On this date 158 years ago, a wartime U.S. president signed legislation that was of interest to the men under his command. The statute was the Homestead Act of 1862. Designed to open the American West to settlement, it was tailored specifically to help Union Army veterans get a new start in life after the Civil War.
Many of those soldiers, including a U.S. Army scout named Daniel Freeman, didn't wait that long. While en route from one military assignment to another, Freeman persuaded a clerk in Gage County, Neb., to open the county courthouse at 10 minutes after midnight on Jan. 1, 1863 -- the date the Homestead Act took effect -- to file his claim. He was one of 418 Americans who took advantage of the law the first day it was on the books.
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Daniel Freeman was born in Ohio, but his parents had a nomadic streak and he was raised in New York and later Illinois, which is where he was living when the Civil War broke out. Although old for military service at age 35, Freeman enlisted anyway.
He was either a widower with three children or a divorcee -- the records are inconclusive -- but while in the Army his life took an unexpected turn with the death of his younger brother, James, also a Union soldier. Freeman subsequently began corresponding with his brother's betrothed, a woman from Iowa named Agnes Suiter.
From his letters, which he addressed initially to "Miss Agnes" and subsequently to "Friend Agnes," we learn that Freeman was friends with Miss Suiter's brothers. More importantly, at some point he offered his own hand in marriage. More importantly still, Agnes, who had begun her correspondence by calling him "Brother Dan" before settling on "Dear Friend Dan," didn't keep her devoted pen pal in what today would be called "the friend zone." What I mean to say is that she accepted his proposal.
The couple wed in 1865 as the Civil War was finally coming to an end. By then, Dan was living in Beatrice, Neb., which today is the Gage County seat. They would go on to build houses and barns on their land, farm it for decades, and have eight children, seven of whom survived into adulthood. None of those buildings remain today, although the place is a national monument paying homage to the early homesteaders.
By the turn of the century, Daniel Freeman became briefly famous for challenging the local school board, which was acquiescing to a local teacher's desires to weave Biblical instruction into the course work at Freeman School, which is also a national landmark. He fought the case all the way to the state Supreme Court -- and won.
Daniel died in 1908 and is buried on his homestead. The brick home he built there burned down 10 years later, but his kids built a cabin for Agnes to replace it, and she lived there until her death in 1931.
Some of their letters remain, however, including one in which she revealed her heart to the second Freeman she'd fallen in love with:
"You have known me and I have known you by reputation a long time," she wrote. "I remember of hearing James speak of his brother Dan when I first became acquainted with him -- I have known something of your family ever since I was a mere child.
"I was but … sixteen when I was engaged to your Brother James. Allow me to say dear friend that he was my first love. I have felt ever since he died that none other could take his place in affections. … But since I was mysteriously induced to address a few lines to you last fourth of July -- I have felt that perhaps I was destined to cheer the heart of another."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.