Daniel Freeman, often known as America’s first homesteader, was also something of a Renaissance man.
His gravestone, resting near the eastern edge of the 160 acres he claimed after the Homestead Act of 1862 went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, lists just a few of the hats Freeman wore in his 82 years: “Soldier, Doctor, Sheriff and Farmer. A True Pioneer.”
Freeman was also a businessman and district court judge, as well as an activist.
What isn’t described on his tombstone and what has become little more than a footnote in an interesting personal history is his role in a Nebraska Supreme Court case against the school building a quarter mile west of his homestead that now bears his name.
District 21, which operated a public school now known as the Freeman School — where two of Freeman’s children attended — was teaching religion from the King James Bible led by teacher Edith Beecher.
So in 1899, Freeman filed a complaint with the school board, citing Section XI of Article 8 of the Nebraska State Constitution: “No sectarian instruction shall be allowed in any school or institution supported, in whole or in part, by the public funds set apart for educational purposes.”
The suit struck internationally, with newspapers around the world picking up the story.
Freeman’s charge was stated as thus:
“That against his protest and in disregard of his objections and in opposition to his demands, the board permitted a teacher employed by them in said school to engage daily in school hours in the public school building ... and in the presence of the pupils, in certain religious and sectarian exercises, consisting of the reading of passages of her own selection from a book commonly known as King James’ version or translation of the Bible, and in singing certain religious or sectarian songs, and in offering prayer to the Deity according to the custom and usages of the so-called orthodox evangelical churches of this country.”
Homestead National Monument of America park historian Blake Bell said the school board shrugged off the complaint.
“The school board basically responded saying ‘you’re really nothing more than a thorn in our side, leave it alone. You’ve run off all of our best teachers,’” Bell said.
The school board admitted the facts — they were indeed using the Bible and hymns for instruction — but denied the exercises were sectarian or constituted religious worship, the New Zealand Tablet reported at the time.
But Freeman persisted, consulting with lawyers who decided to bring the case in front of a district judge.
“The district judge essentially said this is a matter for the school board to handle, not the courts,” Bell said. “That didn’t appease Daniel. So he took it to the Nebraska Supreme Court, who took the case.”
From originally filing his complaint in 1899, the Nebraska Supreme Court took on the case a few short years later.
On Oct. 9, 1902, the Nebraska Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Sullivan, made its decision.
According to the New York Times from Oct. 10, 1902: “The Supreme Court of Nebraska to-day handed down a decision which will prevent the reading and studying of the Bible, the singing of hymns, and the reciting of prayers in the public schools of the State.”
The court said the decision hinged solely upon whether or not the reading of the Bible was sectarian and religious, which it believed it was.
According to the ruling: “Protestant sects who maintain, as a part of their ritual and discipline, stated weekly meetings in which the exercises consist largely of prayers and songs and the reading or repetition of Scriptural passages, would, no doubt, vehemently dissent from the proposition that such exercises are not devotional or not in an exalted degree worshipful, or not intended for religious edification or instruction.”
Bell said the court found the school, by using the texts alone, in violation of the state’s constitution.
“The reason they found in Freeman’s favor goes back to what they said you can and can’t do in school with the Bible and prayer,” Bell said.
Had Beecher simply used the Bible to teach reading instruction or used the Christian hymns to simply teach music, the court would have found in District 21’s favor.
Beecher refused to renounce her desire to teach the Bible and its content, however.
“The best witness for Daniel Freeman and his case was Edith Beecher,” Bell said.
The court found the Bible reading led by Beecher was expressly sectarian in its nature.
“We do not think it wise or necessary to prolong a discussion of what appears to us an almost self-evident fact, that exercises such as are complained of by the relator in this case, both constitute religious worship and are sectarian in their character within the meaning of the constitution,” the court wrote in its opinion.
Bell said until the turn of the 20th century, the government had said teachers could read the Bible and pray in schools, but the students couldn’t be forced.
“This goes back all the way to one of the first cases in 1802 or 1803 that was the baseline everyone operated on,” Bell explained. “What Daniel Freeman saw was the teacher was forcing the children to read from the Bible, pray and get a religious education in a public school. That’s what his problem was.”
Beecher did not flinch, however, and continued to teach the religious texts at the school, Bell said.
“She continued to teach, but Daniel Freeman would show up at the schoolhouse and stand in the back and watch her and make sure she was doing what she was supposed to be doing,” Bell said.
“He drove her off,” he added with a laugh.
An Oct. 15, 1903 edition of the Gage County Democrat said the court allowed time for the school to come into compliance.
“No mandate has been issued out of the court owing up to the vacation in the schools,” the article said. “It was thought that here would be substantial compliance with the terms of the decision and that it would not be necessary to issue a formal writ, but Freeman, by coming in, has shattered that expectation.”
Nearly a month later, on Nov. 21, 1903, the Beatrice Daily Express wrote that Nebraska Supreme Court Deputy Supreme Court Clerk Nelson did issue a writ of mandamus against the school and its instructional practices — not against reading the Bible.
“The long delayed writ in the Bible case was issued yesterday by the supreme court,” the article stated. “It does not command that the reading of the Bible cease in school district No. 21, in Gage county, as is commonly supposed, but in effect commands that sectarian instruction in that particular school district cease.”
Bell said Freeman’s involvement in the case was not outside of Freeman’s other actions at the time.
He added that Freeman would often look out “for the little man.”
“Daniel Freeman was a very proud man who really gets a bad rap as far as how people view him,” Bell said. “He just didn’t endear himself to a lot of people, but he was always looking out for people in need.”
The school district 21 case was just another way for Freeman to stand up for what he believed in, Bell said.
“He seems like one of those guys who was always trying to fight for the little people and take on people who thought they were above the law,” Bell said. “This was one of those cases where he saw it as a misconduct of the public school system and he wanted to right that wrong.”
Bell said Freeman had no problem trying to fix what he believed was others’ misconduct. In Beatrice, he was one doctor who would treat sexually transmitted diseases. At one point, he even squatted on land east of the downtown to prevent businesses from moving into town that he saw as a wrong.
“That’s what he kind of lived by — he wanted to right wrongs — and he wasn’t very popular while he was doing it, but that’s what he did,” Bell said.