Saturday, March 19, 2011


Posted by guest, Margaret Tanner, Award-Winning
Australian Romance Author

Life on the American and Australian frontiers have a strikingly similar history. For example, take the Australian Act of Selection, which is the basis for my novel FRONTIER WIFE, and compare it with The American Homestead Act.

In the colony of Victoria the 1860 Land Act allowed free selection of crown land. This included land already occupied by the squatters, (wealthy land owners) 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.

In 1861 the Act of Selection was intended to encourage closer settlement, based on intensive agriculture. Selectors often came into conflict with squatters, who already occupied land and were prepared to fight to keep it. The bitterness ran deep for many years, sometimes erupting into violence.

Australian pioneer home
(Moderators apologize for the blurry photo--it's the
only free Australian pioneer cabin photo we found)

The first permanent homesteads on the Australian frontier were constructed using posts and split timber slabs. The posts were set into the ground, about three feet apart, according to the desired layout. Slabs of timber were then dropped into the slots. A sapling or similar, straight piece of timber ran across the top of the posts, which allowed them to be tied together so they could support the roof.

Clay was often plugged in between the joins and splits of the cladding to stop draughts. The internal walls were sometimes plastered with clay and straw, lined with hessian/calico, white washed or simply left as split timber.

Roofs were pitched using saplings straight from the bush and often clad with bark. 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.

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.

Certificate of homestead in Nebraska
 given under the
Homestead Act of 1868

The Homestead Act's lenient terms proved to be ill-fated for many settlers. Claimants didn’t have to own farming implements or even to have had any farming experience. The allocated tracts of land may have been adequate in humid regions, but were not large enough to support plains settlers where lack of water reduced yields. Speculators often got control of homestead land by hiring phony claimants or buying up abandoned farms.
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.

Half dugout soddy home
Mangum, Greer County, OK
in Museum park

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. The long, tough grasses of the plains had tight, intricate root systems, and the earth in which they were contained could be cut into flexible, yet strong, bricks.

Ground soaked by rains or melting snow was ideal for starting sod house construction. When the earth was soft and moist, homesteaders would break the soil with an ox- or horse-drawn sod cutter, which was an instrument similar to a farming plough. Sod cutters produced long, narrow strips of sod, which could then be chopped into bricks with an axe. These two- to three-foot square, four-inch thick sod bricks were then stacked to form the walls of the sod house. Soddy roofs were constructed by creating a thin layer of interlacing twigs, thin branches, and hay, which were then covered over with another layer of sod. To save time many sod houses were built into the sides of hills or banks. Some settlers gouged a hole in a hill side, so they only had to build a front wall and roof.

As a result of their extremely thick walls, soddies were cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Soddies were also extremely cheap to build. 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.


Even in the very best weather, sod houses were plagued with problems. When the sod roof became extremely dry, dirt and grass continually rained down on the occupants of the house.

A typical American log cabin measured about ten by twenty feet, regardless of the number of inhabitants. Settlers often built lofts across the cabin roof or lean-tos across the rear of the cabin to give the family more space. Typically, frontier cabins featured only one room, which served as kitchen, dining room, living room, workroom, and bedroom.

Homesteaders could often build a log cabin in a matter of days, using only an axe and auger. No nails were required for the task.
The first step in construction was to build a stone or rock foundation, to keep the logs off the ground and prevent rot.

North Central Texas pioneers
the Youngs' log cabin

Once the foundation was laid, settlers would cut down trees and square off the logs. These logs were then "notched" in the top and bottom of each end then stacked to form walls. The notched logs fitted snugly together at the corners of the cabin, and held the walls in place. After the logs were stacked, gaps remained in the walls. Settlers had to jam sticks and wood chips into the gaps, then they filled in the remaining gaps with cement made out of earth, sand, and water. Fireplaces were built of stone, and often had stick-and-mud chimneys. Most cabins had dirt or gravel floors, which had to be raked daily to preserve their evenness.

Margaret's novel FRONTIER WIFE is published by The Wild Rose Press.


BLURB: Only in the new world can a highborn young Englishwoman and a tough frontier man ignite the passion that will fulfil their hopes and dreams in ways they never imagined possible.

Tommy Lindsay arrives in colonial Australia to claim the rundown farm she and her brothers have inherited.
Hidden behind her fragile English rose beauty, beats the heart of a courageous young woman. She will need all this strength to survive the unforgiving heat, and the dangers lurking around every corner. Lost in the bush, captured by a feral mountain family, raging bushfires are nothing, compared to the danger she faces if she gives her heart to Adam Munro.

Adam Munro, a rugged frontier man, has no room in his heart to love a woman. All he ever wanted was a presentable wife who would provide him with heirs. He didn’t need passion in his life, not until he met the beautiful English rose living next door to him.

Margaret Tanner belongs to the Romance Writers of Australia, the Melbourne Romance Writers Group, and EPIC. She has won or been commended in competitions on several occasions. In February 2010, she won the  prestigious Australian Author of the Year Award from for the second time.

Her World War 2 novel, THE TROUBLE WITH PLAYBOYS, was 3rd in the 2010 Preditors and Editors Poll. Her novel WILD OATS is a finalist in the 2011 EPIC Awards in the historical romance division. FRONTIER WIFE won 1st in the historical romance section of the 2010 Readers Favorite Award. DEVIL'S RIDGE from Whiskey Creek Press is a winner of the Grab a Reader contest held at WRDF.

She has had numerous short stories published over the years, but writing historical romance novels is her passion.  She is married with three grown sons, and one grand-daughter.  Margaret lives near Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. She has recently reduced her working hours as a medical typist, to concentrate on writing.

Learn more about Margaret and her books at

 Margaret's buy link at The Wild Rose Press is

Her buy link at Whiskey Creek Press is


  1. Margaret, one other disadvantage to a soddy was the mold. I have a memoir of a distant relative's account of moving to Oklahoma in 1899. Her brother had asthma, and couldn't breathe in the soddy. He lived adjacent to the soddy in the tent the family had used on their trip from central Texas to Okalhoma. He stayed there until the father built a frame home.

  2. Hi Caroline thank you for inviting me to visit Sweethearts of the West. Wow, you have first hand knowledge of a soddy, I am impressed. Have to say I am glad we live in this day and age,I haven't got asthma, but the snakes and other non human inhabitants of the soddy would definitely turn me off.



  3. Margaret's knowledge of all things historical never ceases to amaze me.

    I find history facinating, especially Australian history (being Australian myself).

  4. Good morning, Margaret, and welcome--I'm amazed at the similarities between the frontiers of Australia and America. We've always felt a real kinship with Australians, maybe like cousins--or even brothers and sisters.

    The soddy was common in the Western part of Texas because of the lack of trees. One of my husband's ancestors lived in a cave in N. Texas and had four babies there. I have a type-written account from one of her children who--at the turn of the century--gave a verbal account of living in the cave. Some day I'll write a story about that.

    I've always loved stories of the frontier and romance there--whereever it may be. Thanks so much for being our guest today--

  5. Hi Margaret and Caroline -
    This is a great post. I love all things American West.
    The talk about Little House made me want to read the series again as I did when I was a girl.
    And I think it was Little House on Plum Creek where the Ingalls had to stay in a soddy/dugout. Was that the one where their cow got its leg stuck in the roof? I'm not sure it was that title, but the talk about wet roofs made me remember that. LOL

  6. Great post, Margaret. I, too, have accounts of a branch of my mom's family living in the early days on the Kansas prairie. A hard life. I'm not sure if they lived in a soddy--I'll have to check it out. I believe they're probably later.

    Anyway, again, great post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  7. What a wonderful post - love the historical information. And of course I love Quigley Down Under - hee hee.

  8. Very nice to meet you today, Margaret. What interesting information you've shared. I write during the gold rush era where the people also had a chance of land by filing claims and property improvement. The lives of the early settlers were harsh and they certainly had to be tough to survive.

    Best of luck to you with lots of sales.

  9. Hi Margaret,
    Loved the post. That soddy that you have the picture of in Mangum, OK, is in my neck of the woods-My family has been in Oklahoma since before it became a state in 1907. My great great grandmother lived in a soddy. We had several land "runs" here in OK--most people only know about the one in 1889 because it was the best known. But I think there were 5 in all. That's why we have the name "Sooners" in Oklahoma--we are the "Sooner" state--which I've always thought was weird to use that as a thing of pride--Sooners were unlawfully there before it was time to be. LOL Love your historical information. I didn't realize there were so many similarities between the US and Australia in that area either. I really enjoyed this post. So good to see you here at SOTW!

  10. Loved this, Margaret. Your depth of knowledge always amazes me. No wonder your stories are so realistic! When I was young, I wanted to relive the pioneer days but now I'm grateful for modern conveniences lol.

  11. Hi Margaret.
    What a wonderful post! So interesting and informative. It certainly filled in more than a few holes in my knowledge of both Aussie and American frontiers.
    Thank you.

  12. Loved your post, Margaret. I think Australian frontiersmen and American frontiersmen are as close as one can get to "birds of a feather." The courage it took to strike out for what was then unknown territory in both countries took a special breed.

    I've mentioned before that my grandmother-in-law traveled to Nebraska in a covered wagon and her family buried a little girl (age 10) along the trail. Though Grandma M. wasn't any bigger than a minute, she was a tough little cookie until the day she died at age 92.

    I sure wouldn't want to live in a soddy. I don't like varmints, the slithering variety, anyway.

  13. Margaret-enjoyed your blog. Can't imagine living in a sod house and dealing with all the bugs and snakes--ugh! Frontier Wife sounds like a great book. Congrats on all your books' contest wins!

  14. Hi Margaret,

    I love your wonderful books they take me back in history and make it all so real and glad I'm a woman of today. Thanks for this post you've opened my eyes to the similarities between the outback and the wild west.
    Margaret Midwood.

  15. Hi Margaret,
    Thanks for dropping by, my friend, I appreciate it.



  16. Hi everyone.
    I arrived home from work to find all these lovely blogs waiting for me to read. Thank you so much Celia, Jennifer,Sandra,Patsy, Paisley, Cheryl P, Cate, Michelle, Joyce and Marin I appreciate you taking the time to drop by. I am really surprised that so many of you know about your soddy dweller ancestors. You have to give it to these pioneers both in Australia and America,they were so brave and resilient and faced danger with such fortitude. Makes me feel humble in their presence.



  17. Hi Margaret,
    I am always astounded by your knowledge of all things historical - and not just Australian. Your books are always wonderfully crafted and full of little tidbits of information.

    Wonderful blog - thanks!

  18. Hi Margaret, thank you so much for your informative blog. I loved reading about the soddy, and I'm in awe of what our early pioneers had to put up with in Australia, and those in America- they were a different breed! I'm so grateful for what I have, and wonder if I could live like that if I had to:)

  19. Hi Lia and Serena,
    Thank you so much for dropping by, I appreciate it.




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