"Free Land!" The cry resounded throughout the nation and helped to shape modern America. The community of Beatrice, the Nebraska Humanities Council, and the Homestead National Monument of America will host the “Free Land? 1862 and the Shaping of Modern America” Chautauqua May 20-25. This will be in conjunction with the kick-off of a year of events commemorating the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Homestead Act.
Participants will have the opportunity to engage in the consequences of the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railway Act, and the Morrill Act on Nebraska, the Great Plains, and the United States as a nation. All three pieces of legislation were passed within six weeks of each other in 1862.
To help interpret the story, six well-known historical figures will come to life through scholarly portrayals of Union general and railroad builder Grenville Dodge, author Willa Cather, Ponca Chief Standing Bear, author and homesteader Laura Ingalls Wilder, homesteader and inventor George Washington Carver, and humorist Mark Twain who will serve as moderator.
According to Kristi Hayek, Nebraska Humanities Council Chautauqua coordinator, the characters will help to tell the stories surrounding the 1862 legislation, how it benefited those who took advantage of the potential, and how it affected those who suffered from it as a result.
Patrick E. McGinnis will portray Grenville Dodge, U.S. Army general and chief engineer for the Union Pacific Railroad. McGinnis holds a Ph.D. from Tulane University and is emeritus professor of history at the University of Central Oklahoma.
Paxton Williams will portray George Washington Carver, noted inventor and botanist. Williams is the former executive director of the George Washington Carver Birthplace Association in Diamond, Missouri.
Taylor Keen will portray Standing Bear, Ponca chief who was involved in a court case in 1879 that was the first step in establishing basic civil rights for Native Americans. Keen serves as director of the Native American Center and lecturer at Creighton University.
Karen Vuranch will portray Laura Ingalls Wilder, homesteader and author of the beloved “Little House” books. Vuranch is an instructor at Concord University in West Virginia and has participated in living-history presentations portraying 10 different characters.
Betty Jean Steinshouer will portray Willa Cather, Pulitzer Prize-winning author from Nebraska. Steinshouer has portrayed Cather in 44 states and in Canada and portrays a number of other female authors in the Chautauqua-style for the Florida Humanities Council.
Warren Brown will portray Mark Twain, humorist and author who wrote on American culture and politics. As moderator, he will provide context and offer a national perspective to the observations and experiences of the other characters. Brown has portrayed Mark Twain in more than 1,000 performances nationwide.
The scholars will be in character costume to attend a May 20th event featuring entertainment and speeches commemorating the signing of the Homestead Act. The actual document will be on loan from the National Archives April 25th through May 28th at Homestead National Monument of America.
Each evening of the Chautauqua week, a different scholar will portray his or her character. After the presentation, the scholar will answer questions as the character and then step out of character to answer questions about the historical figure.
Chautauqua is made possible through funding from the National Endowment for Humanities, the Nebraska Cultural Endowment, Friends of Homestead National Monument of America, and the state of Nebraska.
Article submitted and compiled by Bette Anne Thaut, member of the Beatrice Chautauqua Committee.