There is a lot more to the legends of the old American West than cowboys and indians. In fact, the less glamorous side of the pioneer history of the United States is the development of America’s main food growing regions.
During the 19th Century, the U.S. government had purchased the Louisiana territory from the Napoleon regime of France. There were further acquisitions of land in California and the southwest areas in present day USA. By mid century, officials and special interests believed the time had come to encourage settlement of the new territories.
So, in the middle of the American Civil War, in 1862, the Congress passed legislation to enable settlers to acquire land. The bill was named the Homestead Act. On May 20, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Act into law.
Basically the Homestead Act stated, “Any adult citizen, or intended citizen, who had never borne arms against the U.S. government could claim 160 acres of surveyed government land. Claimants were required to improve the plot by building a dwelling and cultivating the land. After 5 years on the land, the original filer was entitled to the property, free and clear, except for a small registration fee. Title could also be acquired after only a 6-month residency and trivial improvements, provided the claimant paid the government $1.25 per acre.”
The legislation was very progressive in nature. The law enabled many types of people, including minorities and women, opportunities to acquire land. The right to own the land for African Americans and women predate the times when they could enjoy other legal and civil rights. Also, of note, is the fact that many Europeans, such as Russians, Irish, and Scandinavians were attracted to the United States by the promise of free real estate. I can trace my own family history back to the homesteading days when my German and Swedish relatives settled in America.
While the Homestead Act was well intended, it was not a guarantee that settlers would be lifted out of poverty. The usual substantial costs of farming had to be figured into a decision to farm the land. In order to fulfill the requirements for land ownership, tools were needed, seed and livestock had to be purchased.
Mother Nature provided many other obstacles to the new farmers in the form of frequent droughts and insect plagues. There were also violent conflicts with cattle ranchers. Native Americans proved resistant to the intrusion of newcomers onto their traditional tribal lands. The genocide of the Indian people and culture culminated during the homesteading historical events.
Another problem with the Homestead Act was its ambiguous wording. Most of the free land ended up in the possession of real estate speculators, cattlemen, lumber interests, mining tycoons, and the railroad companies. Out of 500,000,000 acres to be dispersed by the Land Office, only 80,000,000 acres actually went to bonafide settlers in the 19th Century. It wasn’t until the early 20th Century that small family farmers overtook corporate interests as far as total land ownership is concerned.
So the measure that went into effect on this date in 1862 triggered the lion’s share of territorial events that shaped the land and institutions for much of the United States.
The Blue Jay of Happiness recommends the Mari Sandoz book Old Jules if you want to read an authentic account about the life and times of the homesteading pioneers of America.