A Nebraska Land Lottery

Land registration at Broken Bow, held October 13-25, 1913. NSHS RG3335.PH4-56

The desire to own land and the availability of cheap land were important factors in the settlement of the West. U.S. government land laws in Nebraska between 1854 and 1904 moved much of the public domain into private ownership. Two laws especially important to this state were the Homestead Act in 1862, which gave applicants up to 160 acres of land in return for living on it and fulfilling certain conditions in developing it, and the Kinkaid Act of 1904, which gave each homesteader in designated areas of Nebraska 640 acres rather than 160.  

As free land became scarce throughout the country, ways were found to distribute the remaining land,  classified into that suitable for farming and that suitable for grazing. In the former, 160-acre homesteads could be taken, and in the latter, 640 acres. In 1913, more than 76,000 people registered for tracts to be given away in a Nebraska land lottery. The land came from two sources: the Fort Niobrara military reservation, which had been abandoned by the army, and some U.S. forest reserve land.  

Land registration at Broken Bow, held October 13-25, 1913. NSHS RG3335.PH4-57

The lottery was widely advertised by the railroads. Drawings were held at Valentine and Broken Bow, October 13-25, and at North Platte, beginning October 28, amid great excitement. There was also an active trade in “lucky numbers,” as many who didn’t really intend to live on the land sold their chances to aspiring farmers and ranchers. By today’s standards, the odds of winning were good. About two thousand of the applicants were successful.  

Once on the land, success wasn’t so easy. The wet years and high prices of the World War I era were replaced by the low prices of the 1920s and the dry years of the 1930s. Many lottery winners eventually sold out to neighboring ranchers, and moved on. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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