April 30, 2021 — What does he plant who plants a tree?

He plants, in sap and leaf and wood, In love of home and loyalty –

And far-cast thought of civic good, His blessing on the neighborhood

Who in the hollow of His hand, Holds all the growth of all our land –

A nation’s growth from sea to sea, Stirs in his heart who plants a tree.

Today is Arbor Day, and that was the third verse from “The Heart of a Tree” by New York poet Henry Cuyler Bunner. The year before the poet’s death, this poem provided the opening for North Dakota Governor Allin’s Arbor Day Proclamation, signed on April 15, 1895.

His proclamation read: “While nature, with a lavish hand, has bestowed grace and beauty upon our landscape, yet the planting of trees contributes much toward increasing it beauty and utility. It is a fitting employment for a patriotic and home-loving people to beautify the land of their affection and to adorn their homes. And especially should it be a pleasant duty for the teachers of our public schools to inculcate a love of the beautiful in nature by such exercises as will impress its beneficent object upon the minds of the young.”

In 1862, the Homestead Act invited settlers to populate “public land” in North Dakota – in reality, most of this public land had been taken from the indigenous peoples through a series of broken treaties. This land couldn’t be sold at public auction; it could only be acquired through settlement laws. Before 1891, that meant that land could be acquired through one of three ways: (1) homesteading, which required breaking the ground and living on it for five years; (2) preempting, in which land could be bought, and living on it was reduced to a number of months; and (3) timber culture, otherwise known as tree claims.

From its first days, Dakota Territory had a notable need for trees to supply lumber, fuel and shelter from the elements. The Timber Culture Act of 1873 was meant to encourage tree planting by giving an extra second or third quarter to qualified settlers, as long as they promised to plant and protect 10 acres of trees for 10 years – this was later amended to eight years.

Any U.S. citizen over 21 could file tree claims, except married women – unless they could prove they were the heads of their households. But an 1875 ruling stated that a single woman with a tree claim wouldn’t have to give it up if she got married, as long as she still fulfilled the requirements.

Only one tree claim was allowed per family, and each acre had to have at least 2,700 trees when it was time to prove up – 625 of those had to be alive and thriving. In cases of extreme drought, grasshopper infestation or other natural disasters, homesteaders could get extensions. After the eight or 10 years were up, the applicant and two credible witnesses made affidavits, the applicant paid the land office $10, and the deal was done. The applicant owned the land, along with its timber.

Many people signed on for tree claims, because there was no requirement to live on them. But not very many people succeeded with them. Timber claims were more work, more expensive and more trouble than land claims. Plus, it took only five years to prove up on cultivated claims. In the end, many tree claims were abandoned, and in 1891, the Timber Culture Act was repealed.

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.

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