Free Land? 1862 and the Shaping of Modern America, is part of a four-year Chautauqua series (2012-2015) presented by Humanities Nebraska. In 2014 Free Land Chautauqua takes place in Norfolk (June 18 – 22) and Scottsbluff-Gering (June 25 – 29).
Each evening, humorist Mark Twain moderates one of five presentations of these historical figures: Union General and railroad builder Grenville Dodge, author Willa Cather, Ponca Chief Standing Bear, homesteader an d inventor George Washington Carver, and homesteader and author Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Central to the Chautauqua experience are the scholar portrayals of historical figures under the Chautauqua tent. Each Chautauquan gives a 40-minute, first-person presentation as his or her historical character, then answers questions. Workshops for children and adults along with other activities are held throughout the Chautauqua week.
Free Land Chautauqua allows the audience to experience and explore the impact of landmark legislations through the historical lens of homesteading, migration, and displacement on the Great Plains. The Homestead Act, the Morrill Act, and the Pacific Railway Act all were passed within six weeks of each other in 1862, and set into motion sweeping changes for the Great Plains region and the American West. The impact of this legislation was felt by millions of people: war veterans, Easterners looking for new opportunities, immigrants, women, African-Americans and Native Americans. As part of the Chautauqua residency, six scholars explore the lasting impacts of the 1862 legislation and how those events affect Americans today.
With origins in the late 19th century, Chautauqua combines oratory and lectures with literary readings and musical entertainment. In the past, these touring groups would entertain and inform people living on the plains about political and cultural happenings. The name itself comes from a resort community in New York State where in 1875, a summer program of lectures, sermons, and music attracted such enthusiastic audiences that within a few years similar programs sprang into existence for the public in other parts of the country. Today, Chautauqua upholds the tradition of offering entertainment, education, and community-based heritage. Attendees gather under the “big tent” and enjoy scholars-in-residence presenting first-person portrayals of some of our most important historical figures along with a variety of activities for all ages.