Hard Graft & Grasshoppers: Irish Homesteaders in 1870s Nebraska

The middle of the 19th century saw substantial numbers of Irish emigrants journeying west in search of land and livelihoods. One of their destinations was the Nebraska Territory, which was organized in 1854. Newspapers like the New York Irish-American Weekly kept their readers in the east informed of events there from the earliest days of settlement, and reported on the potential opportunities and pitfalls of making a home on the frontier. Irish emigrants went to Nebraska as individuals, in groups and sometimes as part of Irish and Catholic settlements. In 1867 Nebraska was admitted to statehood. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad and the opportunities for acquiring land through the Homestead Act saw many more Irish and others arrive in Nebraska during the 1870s. This post looks at an example of one of these families, and shares some of the detailed advice that was provided in the press to prospective Irish settlers.

New York Irish American advertisement

Throughout the 1870s advertisements appeared in the New York Irish-American highlighting the land on offer for settlers in Nebraska, this one from 29th May 1875 (New York Irish American Weekly)

The 1862 Homestead Act offered Americans and those immigrants who had applied for citizenship an opportunity to acquire land in the west. Settlers first applied for a specific tract of land, following which they had to settle on it for five years and demonstrate that they had improved it. Following that they could secure full ownership. In the 1870s there were many advertisements seeking to encourage Irish people to Nebraska. Many chose to do so; included among their number were significant numbers of Civil War veterans. A number of former officers sought to lead the way in establishing communities in Nebraska. One example was John O’Neill, from Drumgallon, Clontibbret, Co Monaghan. He had served as an officer in the 5th Indiana Cavalry and 17th United States Colored Infantry during the conflict, afterwards playing a leading role in the Fenian invasion of Canada, commanding them at the Battle of Ridgeway. He died in Omaha, Nebraska in 1878 while working with other land speculators to establish an Irish settlement in Holt County, where he was one of the founders of the city of O’Neill. (1)

oneill

Portrait of John O’Neill which appeared in the New York Irish-American following his death in Omaha, Nebraska, while seeking to establish an Irish settlement in 1878 (New York Irish American Weekly)

The Gallaghers provide an example of one ordinary family who decided to take a chance on Nebraska. The family consisted of parents Patrick and Mary, both Irish-born, and their children Hannah, Michael, John, Elizabeth and James. Their children’s birthplace suggest something of their story. The eldest three children had been born in Pennsylvania, with the youngest two born in Iowa (where they may have lived in Cass Township, Wapello County). The family likely initially moved to Iowa in pursuit of work in the area’s coal mines; coal mining was a major employer for the Irish in Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County where Patrick had been naturalized in 1867. In the mid-1870s the Gallaghers, seeing opportunity and seeking land and a new future, headed to Nebraska. (2)

gallagher-homestead

Final confirmation that Mary Gallagher was entitled to a patent for her tract of 160 acres in Nebraska in 1880 (NARA/Fold3)

We can learn something of the Gallagher in Nebraska from their Homestead Record, which are preserved in the National Archives, Washington DC (the Nebraska files are available online via Fold3 here). They applied for a tract of 160 acres in Niobrara, Nebraska in 1875. On 20th June that year Patrick set down $14 to the receiver to claim the land of the North East Quadrant, Section 7, Township 29, Range 11 West. They had been on the land since May 1875, and after the payment they set to work improving it. Another son, Patrick Junior, was born on their new Nebraska property in 1876. However, Mary and her children were dealt a major blow when Patrick died on 30th January 1877. She must have been a determined woman; the widow and her children stuck to their task, and continued to work their land. In May 1880, with the five years elapsed, she made application for full ownership of the property. She listed her improvements as valued at around $200. The family had constructed one house, one stable and a corral, they had dug a well, built a chicken house, and planted 2000 forest trees. They had broken some 35 acres and raised on it wheat, oats, barley, corn, rye, potatoes and vegetables. Mary’s application was successful. She and her children appear on the 1880 census for Paddock and Steel Creek, Nebraska, where Mary’s eldest sons Michael (14) and John (13) were recorded as farmers. (3)

her-claim

The newspaper advertisement taken out by Mary Gallagher in Nebraska to confirm that she had filed final proof to support her claim for her homestead (NARA/Fold3)

The Irish press in the east continued their interest in Nebraska through the 1870s. In 1874 they printed a letter written by an Irish Land Surveyor in Omaha– Michael O’Dowd– to The Reverend John Boylan, parish priest of Crosserlough, Co. Cavan. The priest had made inquiries with respect to the opportunities for Irish Catholics in the west. O’Dowd, who had a vested interest in highlighting the attractiveness of the opportunities in Nebraska, wrote a lengthy response, outlining in great detail what the region had to offer, and how Irish emigrants could take advantage of it:

Omaha, Nebraska, April 13, 1874

Rev. Father John Boylan, P.P.:

My dear Sir– For the purpose of collecting truthful and reliable information in regard to the beautiful valley traversed by the Platte River, its resources, natural advantages, & c., I have just made an extended tour over the Union Pacific Railroad, between this city and North Platte, a distance of 291 miles. What I have seen and learned by personal observation, I shall here relate for your information, and for the benefit of Irish Catholic immigration generally.

Leaving Omaha, the road runs in a westerly direction over a high, but gently-rolling prairie country, and enters the Platte bottom near Elkhorn. These rich bottom lands vary from three to fifteen miles in width, and are pretty well settled and improved for the first hundred miles. The Union Pacific Railroad runs parallel to and not varying more than five or six miles from the Platte River, for a distance of nearly 400 miles. Throughout this entire valley the scenery, as well as the soil and climate, has pretty much of a sameness, except that, as you proceed westward, after the first 150 miles, there is more vacant land, less improvement, and much smaller towns.

13-april-72

Information Wanted advertisement of 13th April 1872, seeking details on a Cork native who settled in Nebraska (New York Irish American Weekly)

PLATTE COUNTY

Arriving at Columbus, the county seat of Platte County, and one of the oldest towns in the State, I had the pleasure of meeting Rev. Father Ryan, a pioneer priest, who came to Nebraska some fourteen years ago. Father Ryan is thoroughly acquainted with every feature of this Platte Valley country, and he is also acquainted with, and knows the circumstances of every Catholic family for three hundred miles west, and I doubt id there is a clergyman or a layman in Nebraska, who is as well known or as generally respected by people of all nations and denominations, as is this whole-souled, hard-working, humble Irish priest.

AN IRISH SETTLEMENT

There are about two hundred Catholic families in Platte County, principally Irish and Irish-Americans. There is a good Catholic church, a school and parochial residence in Columbus. This town is growing rapidly, and is doubtless one of the best points between Omaha and North Platte. The great Loup Fork River enters the Platte near this place, and the whole country lying east of the Loup, and north and northwest for sixty to one hundred miles, is tributary to, and its thousands of homesteaders and settlers do their trading at this town.

There are many good stores, an elevator, several lumber yards, three hotels, a fine brick court-house, and three weekly newspapers. The Catholic settlers are from the Eastern States, Canada, and Ireland, and many of them came here at an early day– some fifteen or sixteen years ago. Several of them are now wealthy and independent farmers. The settlement is chiefly confined to the rich valley of Shell Creek, and as I travelled through this valley from house to house, viewing the farms and making inquiries, I could scarcely help feeling that I was in some New England settlement, such is the appearance of the country, dotted over with good substantial houses; and almost the entire valley is in a good state of cultivation. Here nine miles north of Columbus– there is another Catholic church, and there are several Catholic schools conveniently located along the creek.

nugent

Nebraska was far from the only location where Irish emigrants settled. This article from the New York Irish-American of 16th October 1880 makes reference to the Connemara Colony, which was established in Minnesota (New York Irish American Weekly)

WHO OWNS THE LAND?

There is considerable Government land open to homesteaders, pre-emptors, soldiers, and timber claims, within a reasonable distance of Columbus, and along the outskirts of this settlement. There are also plenty of Union Pacific Railroad lands, which can be bought on fove or ten years’ credit, at six per cent interest, and at prices which generally range from three to five dollars per achre. These lands are being rapidly taken up by all classes of people, especially the Germans, Welch, and Swedes, who are settling in large colonies all through the region traversed by the Platte River and the Union Pacific Road.

It is important that our fellow0countrymen in the eastern States and in Ireland, should be made acquainted with the real facts, and those who have already decided to move, should be very careful about joining colony projects until they thoroughly understand the situation, and be sure that they are not going to locate away off 75 or 100 miles from a railroad– away from markets and civilization.

After spending three days in the vicinity of Columbus, I proceeded to Wood River, a station on the Union Pacific Railroad, and about 170 miles west of Omaha; here is another good Catholic church and School, and as rick and productive a country as can be found in the west; there are about fifty Irish Catholic families in the valley of Wood River, many of them are old settlers in good circumstances. This congregation is also attended by Rev. Father Ryan. Government land may be still had in the northern portion of the settlement, and from twelve to twenty-five miles from the railroad. The railroad lands are for sale at about the same price and on the same terms as that around Columbus.

At Overton, 20 miles west, there are a number of Irish Catholic families, mostly new settlers, though some of them are in good circumstances. They intend to build a church and school this summer. The Government “Free Homes” are more convenient to the railroad here than at the last mentioned places, and first-class farming land can be bought on ten years’ credit, at four to six dollars per acre.

Plum Creek, ten miles farther west, is the country seat of Dawson County, and is a young, enterprising, rapidly-growing town. Opposite the town is a splendid $50,000 bridge across the Platte River. There is plenty of Government land quite convenient to town, on the south side of the Platte, which is now being taken up very rapidly.

COLONY FROM OHIO

Cozad City, the next station west of Plum Creek, though only six months old, looks thriving and prosperous; it is surrounded by a most beautiful agricultural country–the Platte bottom on which it is located being over fifteen miles wide at this point. While I remained at Cozad, there arrived some two hundred people on one train, the majority of whom came here to settle. They are from Warren County, Ohio, and their leaders, who represent over one million dollars, say they will bring out one thousand families this year: they have laid out a town, and are building hotels, stores, residences, etc. They will have one of the finest brick depots, and probably one of the best towns on the road. The next and last place I visited was North Platte, a division station on the Union Pacific, about 200 miles from Omaha. Here the Railroad Company have large and commodious machine shops, round houses, & c. The city is located in Platte Valley, between North and South Platte Rivers, and is said to contain about one thousand inhabitants. There is any quantity of Government land within a radius of from six to forty miles. The soil is rich and fertile, and has proved, by last year’s crops, to be very productive.

THE PRODUCTS OF THE COUNTRY

Besides examining the country and interviewing the farmers, I also procured several specimens of agricultural products, showing the time of planting, harvesting, bushels per acre, weight per bushel, and the name and address of the different farmers who raised them. These samples were taken promiscuously from the farmers’ cribs, and are fair specimens of the average yield of the different crops.

Mr. Edward Hayes, living on Shell Creek, Platte County, says his corn has averaged from fifty to eighty bushels per acre, and his wheat from twenty to thirty, and one year he raised as high 80 bushels of oats per acre. Mr. Patrick Gleason, Gleason P.O., Platte County, owns 280 acres, eight of which are in cultivation; he raised 70 bushels corn, 23 bushels wheat, and from 50 to 60 bushels of oats per acre. Mr. Thomas Lynch, owns 320 acres, 75 of which is in cultivation: he lives in a new frame house, which he has just built at a cost of $800; the main building is 18 by 28, one a half stories high, with a kitchen attached, 14 by 18; it is a very neat, comfortable, and substantial building. I desire to show you by this illustration, the cost of building material one hundred miles west of Omaha.

8-june-1872

Advertisement for Union Pacific land in Nebraska, New York Irish-American, 8th June 1872 (New York Irish-American Weekly)

INTERVIEWING A HOMESTEADER

While interviewing a Mr. James Hallows, who lives two and a half miles east of Columbus, I noted his answers to my several questions as follows:- “I entered this 40 acres as a homestead in ’68; I might just as well have entered 160 acres, but having no family, I thought forty acres would be enough for myself and wife: I have the entire in cultivation. The first year I was here, I raised 72 bushels of wheat on two and a half acres; one year I raised one thousand bushels of shelled corn on ten acres of measured ground; since I have been here, my wheat crop has averaged 25 bushels per acre. I am now sowing 20 acres in wheat, and will plant about fifteen acres in corn, and the balance in oats, potatoes, vegetables, & c. Those trees around my house and orchard are cotton wood, which I planted when I first came here. You see they are now twenty feet high, and not only protect my house, orchard, and stock in winter, but they are also a nice shade in summer. I have 100 apple trees, 12 cherry trees, 50 plum trees, 200 gooseberry bushes, and 200 current bushes, besides several grape vines, nearly all of which are now bearing fruit.”

At this juncture, I remarked to Mr. Hallows that he had decidedly a very neat little farm, to which re replied with sone emphasis: “Yes, sir, I have, an’ I’m proud on it, too; I hav’nt got much land, but what I have is well ‘tended to, and I can raise nearly as much on this forty as some of those reckless fellows do on eighty acres. Yes, sir, and what’s more, I calculate to supply that little town with all the fruit and vegetables they will want before long.”

I next asked Mr. Hallows what he would take for his farm. He answered: “Well, sir, I don’t want to sell; but I wouldn’t take the best $2,500 that ever was coined for it to-day, for I don’t wish to live in any healthier or better country than this is.”

Hoping Mr. Hallows and his lady would live long to enjoy the fruits of their industry, I bade him good day, while he (scattering a handful of seed wheat over the black alluvial-vegetable-loamey soil) answered, “Good day, sir.”

WHEAT RAISING

One more illustration and I have done. Mr. W.H. Stevens, Belville P.O., Polk County, pre-empted the N.E. qr. of Section 24, Town. 15, Range 3 West, containing 160 acres. Last year he raised over 3,000 bushels of wheat on one hundred acres: he sold the greater portion of this wheat last winter for one dollar per bushel; he has the entire 160 acres in cultivation, and his wheat crop alone has more than paid all his expenses, including the buildings, farming implements, teams,  hired help, & c., besides the corn, oats, potatoes, vegetables, & c., raised on the remaining 60 acres. He is now busily engaged sowing 120 acres in Spring wheat, which if the season is favorable, he expects will realize another three or four thousan dollars this year.

26-sept-1874

Advertisement for homesteads and land in Nebraska, New York Irish-American 26th September 1874 (New York Irish American Weekly)

UNCLE SAM’S FREE HOMES

Outside the 20 mile limits of the Railroad Land Grant, a citizen, or a foreigner who has declared his intention to become a citizen, may enter 160 acres as a pre-emption, and having proved by two witnesses, that he has made the required improvements according to law, he can, after six months, pay up for it at $1.25 per acre, and receive his title from the Government. After this he may enter an adjoining 160 acres as a honestead, for which he pats $14 as entrance fees, and by living on it for five years, and making the necessary improvements, he can get a Homestead Patent for it from the United States– besides this 320 acres, he can also secure another adjoining quarter section of 160 acres, as “a Timber Claim,” under the late “Act to encourage the growth of timber on western prairies.” To secure a ti[t]le to this 160, he is required to break up ten acres the first year, ten acres the second year, and twenty acres the third year, and to plant in timber, not more than twelve feet apart, ten acres the second year, ten acres the third year, and twenty acres the fourth year, and to keep the same in a healthy growing condition for eight years.

BIG FARMS

In this manner any many can secure in one body 480 acres of Government land, outside of railroad limits, or 40 acres inside the limites of the land grant. A soldier who has served in the United States army may secure 480 acres either inside or outside these limits. Besides this tract of three square half miles of United States land, he has the privilege of buying any quantity of railroad lands adjoining, at from $3 t0 $7 per acre, on ten years’ credit, at six per cent interest.

In conclusion I would say, that the Irish Catholic people in the Eastern States, in Canada and in Ireland, will never have a better opportunity to secure good permanent homes, in a rich and productive country, among their own countrymen, convenient to Catholic churchs and Catholic schools, than that which is now offered them in the Platte Valley, and along the line of the Union Pacific Railroad, the Great International Thoroughfare between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Hoping, Rev. Father, that this letter may afford you that information which you most desired, and that by it you may be enabled to stir up our eastern fellow-countrymen to the importance of this all-important subject, for it will, most assuredly, be their best, if not their last, opportunity, to secure choice lands, in the most desirable locations, before it is all gobbled up by people of other denominations and other nationalities.

Ans assuring you, sir, I shall always be ready and willing to answer all inquiries cheerfully, truthfully, and without charge, I remain respectfully, your obedient servant,

MICHAEL O’DOWD,

Land Surveyor, Omaha, Nebraska. (4)

The Rawding Family homestead in Nebraska, 1886 (Library of Congress)

The Rawding Family homestead in Nebraska, 1886 (Library of Congress)

While Michael O’Dowd highlighted the positives in April 1874, there were may risks to life on the plains. For some their efforts at making a new life ended in disaster. Only weeks after he penned his response to Father Boylan, a “Grasshopper Plague” descended on parts of Nebraska, bringing suffering to many Irish settlers. In 1875 O’Dowd reported on the calamity to the Irish-American:

Omaha, Feb., 1875

To the Editors of the Irish-American:

Gentlemen,– The year 1874 will long be memorable in the history of the Northwest as the year of the great “grasshopper raid.” Minnesota, Western Iowa, Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas were all, to a greater or less extent, devastated by this fearful scourge.

The grasshoppers commenced their depredations about the middle of July. Coming in from the northwest and spreading over a breadth of from 150 to 200 miles they travelled southward and into Kansas. They generally remained from twenty-four to forty-eight hours in one place; but when the air was damp and chilly and not favorable for flight they would sometimes stay for a whole week.

There are so many conflicting reports in the Eastern papers in regard to the damage done and the terrible suffering among the settlers, and there are so many colored statements published, that I propose to tell the naked truth just as I found it on a recent ten days’ trip through the Platte valley.

In Platte County– about one hundred miles west of Omaha– there are,– as I was informed by the Aid Society’s agent,–about two hundred families now receiving aid, nearly half of whom are Irish. About one hundred families are being provided with fuel, clothing and provisions, and the balance with provisions only.

Mr. C.J. Freese, local agent for the Union Pacific Railroad at Plum Creek, and distributing agent for the State Aid Society, says “in his district of seven counties there are about 3,350 persons how receiving aid, and that even this number will be largely increased during the next two months.” A large majority of these people must be provided for until harvest, or much misery and suffering from COLD AND HUNGER will inevitably be the result.

L.B. Cunningham, Secretary of the Buffalo County Aid Society, at Kearney Junction, says there are about 300 families–1200 people– now receiving aid in this county. They commenced distributing supplies about the middle of November, and must keep it up until harvest; that is if their more fortunate and charitable Eastern brethren do not forget them in this hour of need.

The grasshoppers did not “devour every green thing,” as reported in the Eastern papers, the wheat, rye and barley having generally been harvested, or was too dry and ripe for the hoppers’ palate. There was but little oats raised, and corn in most of the State is a total failure; but there is a pretty fair crop of potatoes and other vegetables.

The destitution is found chiefly in the frontier counties, among the late settlers, who came to the State poor, and were depending for subsistence upon the growing sod crops, and many of whom would have seen hard times though they never saw or heard of a “hopper.”

To Irishmen who contemplate coming West in the Spring I would say, let not this grasshopper calamity discourage you; you are making a good move; and, if you are afraid of grasshopper invasions, you will find other portions of the great West just as good as Nebraska,– rich prairies where the grasshopper has never been, and perhaps, never will be.

Yours, & c.,

M. O’DOWD. (5)

Despite setbacks such as this, immigrants and native-born Americans alike continued to take advantage of the opportunity for land ownership which the Homestead Act offered. A future post will return to the topic of Nebraska, examining some of the correspondence sent east during the late 1860s, when topics such as anti-Irish sentiment and the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad were to the fore in the minds of those decided on places to settle.

The sky darkened by grasshoppers in Nebraska, an image from 1875 (Library of Congress)

The sky darkened by grasshoppers in Nebraska, an image from 1875 (Library of Congress)

(1) Irish-American 19th January 1878; (2) 1870 US Census, 1880 US Census, Gallagher Homestead Record; (3) Ibid.; (4) Irish-American 30th May 1874; (5) Irish-American 20th February 1875;

References & Further Reading

Mary Gallagher Nebraska Homestead Record 1414.

1870 US Federal Census (A family who may well be the Gallaghers are recorded in Iowa on the 1870 Census, with the head of the household listed as a coal miner).

1880 US Federal Census.

New York Irish American Weekly 30th May 1874.

New York Irish American Weekly 20th February 1875.

New York Irish American Weekly 19th January 1878.

Kansas Historical Society: Grasshopper Plague of 1874.

Homestead National Monument of America.

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Categories: Homestead Act, Nebraska

Author:Damian Shiels

I am an archaeologist based in Ireland, specialising in conflict archaeology.

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13 Comments on “Hard Graft & Grasshoppers: Irish Homesteaders in 1870s Nebraska”

  1. December 3, 2016 at 5:13 pm #

    The sketch of General O’Neill is interesting as he is wearing the Sunburst epaulets of a Fenian General.

    • February 18, 2017 at 10:01 am #

      Hey Jim,

      Absolutely- that was a major focus of the piece that accompanied it.

  2. December 3, 2016 at 5:25 pm #

    The old Irish section of Rutland (City) Vermont was known as “Nebraska”. Two alternative bits of lore relate why.
    1. When some of his parishioners were contemplating heading west, the pastor Charles Boylan from Kilnaneck County Cavan (2.5k across the fields from the aforementioned John Boylan of Crosserlough) proclaimed from the pulpit “You have your Nebraska right here”
    2. When things got bit rowdy of a Saturday night, Boylan thundered on Sunday morn, “You are worse than Nebraska”. The wild west in those days.

    • February 18, 2017 at 10:00 am #

      Hey Peter,

      That is great stuff, is it still called that?

  3. December 3, 2016 at 8:38 pm #

    My Irish ancestors settled in Nebraska. I grew up in Overton – my great-great grandparents were Thomas Cooney and Bridget O’Brien settled between Overton and Plum Creek (Lexington) they were from Mullingar Westmeath. Patrick McTygue was born in Shrule County Mayo, He lived 10 miles north of Overton in Eddyville. My grandmother’s father was John Neville from Rahan Parish in Offaly, the Neville family settled in York NE and then some of them moved to Dawson County, Nebraska. William Morgan another ancestor was baptized in Moynalvey, Meath in 1834, they settled in Exeter NE. William Morgan’s wife was Rose Smith, born in Meath in 1831. Her brother James Smith served as a Corp H 94 IL infantry. Patrick McTygue also served in the Rhode Island Light Artillery.

    • February 18, 2017 at 10:00 am #

      Hi Barbara,

      Thanks for sharing, great information!

  4. Tessa Keough
    December 4, 2016 at 1:20 am #

    wonderful post – my Irish ancestors settled in Nebraska – one set in Holt County (O’Neill) and another set in Johnson County (Vesta). The Homestead Act was one of several ways to acquire land for farming and both sets of families prospered in their new land. Some of their children stayed in Nebraska and others engaged in the same “migration” ending up in Washington State. Fascinating reading and great images. Thanks

    • February 18, 2017 at 9:59 am #

      Thanks Tessa- when did your people head out there? It really is fascinating stuff.

  5. December 6, 2016 at 1:54 pm #

    You mentioned organized Irish Catholic settlements in Nebraska Territory. They included the St. Patrick’s Colony, led by Father Jeremiah Trecy, which founded the township of St. John’s near the Missouri River in Dakota County in 1856. Although the colony faltered, a number of the pioneers are buried in St. John’s Cemetery near the present-day town of Jackson, and some of their descendants still continue to inhabit the area. Among the colonists were the parents and siblings of the subject of my book Patrick Henry Jones: Irish American, Civil War General, and Gilded Age Politician (Louisiana State University Press, 2015).

    • February 18, 2017 at 9:58 am #

      Hey Mark,

      I hope all is well. Absolutely I should have mentioned them in the piece of course! For anyone interested in finding out a bit more of how one Irish family came to move West, and of the lie and career of the son who stayed behind, I can’t recommend Mark’s book on Patrick Henry Jones highly enough!

  6. December 8, 2016 at 3:22 pm #

    Reblogged this on Lenora's Culture Center and Foray into History.

  7. December 15, 2016 at 11:32 pm #

    I have included your blog in Interesting Blogs in Friday Fossicking at

    http://thatmomentintime-crissouli.blogspot.com.au/2016/12/friday-fossicking-16th-december-2016.html

    Thank you, Chris

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