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Life on the American and Australian frontiers have a strikingly similar history. For example, take the American Homestead Act, and the Australian Act of Selection, which is the basis for my novels, Frontier Belle and Fiery Possession.
America: The original Homestead Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20th, 1862. It gave applicants freehold title to up to 160 acres of undeveloped federal land west of the Mississippi River. The law required only three steps from the applicant – file an application, improve the land, then file for a deed of title. Anyone who had never taken up arms against the U.S. government, including freed slaves, could file a claim on the provisions that they were over the age of twenty one and had lived on the land for five years.
Most of us visualise the frontier home as a rustic log cabin nestled in a peaceful mountain valley or on a sweeping green plain. But in reality, the “little house on the prairie” was often not much more than a shack or a hastily scratched out hole in the ground. In the treeless lands of the plains and prairies, log cabins were out of the question so homesteaders turned to the ground beneath their feet for shelter. The sod house, or “soddy,” was one of the most common dwellings in the frontier west.
Of course, there were drawbacks to sod-house living. As the house was built of dirt and grass, it was constantly infested with bugs, mice, snakes. The sod roofs often leaked, which turned the dirt floor into a quagmire. Wet roofs took days to dry out and the enormous weight of the wet earth often caused roof cave-ins.
A typical American log cabin measured about ten by twenty feet, regardless of the number of inhabitants. Typically, frontier cabins featured only one room, which served as kitchen, dining room, living room, workroom, and bedroom.
Australia: In the colony of Victoria the 1860 Land Act allowed free selection of crown land. This included land already occupied by the squatters, (ranchers) who had managed to circumvent the law for years and keep land that they did not legally own.
The Act allowed selectors access to the squatters’ land, and they could purchase between 40 and 320 acres of crown land, but after that, the authorities left them to fend for themselves. Not an easy task against the wealthy, often ruthless squatters who were incensed at what they thought was theft of their land.
The first permanent homesteads on the Australian frontier were constructed using posts and split timber slabs. Early settlers learnt from the aborigines that large sheets of bark could be cut and peeled off a variety of trees and used as sheets to clad the roof.
Anyone ever live in a log cabin or soddy?
Margaret Tanner is a multi-published Award winning Australian author. She loves delving into the pages of history as she carries out research for her historical romance novels, and prides herself on being historically accurate. Many of her novels have been inspired by true events, with one being written around the hardships and triumphs of her pioneering ancestors in frontier Australia.
Margaret is married with three grown up sons, and two gorgeous little granddaughters. Outside of her family and friends, writing is her passion.