Homestead Act (1862)
Homestead Act (1862)
James L. Huston
Excerpt from the Homestead Act
That the person applying for the benefit of this act shall, upon application to the register of the land office in which he or she is about to make such entry, make affidavit before the said register or receiver that he or she is the head of a family, or is twenty-one years or more of age, or shall have performed service in the army or navy of the United States, and that he has never borne arms against the Government of the United States..., and that such application is made for his or her exclusive use and benefit, and that said entry is made for the purpose of actual settlement and cultivation...; and upon filing the said affidavit with the register or receiver, and on payment of ten dollars, he or she shall thereupon be permitted to enter the quantity of land specified ...
Throughout American history, various individuals have dreamed of certain laws that when enacted would transform society and make us a more egalitarian and just nation. The Homestead Act (12 Stat. 392) was one of these visions, but, unlike other schemes, the homestead ideal was actually put into practice. Its results proved far different from the hopes that promoted its passage.
The homestead ideal was that each head of a family—in the nineteenth century, this person was almost always a man—should possess a small farm of some 100 acres to support a family. By having land of their own, the farmers could be independent of the bullying of others and thus could act as objective citizens, making wise choices between good legislators and poor ones. These farmers could not be threatened with dismissal from jobs (as could wage-earners, people hired to work for owners of wealth). They valued hard work, by which they fed themselves and their families, and distrusted luxury and leisure. Indeed, the ideal of the independent farmer formed the basis of Thomas Jefferson's political philosophy—he hoped the nation would always be guided by the yeoman farmer (a farmer who owned his own land), and he purchased the territory of Louisiana partly to ensure the United States would forever remain a small farmer nation.
THE HOMESTEAD IDEAL AND CLASS CONFLICT
By the 1830s the country had experienced urban development and industrialization, changes unforeseen by Jefferson. Small farmer life was not possible in the large cities, and of course factories employed wage-earners. Thus the United States began to acquire a working class. But the new working class received miserable wages and battled employers over their pay and working hours. Leaders among the working men usually sought to establish labor unions by which they could bargain with employers for better conditions, but some sought a more general solution. Such reformers turned to the supply of land in the West and believed that the nation could be saved severe class conflicts between employers and workers by reserving that land for small farmers. Thus, workingmen from the East could travel to the West, obtain a small farm (about 100 to 200 acres) for free from the federal government, and preserve the small independent farmer quality of American political life.
Two New York working-class leaders vigorously promoted the homestead ideal. George Henry Evans, who founded the Land Reform Association in the 1840s, and John Commerford, a trade unionist who headed the National Reform Association in the 1850s, received great aid and publicity from the New York City newspaper publisher Horace Greeley. Greeley's paper, the New York Tribune, had the greatest circulation of all newspapers prior to the Civil War. However, others became attracted to the homestead plan for reasons other than rejuvenating American society with more farmers. Rather, they reasoned that by using the West to siphon off some workers—not all of them—a labor shortage would be created in the East, thereby raising wages and dispelling class conflict. This latter view became popular among politicians.
POLITICAL UPS AND DOWNS
By the late 1840s the homestead proposal attracted politicians who brought the subject before Congress, the most prominent being Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. Until this time the government had auctioned off public lands to the highest bidder, thereby allowing speculators to buy vast tracts of land and hold it off the market until the price rose so they could make handsome profits. The small farmer was effectively excluded from such land sales. However, by 1841 pressure on Congress to make lands available to common folk had produced the Preemption Act, by which settlers on government land could buy 160 acres for $1.25 per acre before the land was auctioned off. The Preemption Act was popular, but it soon was displaced in public sentiment by the homestead agitation. The House of Representatives passed a homestead bill in 1852, but the Senate would not agree to it. A somewhat similar proposal was actively considered in 1854, and a plan by Pennsylvania Representative Galusha A. Grow was actually passed by Congress in 1860, only to be vetoed by then President James Buchanan.
Originally, the homestead ideal received general approval from both the Whigs (the precursor of the Republicans) and Democrats. But in the 1850s questions about slavery came into prominence that emphasized regional differences connected with the question of free western land. Southern politicians increasingly saw the homestead ideal as a means of increasing the number of free states so as to diminish the power of the South in national councils. Republicans, on the other hand, saw the homestead plan as a way to attract Northern voters and stop what they feared was the burgeoning influence of the slave states.
The controversy over slavery's expansion into the territories brought about the secession of South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas in 1860 to 1861, and soon plunged the country into Civil War. That circumstance led to the passage of the Homestead Act. When the states that formed the Confederacy seceded, they also withdrew their senators and representatives from Congress, thereby giving the Republicans a commanding majority. Senator Justin S. Morrill of Vermont picked up the Grow Homestead Bill of 1860 and with little dissent marshaled it through the House of Representatives on February 28, 1862. It passed the Senate on May 6, and Abraham Lincoln signed the bill into law on May 20.
And so the homestead vision took actual legislative form and became law. But its results were hardly anything its promoters intended. Indeed, at least four important factors hindered the achievement of the homestead dream:
First, the public land available for homesteading was in the Great Plains, an area not well suited to small farming. Much of the land was more adapted to cattle ranches and mining, operations that required much more than the 160 acres allowed by the Homestead statute. In short, the Homestead law might have worked better had it passed in 1790 or 1800, when the land available for habitation would support small farms. But by 1862 public lands were those in a climate that did not fit the agriculture practiced in the East.
Second, national legislators saw in the public lands not only a chance to help small farmers but to stimulate the national economy by giving portions of the region to enterprises and to eastern states. In the 1850s Congress began (with the Illinois Land Grant of 1850) the practice of giving land to railroads to assist in the completion of these vital arteries of transportation. The most famous of these land grants came during the Civil War in the Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864. Then, Congress thought it wise to stimulate the creation of agricultural and mechanical colleges in the nation. In 1862 Congress passed the Land Grant College Act, the handiwork of Justin Morrill, and offered states funds from the sale of certain amounts of western land. Congress also passed a batch of land laws to achieve various objectives in development of the West: the Timber Culture Act of 1873, the Desert Land Act of 1877, and the Timber and Stone Act of 1878. All these actions removed western land available to homesteaders.
Third, Congress constantly amended the Homestead Act so as to allow settlers less time to claim their land. This opened the door for fraud. By letting settlers file for land titles early—settlers then paying a small price per acre—Congress encouraged them to make momentary improvements in order to obtain the land and settle their title to a speculator or monopolist. Congress did not encourage settlers to establish permanent farms for themselves.
Fourth, the federal government in the nineteenth century lacked the personnel to adequately run the land offices. Enforcement officials were over-whelmed. This of course gave rise to cheating. Speculators, monopolists, and others used the land laws to create giant farms. So instead of the Homestead Act promoting small farms, it ended up promoting the large western ranch. Of the some 1 billion acres of public land that the government owned in the nineteenth century, 183 million acres went to railroad corporations; 140 million acres to the states; 100 million acres to Indian tribes; and 100 million acres to free farmers (the total acreage given out in cash sales). (One half of the land had not been sold because it had been reserved for national parks or was totally unsuited for agricultural development.)
So only one acre in five that the government released out of its hands went to small farmers—certainly not the vision of the Homestead Act promoters. And to show how irrelevant the policy actually was to the social condition of the United States, class relations grew even more violent in the years between 1873 and 1896, as capitalists and workers fought bitterly over control of the factory floor, working conditions, and wages. Indeed, the period has been called the "Great Upheaval." As it turned out, the homestead ideal was no solution to the nation's social problems stemming from the Industrial Revolution.
Bronstein, Jamie L. Land Reform and Working-Class Experience in Britain and the United States, 1800–1862. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.
Gates, Paul Wallace, and Robert W. Swenson. History of Public Land Law Development. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968.
Richardson, Heather Cox. The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies during the Civil War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Robbins, Roy M. Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776–1936. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 1962.
Shannon, Freed A. The Farmer's Last Frontier: Agriculture, 1860-1897. New York: Harper and Row, 1945.
The term "manifest destiny" expressed the belief that the expansion of the United States across North America was both right and inevitable. The term was first used in 1845 in the Democratic Review by John L. O'Sullivan, who wrote that it was "our manifest destiny to over-spread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." O'Sullivan was referring in particular to the annexation of Texas, but his phrase was quickly adopted by those advocating annexation of the Oregon Territory, parts of Mexico, and even Cuba. Believers in manifest destiny felt that American abilities and institutions were inherently superior to those of other peoples, and that it was therefore their "mission" to spread American values across the continent. During the 1890s, the concept was revived and used to justify the annexation of Hawaii and islands taken from Spain in the Spanish-American War.
Homestead Act (1862)
HOMESTEAD ACT (1862)
The Homestead Act, passed by the Republican-dominated Congress during the American Civil War (1861–1865), was intended to place public land in the hands of western settlers. It stated that any adult citizen (or a person who declared an intention to become a citizen) who was the head of a family could lay claim to 160 acres of public land. The only payment required was a small registration fee. The claimant was required to live on the land for a five-year period while improving it by building a house measuring at least 12 by 14 feet and farming at least ten acres. The period of residence was reduced to six months if the settler was willing to pay a price of $1.25 an acre. Within three years of the act's passage, more than 15,000 claims on public lands had been registered with the federal government.
The passage of the Homestead Act represented the culmination of 30 years' work by Republicans and their Whig predecessors. When the United States purchased the Louisiana territory from France in 1803, it acquired a huge tract of federally administered land. President Thomas Jefferson (1801–1809) envisioned this territory divided into small farms, whose owners could follow his rural vision of American democracy. Over the next few decades, Congress was split on the question of what to do with this land. Southern legislators feared that homestead laws, which divided public lands into small farms rather than large plantations, would attract immigrants and others who were opposed to slavery. Some of their northern counterparts, especially from the industrialized northeast, feared that the lure of free land would drain cheap immigrant labor from the factories to the frontier. Others, such as Senator Thomas Hart Benton, supported free farms as a means of encouraging democratic growth.
The problem became especially acute after the Mexican War (1846–1848), when transportation of both people and produce became cheaper because of new canals and railroads. So important was the issue that one party, the Free-Soilers, made distribution of public lands the major plank in their campaign platform during the 1840s. Although bills offering public lands to settlers were passed by the House of Representatives in 1852, 1854, and 1859, they were all defeated by the southern-dominated Senate. When an 1860 homestead bill was finally passed by both houses of Congress, President James Buchanan (1857–1861) vetoed it.
Although the Homestead Act was intended to benefit the homeless immigrants of the east, those who gained the most from it were native-born Americans and land speculators. Immigrants were mostly too poor to afford the stake needed to move west and take up a claim. It was typically second- or third-generation Americans who sold their farms to head west with their families. Most of these farmers, however, were poorly prepared for farming on the Great Plains. The quality of land allotments open to farmers varied considerably, and good claims were quickly taken up. Accustomed to plenty of water and wood for cooking and heating, as well as plentiful grass for their livestock, many were unable to cope with the arid conditions of the West. Many original homesteaders were unable to live on their new land long enough to complete their claims. These farmers often sold their claims to land speculators, who resold them to latecomers at a profit. Some land speculators also bought abandoned land and hired claimants to file false claims.
Those homesteaders who remained on their claims found new opportunities, as well as challenges. Federally funded railroads spanned the continent by 1869, opening isolated farms to markets and manufactured goods and bringing new settlers to the prairie. These pioneers built schools, churches, and towns, as well as homesteads. Within 40 years of the passage of the Homestead Act, most of the territories opened to settlement had either entered the Union as states or filed for statehood.
See also: Homesteaders, Westward Expansion
Lee, Lawrence Bacon. Kansas and the Homestead Act, 1862–1905. New York: Arno Press, 1979.
Potter, Lee Ann, and Wynell Schamel. "The Homestead Act of 1862."Social Education. October 1997.
Soza, Edward. Mexican Homesteaders in the San Pedro River Valley and the Homestead Act of 1862, 1870–1908. Altadena, CA: E. Soza, 1994.
Tatter, Henry. The Preferential Treatment of the Actual Settler in the Primary Disposition of the Vacant Lands in the United States to 1841. New York: Arno Press, 1979.
Trimm, Warren P. "Two Years in Kansas." American Heritage, February/March 1983.
i sold my pennsylvania farm with its stumps and stones and stingy soil that yielded so grudgingly to the toil i had given it. my wife, susie, and i decided to go to kansas and take up a government claim.
warren p. trimm, kansas homesteader
introductionAfter the American Revolution, both the federal government and the states jockeyed to acquire as much Native American land as possible, leading the United States Congress to pass a series of ordinances in the 1780s to bring order to the process of land development. One such ordinance established the land grid that is visible on any flight over the American Midwest—what had been Indian country was divided into perfect squares. The final result of this process was the Homestead Act, passed by Congress on May 20, 1862, which made 160-acres plots of unappropriated public land available for free, to women and men alike. Thousands of settlers from the eastern United States and Europe seized on the opportunity to become landowners. The Indian inhabitants of these lands had little choice but to retreat, and retreat again.
May 20, 1862
AN ACT to secure homesteads to actual settlers on the public domain.
Be it enacted, That 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, as required by the naturalization laws of the United States, and who has never borne arms against the United States Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies, shall, from and after the first of January, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, be entitled to enter one quarter-section or a less quantity of unappropriated public lands, upon which said person may have filed a pre-emption claim, or which may, at the time the application is made, be subject to pre-emption at one dollar and twenty-five cents, or less, per acre; or eighty acres or less of such unappropriated lands, at two dollars and fifty cents per acre, to be located in a body, in conformity to the legal subdivisions of the public lands, and after the same shall have been surveyed: Provided, That any person owning or residing on land may, under the provisions of this act, enter other land lying contiguous to his or her said land, which shall not, with the land so already owned and occupied, exceed in the aggregate one hundred and sixty acres.
Section 2. And be it further enacted, That the person applying for the benefit of this act shall, upon application to the register of the land office in which he or she is about to make such entry, make affidavit before the said register or receiver that he or she is the head of a family, or is twenty-one years or more of age, or shall have performed service in the army or navy of the United States, and that he has never borne arms against the Government of the United States or given aid and comfort to its enemies, and that such application is made for his or her exclusive use and benefit, and that said entry is made for the purpose of actual settlement and cultivation, and not either directly or indirectly for the use or benefit of any other person or persons whomsoever; and upon filing the said affidavit with the register or receiver, and on payment of ten dollars, he or she shall thereupon be permitted to enter the quantity of land specified: Provided, however, That no certificate shall be given or patent issued therefor until the expiration of five years from the date of such entry; and if, at the expiration of such time, or at any time within two years thereafter, the person making such entry; or, if he be dead, his widow; or in case of her death, his heirs or devisee; or in the case of a widow making such entry, her heirs or devisee, in the case of her death; shall prove by two credible witnesses that he, she, or they have resided upon or cultivated the same for the term of five years immediately succeeding the time of filing the affidavit aforesaid, and shall make affidavit that no part of said land has been alienated, and he has borne true allegiance to the Government of the United States; then, in such case, he, she, or they, if at that time a citizen of the United States, shall be entitled to a patent, as in other cases provided for by law: And, provided, further, That in case of the death of both father and mother, leaving an infant child, or children, under twenty-one years of age, the right and fee shall enure to the benefit of said infant child or children; and the executor, administrator, or guardian may, at any time within two years after the death of the surviving parent, and in accordance with the laws of the State in which such children for the time being have their domicil, sell said land for the benefit of said infants, but for no other purpose; and the purchaser shall acquire the absolute title by the purchase, and be entitled to a patent from the United States, on payment of the office fees and sum of money herein specified.
Section 3. And be it further enacted, That the register of the land office shall note all such applications on the tract books and plats of his office, and keep a register of all such entries, and make return thereof to the General Land Office, together with the proof upon which they have been founded.
Section 4. And be it further enacted, That no lands acquired under the provisions of this act shall in any event become liable to the satisfaction of any debt or debts contracted prior to the issuing of the patent therefor.
Section 5. And be it further enacted, That if, at any time after the filing of the affidavit, as required in the second section of this act, and before the expiration of the five years aforesaid, it shall be proven, after due notice to the settler, to the satisfaction of the register of the land office, that the person having filed such affidavit shall have actually changed his or her residence, or abandoned the said land for more than six months at any time, then and in that event the land so entered shall revert to the government.
Section 6. And be it further enacted, That no individual shall be permitted to acquire title to more than one quarter section under the provisions of this act; and that the Commissioner of the General Land Office is hereby required to prepare and issue such rules and regulations, consistent with this act, as shall be necessary and proper to carry its provisions into effect; and that the registers and receivers of the several land offices shall be entitled to receive the same compensation for any lands entered under the provisions of this act that they are now entitled to receive when the same quantity of land is entered with money, one half to be paid by the person making the application at the time of so doing, and the other half on the issue of the certificate by the person to whom it may be issued; but this shall not be construed to enlarge the maximum of compensation now prescribed by law for any register or receiver: Provided, That nothing contained in this act shall be so construed as to impair or interfere in any manner whatever with existing preemption rights: And provided, further, That all persons who may have filed their applications for a preemption right prior to the passage of this act, shall be entitled to all privileges of this act: Provided, further, That no person who has served or may hereafter serve, for period of not less than fourteen days in the army or navy of the United States, either regular or volunteer, under the laws thereof, during the existence of an actual war, domestic or foreign, shall be deprived of the benefits of this act of account of not having attained the age of twenty-one years.
Section 7. And be it further enacted, That the fifth section of the act entitled An act in addition to an act more effectually to provide for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States, and for other purposes, approved the third of March, in the year eighteen hun-dred and fifty-seven, shall extend to all oaths, affirmations, and affidavits, required or authorized by this act.
Section 8. And be it further enacted, That nothing in this act shall be so construed as to prevent any person who has availed him or herself of the benefits of the first section of this act, from paying the minimum price, or the price to which the same may have graduated, for the quantity of land so entered at any time before the expiration of the five years, and obtaining a patent therefor from the government, as in other cases provided by law, on making proof of settlement and cultivation as provided by existing laws granting preemption rights.
Approved, May 20, 1862.
The Homestead Act of 1862 was one of three public-land acts advocated by the Republican Party and passed during the Civil War. Like the other two, the Land Grant Act and the Pacific Railway Act, this act had to await the secession of the Southern states before it could be enacted. Destined to draw large numbers of settlers to the West, an area that had proven itself resistant to slavery, the act was seen by the South as antithetical to its best interest.
The Homestead Act provided for free grants of up to 160 acres of contiguous, surveyed, unreserved public lands to bona fide settlers. To be eligible, an applicant had to be the head of a family or twenty-one years of age and a U.S. citizen, or an alien who had filed for citizenship. Women could qualify under the head-of-household provision. All applicants had to live on the homestead for five years and make certain improvements to gain title to the land.
Reflecting the passions of the time, however, the act initially disqualified a large segment of the American public from homesteading eligibility: those who "had borne arms against the United States Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies." This, of course, included nearly everyone in the Confederacy. On the other hand, it granted the favor of an age waiver to Union soldiers and sailors under the age of twenty-one.
The Homestead Act reflected the entrepreneurial, opportunity-promoting, and optimistic views of the new Republican Party, which stressed the importance of landownership. "I am in favor of cutting up the wild lands into parcels, so that every poor man may have a home," said Abraham Lincoln of the homestead proposal in 1861. Lincoln had earlier shared with Congress his belief that such settlement represented a "higher and more enduring interest" than simply selling the public lands to raise revenue. He attached sufficient enough importance to the act that he detailed its operation to Congress in his annual messages of 1863 and 1864.
From enactment until the 1930s, when homesteading virtually ended, some 250 million acres were claimed as homesteads. By nearly any measure, however, the Homestead Act fell short of its promises and expectations. It suffered from several inherent fallacies. Most Western land was not suited to the intensive agriculture envisioned by such limited-size grants, and rainfall was often inadequate for farming. The act required improvements and envisioned self-sustaining farms but did not
provide for operating capital; much of the better land had already been, and would continue to be, incorporated into farms, ranches, railroad land grants, and other claims. Land speculators and corporations took much of the land to advance their own interests.
The Homestead Act was historically significant nevertheless. Once the Civil War removed the South as an obstacle to opening the West, the act beckoned to settlers and enhanced the image of the West as a place of opportunity and adventure. It spawned numerous other homesteading measures, some offering up to 640 acres, during the next half-century. Its nod to women was startlingly progressive and portentous. Not to be overlooked, amendments to the act eased service members' procedures for getting land and applying their service time toward the residency requirement. These benefits were part of the federal government's practice, which extended through both world wars and the Cold War, of rewarding its military personnel with bonuses, grants, and other favors.
Gates, Paul W. History of Public Land Law Development. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1968.
Lindgren, H. Elaine. Land in Her Own Name: Women as Homesteaders in North Dakota. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.
Robbins, Roy M. Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776–1936. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962.
Stanford J. Layton
See also:Age of Westward Expansion; Farming.
The Homestead Act was passed in Congress on May 20, 1862. It encouraged people to move west to settle new territories by promising free land. With little money but great commitment, many families left the east to start new lives on the frontier.
The United States grew enormously in the decades before 1860. New territories expanded the country from one side of the continent to the other, and a constant stream of immigrants flowed into cities. To encourage settlement of the new lands by immigrants, Congress debated forms of the Homestead Act for years prior to its enactment.
Regional concerns prevented the Homestead Act from passing for some time. Industries of the north feared a shortage of cheap immigrant labor. Southern plantation owners resisted the competition of small farms. Those who owned small farms tended to resist the institution of
slavery , and plantation owners refused to support any measure that might threaten slavery, the cheap labor of which was important to their economy. Throughout the nation, landowners were concerned about what would happen to land values in the east after cheap land became available in the west. As a result, congressional efforts to pass a homesteading measure repeatedly ended in resistance and defeat.
By 1860, so much had changed as a result of population growth that opinions were beginning to sway. There were more than enough immigrants to provide cheap labor to northern industries. Businesses began to recognize the advantages that western expansion would bring, such as new markets for industry and new access to raw materials. With such a continuous stream of new residents, the fear of dropping land values eased. Slavery issues, however, continued to dominate national politics, and Southerners still resisted any homesteading act.
The Republican Party platform during the election of 1860 included a push for a homesteading act. Although its candidate, Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65), was elected, passage of such legislation was not guaranteed. The secession of Southern states from the Union from 1860 to 1861 and the resulting absence of their congressmen provided an opportunity to pass such a measure with little resistance.
The Homestead Act went into effect January 1, 1863. It offered 160 acres of land for the cost of a small filing fee. To qualify for the offer, a person had to be the head of a household or an individual at least twenty-one years old, a U.S. citizen or someone with plans to become a citizen, and committed to settling on the land for individual benefit. To earn the title to the land, meaning full ownership, settlers had to build a house and farm at least ten acres for five years. Alternatively, after just six months of residence, settlers could purchase the land from the government for $1.25 per acre.
From 1863 to 1880, nearly five hundred thousand applications were filed under the Homestead Act for approximately 56 million acres of land. Though the measure was meant to attract homeless immigrants throughout the east, many were too poor to be able to move west. Established American families were more often attracted to move west to earn the rights to more land.
The land often proved to be mountainous, desert, or otherwise challenging to farm. Many settlers were unable to cope with the new conditions and either sold their claims to land speculators or abandoned them. Over time, Congress passed additional measures to remedy these challenges and to continue to encourage settlement, but none of them quite lived up to expectations. By 1935, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) withdrew the remainder of the public domain from private entry, only about 285 million acres out of the original 600 million acres available had been homesteaded.
Homestead Act (1862)
Homestead Act (1862)
The Homestead Act was signed into law in 1862. It was a legislative offer on a vast scale of free homesteads on unappropriated public lands. Any citizen (or alien who filed a declaration of intent to become a citizen), who had reached the age of 21, and was the head of a family could acquire title to a stretch of public land of up to 160 acres (65 ha) after living on it and farming it for five years. The only payment required was administrative fees. The settler could also obtain the land without the requirement of residence and cultivation for five years, against payment of $1.25 per acre. With the advent of machinery to mechanize farm labor, 160-acre (65 ha) tracts soon became uneconomical to operate, and Congress modified the original act to allow acquisition of larger tracts. The Homestead Act is still in effect, but good unappropriated land is scarce. Only Alaska still offers opportunities for homesteaders.
The Homestead Act was designed to speed development of the United States and to achieve an equitable distribution of wealth. Poor settlers, who lacked the capital to buy land, were now able to start their own farms. Indeed, the act contributed greatly to the growth and development of the country, particularly in the period between the Civil War and World War I, and it did much to speed settlement west of the Mississippi River. In all, well over a quarter of a billion acres of land has been distributed under the Homestead Act and its amendments. However, only a small percentage of land granted under the act between 1862 and 1900 was in fact acquired by homesteaders. According to estimates, only at most 1 of every 6 acres (0.4 of every 2.4 ha) and possibly only 1 in 9 acres (0.4 in 3.6 ha) passed into the hands of family farmers.
The railroad companies and land speculators obtained the bulk of the land, sometimes through gross fraud using dummy entrants. Moreover, the railroads often managed to get the best land while the homesteaders, ignorant of farming conditions on the Plains, often ended up with tracts least suitable to farming. Speculators frequently encouraged settlement on land that was too dry or had no sources of water for domestic use. When the homesteads failed, many settlers sold the land to speculators.
The environmental consequences of the Homestead Act were many and serious. The act facilitated railroad development, often in excess of transportation needs. In many instances, competing companies built lines to connect the same cities. Railroad development contributed significantly to the destruction of bison herds, which in turn led to the destruction of the way of life of the Plains Indians. Cultivation of the Plains caused wholesale destruction of the vast prairies, so that whole ecological systems virtually disappeared. Overfarming of semi-arid lands led to another environmental disaster, whose consequences were fully experienced only in the 1930s. The great Dust Bowl , with its terrifying dust storms, made huge areas of the country unlivable.
The Homestead Act was based on the notion that land held no value unless it was cultivated. It has now become clear that reckless cultivation can be self-destructive. In many cases, unfortunately, the damage can no longer be undone.
[William E. Larson and Marijke Rijsberman ]
Shimkin, M. N. "Homesteading on the Republican River." Journal of the West 26 (October 1987): 58–66.