Homestead Movement

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HOMESTEAD MOVEMENT. It is difficult to fix a starting date for the movement that culminated in 1862 with the passage of the Homestead Act. The notion of free land had been ingrained in the thoughts and minds of settlers moving westward since colonial days, but until the West became politically powerful, the demand passed unheeded. The revenue motive was basic in determining the public land policy of the new nation, and more than three-quarters of a century elapsed between the passage of the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the passage of the Homestead Act.

Nevertheless, since its establishment, Congress had received petitions requesting that free land be given to settlers. In 1797, the settlers of the Ohio River area submitted such a petition, and two years later the residents of the Mississippi Territory followed suit. In 1812, Representative Jeremiah Morrow of Ohio presented a request from the True American Society, arguing that every American was entitled to a piece of free land. A few years later, in 1825, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri proposed a law that would give free land to settlers. By the 1830s and 1840s, the movement for free land had gained support from the president, organized labor, and the newly formed National Reform Party. In 1832, President Andrew Jackson weighed in on the issue when he stated, "The public lands should cease as soon as practicable to be a source of revenue." Thus, the basic doctrines of homestead legislation steadily attracted adherents.

In 1846, Felix G. McConnell of Alabama and Andrew Johnson of Tennessee introduced homestead bills in Congress. The latter was an ardent supporter of the homestead movement until final passage of the bill in 1862. A general bill for free land had come to a vote in Congress in 1852, but it was defeated in the Senate. At the same time, Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune, presented his views on the matter, stating that the public land system should "be so modified that every person needing Land may take possession of any quarter-section not previously located, and that none other than a person needing land shall be allowed to acquire it at all."

The homestead movement became a central political issue in 1848, when the Free Soil Party voiced its support for free land for settlers "in consideration of the expenses they incur in making settlements in the wilderness … and of the public benefits resulting therefrom." Four years later, the party supported the ideal even more vigorously but on different grounds. In 1852 it asserted that "all men have a natural right to a portion of the soil; and that, as the use of the soil is indispensable to life, the right of all men to the soil is as sacred as their right to life itself." Therefore, the party contended, "the public lands of the United States belong to the people, and should not be sold to individuals nor granted to corporations, but should be held as a sacred trust for the benefit of the people, and should be granted in limited quantities, free of cost, to landless settlers." These two platforms contained the primary arguments used by advocates of free land, namely, reward for public service and natural right.

Although the homestead movement had numerous supporters, it also faced strong opposition, as evidenced by the failure of a bill to pass before 1862. Many southerners opposed homestead legislation because they feared it would result in the peopling of the territories by anti-slavery settlers. On the other hand, many easterners disapproved of the movement because they feared its success would adversely affect the eastern economy. They contended westward migration would increase, thereby lowering land values in the East and depriving the federal government of an important revenue source. The Know-Nothing Party and other anti-alien groups opposed the movement because it would give free land to foreign immigrants.

In 1860, the homestead movement experienced both a setback and a small victory. In that year, Congress passed a bill that would have sold land for 25 cents an acre, but President James Buchanan vetoed the bill, arguing that it was unconstitutional. At the same time, however, the new Republican Party demanded that Congress pass a homestead bill. A Republican victory and southern secession enabled the party to carry out its program. On 20 May 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, and the goal sought by generations of westerners since the inception of the public land policy was finally achieved.

The Homestead Act allowed "any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such" the right to claim 160 acres of land, a quarter-section, for free. The claimant need only pay a small filing fee and live on and improve the land for five years. If he so chose, the homesteader could buy the land for $1.25 an acre after six months. Originally, settlers could only homestead on surveyed land, but in 1880, Congress extended the act to include the unsurveyed public domain.

Although approximately 274 million acres were claimed and 400,000 farms were established under the Homestead Act, the law never came close to meeting the expectations of its supporters. The lands of the West were too arid to support traditional farming techniques, and a farm of 160 acres was simply too small. Congress attempted to address the problems with a series of acts passed between 1873 and 1916. The Timber Culture Act (1873) granted 160 acres to the head of a family who agreed to plant and maintain forty acres of trees for ten years. The Desert Land Act (1877) encouraged irrigation of arid lands by granting 640 acres at $1.25 an acre to anyone who agreed to irrigate the land within three years of filing. In 1909, the Enlarged Homestead Act expanded the original act to 320 acres instead of 160. The Stock-Raising Homestead Act (1916) authorized homestead entries of 640 acres on grazing lands. Congress even applied the homestead principle to Indian lands with the passage of the Dawes General Allotment Act in 1877. These acts, however, also failed to achieve the desired results.


Fite, Gilbert C. The Farmers' Frontier, 1865–1900. New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1966.

Hibbard, Benjamin Horace. A History of the Public Land Policies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965.

Shannon, Fred A. The Farmer's Last Frontier: Agriculture, 1860–1897. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1945.

White, Richard. "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own:" A History of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

Jennifer L.Bertolet

Dan E.Clark

See alsoFree Soil Party ; Land Acts ; Land Policy ; Timber Culture Act ; Westward Migration .