Americans hold a certain image of the West and Great Plains: a vague concoction of pioneers in covered wagons, hardworking, honest farmers, and, of course, Little House on the Prairie. The Homestead Act (1862) garnered widespread interest in settling the U.S. West; it created the impression that anyone willing to work hard could eke out a living on their own property. Self-fashioned pioneers streamed over the prairie’s overland trails in an attempt to forge their own success on the frontier.
Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 during the Civil War, the Homestead Act was the most comprehensive land distribution bill passed in the nineteenth century. Prior to the act, the U.S. government auctioned or sold public land in large lots that ordinary citizens could not afford to buy or manage. The Homestead Act ambitiously shifted land ownership and development towards average American citizens.
During the Civil War Abraham Lincoln and his Republican majority passed a series of bills intended to develop the United States West, taking advantage of the fact that there was little competition after the South left Congress. These laws had been stymied during the Antebellum sectional crisis due to the issue of slavery in Western territories.
These laws included:
- The Homestead Act of 1862
- The Morrill Land Grant Act
- The Pacific Railway Act
The Homestead Act of 1862 stated that any current or future citizen, with a mere ten dollars, could claim a homestead of up to 160 acres of government land, and “improve” the land by putting it to use as a family plot. This meant erecting a dwelling and farming the soil for a period of five years. If the claimant did so for the allotted period, they could then gain ownership of their land free of charge. The act did not define what it meant to be the “head of a family,” save for an age restriction of twenty-one years if a single individual sought land, which made the Act egalitarian; it allowed African Americans, persecuted and famine-struck immigrants, and even women a chance to find freedom and success in the West. Although many of these settlers were not successful (due in part to expanding industrialization and the harsh climate of the Plains), the Homestead Act endured as the driving force for many Americans and immigrants seeking the “American dream,” as well as in exacerbating the strained relationship between the individual farmer and railroad companies who owned the majority of Western territory.
A video discussing the historical precedence and passing of the Homestead Act here (relevant section from 0:45 to 6:00):
Read the transcript of the Homestead Act
Living on a homestead proved difficult for newcomers with no farming experience. Settlers often suffered the fierce Prairie winds and fires, as well as swarms of grasshoppers and devastating droughts that could destroy an entire crop field. The lack of trees on the open Plains forced settlers to build their first homes out of sod.
This photograph shows the four Chrisman sisters in front of a sod house. All four sisters had their own separate plot of land. Like the Chrisman sisters, many woman experienced autonomy in the West.
Although European immigrants and East Coast migrants were drawn to the idea of homesteading, many homesteaders were settlers who moved from nearby territories to get cheaper land. They were at an advantage, as they were able to claim the best land before East Coast migrants arrived and had farming experience. Although land claims only cost ten dollars, homesteaders had to supply their own farming tools – another disadvantage to greenhorn migrants. Newcomers’ failures at homesteading were common due to the harsh climate, their lack of experience, or the inability to obtain prime farming lands. In some areas “taking the cure” – declaring bankruptcy or simply abandoning the land claim – became common.
This chart depicts land claims granted by the government under the Homestead Act. Most homesteads were received in the early Twentieth century rather than immediately after the passage of the Act.
For some, homestead dreams became a downward spiral. As Montana homesteader John Heinen remarked during the drought year of 1917
“…the business of raising wheat seemed to run into all kinds of difficulties…most of our neighbors have left us…I never could blame them for leaving. During the bad years every family got more or less in debt.”
Abraham Lincoln praised the work of the common farmer’s labor above industry, proclaiming, “Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” The Homestead Act appeared to be in favor of traditional yeoman farmer sentiments. However, impending industrialization and the growing significance of railroads in the transport of goods skewed land distribution to the benefit of railroad companies. In the ten years preceding the passage of the Homestead Act, almost 128 million acres of land were granted to railroads, which often included the most agriculturally viable land. The arduous planning and construction of railroads, as well as the uncertainty of where planned routes would actually be built, led to large tracts of land becoming unavailable for homestead claiming. When land along railroad lines were opened up to the public, the land was often snapped up by land speculators and later resold at high prices.
Little Town on the Prairie
With the expansion of railroads and a steady surge of homesteaders into land previously viewed as “unused,” Western territories quickly developed into full-fledged states. As farmers moved in, towns, churches, and stores were built to address settlers’ needs, and communities flourished (albeit sometimes only briefly). The homesteaders, though coming to improve their individual lives, had inadvertently set off an economic chain reaction of steady growth for the entire community and region. Maggie Davis, a homesteader who had arrived in Carter, Montana in 1910, remarked in a letter two months later that “Carter is getting to be quite a place…They have two stores now and a graveyard started…when I came, when we wanted to go to town we went towards the highest mountains…Now we can’t cut across country. We have to follow the road for it is nearly all fenced up.” Two years later, Maggie’s town had grown to include three stores, a hotel, a restaurant, barbershop, post office, schoolhouse and a pool hall providing for both the bare necessities and for the entertainment of settlers.
Below is a photograph of Kalispell, Montana, ca. 1900. Note the development of non-farming commerce and a burgeoning social community in the decades after the Homestead Act.
Kansas: The Land of Promise for African Americans
In the Reconstruction South during the 1870s, volatile racism pushed former black slaves to seek refuge in the Midwest. Many took advantage of the Homestead Act as an opportunity to manage their own households through subsistence farming while forging new lives in the Midwest. The Homestead Act did not ask for an applicant’s race (it was assumed, at the time, applicants would all be white), so in order for historians to find African American homesteading family records in the National Archives, they must triangulate them with other sources.
Kansas was the ultimate destination for many African Americans because, as Emile Pitre of the University of Washington states below, Kansas was a place “where the abolitionist tradition seemed to loom large” (31:45). Its history before and during the Civil War had turned the state into a symbol of freedom and justice for many southern blacks. John Brown, a radical abolitionist who led several armed insurrections against slave owners in Kansas in the 1850s symbolized freedom in Kansas. Although Brown was ultimately arrested and hanged, news of his exploits put Kansas at the center of the slavery debate. Kansas was also the first Northern state to allow African Americans to join the Union army in the Civil war, and one of the first to show public support for the Emancipation Proclamation and the slavery-abolishing Thirteenth Amendment.
African Americans who migrated to Kansas were called “exodusters,” and the mass movement as a whole was referred to as the “Great Exodus,” as former slaves believed their plight mirrored the Hebrews’ trek through the desert from slavery to freedom in the Bible’s Book of Exodus. The bulk of this migration took place between 1879-1881, as a result of advertisements, newspaper articles, letters, and encouragement from both black and white leaders in the South. One notable advocate of black migration to Kansas was Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, who organized several black county settlements in the state and assisted hundreds of black families in relocating to these settlements. Some African Americans moved with their families, while others came from the south with their entire community.
Unfortunately, the migration was also fueled by false rumors. One common misconception was that the government would pay for passage to Kansas as well as provide land plots free of charge, leaving many stranded in the middle of their passage, unable to farm their claimed land upon arrival.
Several exclusively black settlements began to emerge in Kansas after the Homestead Act. The most well-known was a town called Nicodermus, established in 1877. Founded by land prospector W.R. Hill and advertised by black minister W.R. Smith to black communities throughout the south, the town steadily increased in size, and by 1880 over 100 people had settled there. As African Americans slowly became disheartened and disillusioned by the difficulty of homesteading, migration numbers tapered off. However, between the years of 1869 and 1879, 27,000 blacks moved to Kansas, and though few found the success they had been hoping for, a considerable number stayed, finding it a better alternative to the South. An 1879 issue of the Topeka Colored Citizen stated: “Our advice…to the people of the South, Come West, Come to Kansas…in order that you may be free from the persecution of the rebels. If blacks come here and starve, all well. It is better to starve to death in Kansas than to be shot and killed in the South.” (24:41) In the end, the challenges of African American homesteaders mirrored those of other settlers: some persevered and stayed, while others went into debt and left, discouraged by an Act that they had hoped would bring them prosperity or, at the very least, a small pocket of land and a home to call their own.
“Unused” Land?: Native Americans, The Homestead Act, and the 1887 Dawes Severalty Act
As land was claimed and turned into private property, arriving settlers aggressively encroached on Native American territory, and began to agitate for the expansion of territory into sovereign Native land. The Indian Appropriations Act (1851) relegated Indians to reservations in the West. For Indians, reservation life was restraining, and the land Natives were forced to occupy were often too small to raise animals or hunt on and not viable agriculturally. Still, many settlers believed that Indians had gotten the choicest land, and pressed for their availability to claim. The government responded to this crisis in favor of the white settlers and land speculators, stripping Indians of the last semblance of sovereignty they had by abolishing the reservation system as well as their honoring of tribes as separate entities from the United States. The 1871 Dawes Act stated that “hereafter no Indian nation or tribe within the territory of the United States shall be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation, tribe, or power with whom the United States may contract by treaty.” It also marked the beginning of increased efforts to integrate Indians into American society rather than cordoning them off into isolated reservations. This was continued to a larger extent with the 1887 Dawes Severalty Act (also called the General Allotment Act), which was a Homestead Act directed at breaking up Indian reservation holdings as well as tribes themselves.
Congressman Henry Dawes believed his second namesake act had a “civilizing effect on Indians because it forced them to cultivate land, live in European-inspired houses, ride in Studebaker wagons…[and] own property.” Under the act, lands were broken up into 160-acre allotments, and any individual who agreed to claim a plot and leave reservation lands would become an American citizen. Indians not only lost bargaining power as united tribes, but they lost considerable land holdings, as unused tribal land that had not been doled out to individuals was sold off in parcels to speculators and railroad companies. Moreover, many Indians who had taken individual plots through the 1887 act went into debt due to a lack of starting funds and eventually lost their claims to speculators. The breaking up of tribal lands, coupled with the loss of individual plots, ultimately caused Indians to lose much their remaining land holdings without fair compensation.
Below Humboldt State University Professor Joseph Giovannetti, a member of the Tolowa tribe, discusses how the Dawes Act of 1887 impacted Native Americans.
The Homestead Act had two main goals: to assist the government in selling off its land to ordinary citizens, and to use the land in what they considered to be an economically efficient manner. The act was meant to favor the ordinary American, and to make assimilated citizens out of immigrants, African Americans, and, through later legislation in the form of the Dawes Act, the forced assimilation of Indians, thought to be for their own good. The realities of the plains – unfavorable climate, the proliferation of railroads, bad crop years and debt – meant that many settlers either lived sparsely or moved around constantly in search of better conditions. Despite these hardships, many settlers prevailed, or felt they would not get better opportunities anywhere else. Subsequently, plots of land slowly grew into small collections of farms, then into towns, and finally, with the help of railroads, into permanent, economically productive settlements that easily connected people and goods all across the Western region. The Homestead Act’s lasting legacy is the regional development and demographic changes it sparked through encouraging migration, creating a distinct and oft-romanticized Western culture on the last great frontier in America history.
Class Discussion Points:
Studying women and homesteading raises big themes in U.S. history and historiography. Discuss some of the following: 1) The role of the federal government in women’s lives 2) How women either uphold or disproved the Turner Thesis? 3) Was the West more open for women? 4) What rhetoric was used to present white woman as a moral authority? How were white women presented as powerful in the age of homesteading, as opposed to powerless? How could they capitalize on white privilege? 5) Why were women included in the Homestead Act? 6) How did this impact the widows of the Civil War, Indian Wars, Spanish-American War, etc?
Debates over race and homesteading: 1) Why did Lincoln have to wait until the Civil War to pass the Homestead Act? What about it was considered anti-slavery? Were the virtues on homesteading national ideals or Northern ideals? How do Southern yeoman farmers come into play? 2) How did homesteading help or hurt free African Americans?
Native American issues: 1) All of homesteading land was Native American land. Much of this land was used for mineral extraction or farming. How is race an issue in the Homesteading Act, even when not explicitly stated? 2) Is this an example of American imperialism? Why or why not? 3) Analyze the language of the Newlands Reclamation Act of 1902 in dialogue with the Homestead Act.
The relationship between the United States and Mexico: Throughout what became the American Southwest, Mexican and Spanish families as early as the 18th century engaged in land grants before the American take over in the 1840s. These land grants were different from the Homestead Act, because they came out of civil law, not common law. There was also a gendered element, as Mexican women could keep their property after marriage. They also practiced partable inheritance, which meant they divided land equally among all children. When this land came under American rule with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, they were given “preemption rights” which meant they were considered squatters. They immediately had to prove how long they had been on the land, survey it, file it, claim it, and then reoccupy. 1 in 3 20th Century Mexican American land purchases in the U.S. West came from women and were distributed and expanded with Anglo immigrant marriages.
Chronology: We often think of the 19th century as the “age of homesteading,” but in fact, there were more in the twentieth century. How does this knowledge change your understanding of agricultural and industrial life in the 20th century?
For more information:
- Visit the U.S. History Scene reading list for The American West.