Digging Up Family Roots…The homestead cowboy

by Bill Miller

It is amazing how a single newspaper ad can change your life and your family tree forever. The advertisements started about the end of the Civil War, offering a homestead of 160 acres in the middle of nowhere for $8. Joseph Dorsey Bowers, fresh home from the war, jumped at the idea. He took his young wife, my wife’s great-aunt, Matilda Ann Ross Bowers, and two-year old daughter, Ida Belle, and they rode the train to Missouri. From there they moved to Colfax County, Nebraska. They never returned to West Virginia, but fortunately Matilda never lost contact with her family. In fact, her family made several trips to Nebraska, and the family tree stayed healthy.          

That is one of the reasons so many family trees suddenly stop in the 1860s. Their ancestors moved off the radar screen of family data. It was land that drew the most migrants to the West. Family farms were the backbone of the agricultural economy that expanded in the West after the Civil War. In 1862, northerners in Congress passed the Homestead Act, allowing male citizens (or those who declared their intent to become citizens) to claim federally-owned lands in the West. Settlers could head west, choose a 160 acre surveyed section of land, file a claim, and begin “improving” the land by plowing fields, building houses and barns and digging wells. After five years of living on the land, they could apply for the official title and deed to the land. Joseph, Matilda, and Ida Belle joined hundreds of thousands of Americans who used the Homestead Act to acquire land. The treeless plains that had been considered unfit for settlement became the new agricultural mecca for land-hungry Americans. Western populations exploded. The Plains were transformed. In 1860, for example, Kansas had about 10,000 farms; in 1880 it had 239,000. 

Joseph Dorsey Bowers was born too early. His mother, Harriet E. Baker, was only age 14. His father, John, was 21. Joseph was born February 7, 1840 in Sheperdstown, Virginia, the first of seven children, five boys and two sisters. By 1844, this Virginia farm family moved west, almost to the Ohio River, stopping near what is now Morgantown, WV. They claimed some farm land on White Day Creek. In 1861 Joseph met and married their neighbor, Matilda Ann Ross, my wife’s great-aunt. One year later, August 27, 1862, he enlisted in the 12th WV Infantry and was mustered in for a term of three years. Four months later, he was sick and in the Cumberland, Maryland hospital. From then until the end of the war he was assigned as an orderly to brigade headquarters.  In May 1863, Ida Belle was born, the first of their 12 children (six boys and six girls). The next 11 children were born on the Nebraska homestead, where their help was needed. The Bowers family photo shows Joseph and Matilda with their first five children. The baby, Laken, was born in March 1870, so that is the date of the photo. Joseph is 30 and life is good in the Bowers homestead. 

Seven more children would come, their home was large enough for a family of 14, plus guests, there were more than enough horses for everyone and the range was covered with cattle. The American farmer’s dream had come true. His $8 investment and nearly four decades of hard work by the whole family fulfilled their American Dream of a homestead and a ranch. Thirty-five years after the Civil War, the Bowers family sat down together in the parlor of their home and took the photo below. Two children were missing because they had died. Laken died at age seven and Ida Belle died at age 23, but the large family appears to be doing very well. Their children are my wife’s 1st cousins.

The moral of this story, for family historians, may be that if you lose track of a family in the 1860s you might want to look west. You may find a Homestead Cowboy in your family.

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