it was also called the Lone Tree. That one had something to do with the approach to the depot by a train from Huron and how fast it needed to be going to make it over a rise and into De Smet.

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