Homestead Act

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Homestead Act

Homestead Act

Homestead Act of 1862: Overview

Passed on May 20, 1862, the Homestead Act accelerated the settlement of the western territory by granting adult heads of families 160 acres of surveyed public land for a minimal filing fee and 5 years of continuous residence on that land.

 

The Homestead Act of 1862 is recognized as one of the most revolutionary concepts for distributing public land in American history. Repercussions of this monumental piece of legislation can be detected throughout America today, decades after the cry of "Free Land!" has faded away. After being amended many times over the years, the Homestead Act was repealed on October 21, 1976, but the date for homesteading public lands in Alaska was extended until October 21, 1986.

 

Over the course of the Homestead Act, the government distributed more than 270 million acres of land to homesteaders. Thirty of the 50 states had homesteads in them at one time or another, including such geographically diverse areas as Florida, Iowa, the Dakotas, New Mexico, Washington, California, and Alaska. Approximately 1.6 million homesteaders (about 40 percent) "proved up" on their lands by fulfilling all requirements and taking title from the government. Millions of people of different ethnic origins, ages, and backgrounds took advantage of homesteading, hoping to use the Act to help them fulfill their own personal visions of the American Dream of land and home ownership. An estimated 93 million homesteader descendants inhabit the modern world. 

 

What was the Homestead Act?

The Homestead Act of 1862 has been called one the most important pieces of Legislation in the history of the United States. Signed into law in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln after the secession of southern states, this Act turned over vast amounts of the public domain to private citizens. 270 millions acres, or 10% of the area of the United States, was claimed and settled under this act. 

 

The Homestead Act of 1862 was one of the most significant and enduring events in the westward expansion of the United States. By granting 160 acres of free land to claimants, it allowed nearly any man or woman a "fair chance." Homestead National Monument of America, located in Southeast Nebraska, commemorates this Act and the far-reaching effects it had upon the landscape and people.

 

A homesteader had only to be the head of a household and at least 21 years of age to claim a 160 acre parcel of land. Settlers from all walks of life including newly arrived immigrants, farmers without land of their own from the East, single women and former slaves came to meet the challenge of "proving up" and keeping this "free land". Each homesteader had to live on the land, build a home, make improvements, and farm for 5 years before they were eligible to "prove up". A total filing fee of $18 was the only money required, but sacrifice and hard work exacted a different price from the hopeful settlers.

“I've long believed that one of the mainsprings of our own liberty has been the widespread ownership of property among our people and the expectation that anyone's child, even from the humblest of families, could grow up to own a business or a corporation. Thomas Jefferson dreamed of a land of small farmers, of shopowners, and merchants. Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act that ensured that the great western prairies of America would be the realm of independent, propertyowning citizens—a mightier guarantee of freedom is difficult to imagine.” – Ronald Reagan, August 3, 1987

Homestead Act Map
Homestead Act Map.jpg

(This map reflects the states that participated in the Homestead Act -- an Act that had reigned from the initial signature of President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 and ceased to exist during the administration of President Ronald Reagan in 1986.)

Recommended Viewing: Lewis & Clark - The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997) (DVD) (240 minutes) (PBS) (September 28, 2004). Review: Another reliably well-crafted, generally engrossing documentary from Ken Burns, Lewis & Clark employs the director's now-familiar approach to his subjects, from its elegant juxtaposition of period illustrations and portraits against newly filmed footage of historic sites to Burns's repertory of accomplished actors to provide gravitas for quotes from the key figures. Granted the formula has become familiar enough to allow parody, but Burns knows how to invest his historical investigations with movement and drama, making this four-hour journey a worthwhile trip. Continued below…

As narrated by Hal Holbrook, Dayton Duncan's script explicates the agenda presented by Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, placing it in the context of the young country's gamble in Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase, and the expedition's goals for opening the West. While preserving the heroic scale of the undertaking, Burns also finds time to delve into the politics of the venture and the disparate personalities of the two explorers; in particular, Duncan and Burns look at the career of Lewis, the presidential protégé, his moody demeanor, and his untimely death. The film also looks beyond its titular leaders to examine the personalities of their corps of soldiers, their boatmen, and the Indians they met and depended on, most notably their female Shosone guide, Sacagawea. --Sam Sutherland

Homestead Act: Limitations and Results

The Homestead Act, enacted during the Civil War in 1862, provided that 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. After the Civil War, Union soldiers could deduct the time they had served from the residency requirements.

 

Although this act was included in the Republican Party platform of 1860, support for the idea began decades earlier. Even under the Articles of Confederation, before 1787, the distribution of government lands generated much interest and discussion.

 

The act, however, proved to be no panacea for poverty. Comparatively few laborers and farmers could afford to build a farm or acquire the necessary tools, seed, and livestock. In the end, most of those who purchased land under the act came from areas quite close to their new homesteads (Iowans moved to Nebraska, Minnesotans to South Dakota, and so on). Unfortunately, the act was framed so ambiguously that it seemed to invite fraud, and early modifications by Congress only compounded the problem. Most of the land went to speculators, cattlemen, miners, lumbermen, and railroads. Of some 500 million acres dispersed by the General Land Office between 1862 and 1904, only 80 million acres went to homesteaders. Indeed, small farmers acquired more land under the Homestead Act in the 20th century than in the 19th.

 

Homestead Act: The Filing Process

People interested in Homesteading first had to file their intentions at the nearest Land Office. A brief check for previous ownership claims was made for the plot of land in question, usually described by its survey coordinates. The prospective homesteader paid a filing fee of $10 to claim the land temporarily, as well as a $2 commission to the land agent.

 

With application and receipt in hand, the homesteader then returned to the land to begin the process of building a home and farming the land, both requirements for "proving" up at the end of five years. When all requirements had been completed and the homesteader was ready the take legal possession, the homesteader found two neighbors or friends willing to vouch for the truth of his or her statements about the land's improvements and sign the "proof" document.

 

After successful completion of this final form and payment of a $6 fee, the homesteader received the patent for the land, signed with the name of the current President of the United States. This paper was often proudly displayed on a cabin wall and represented the culmination of hard work and determination.

 

The Homestead Act remained in effect until it was repealed in 1976, with provisions for homesteading in Alaska until 1986. Alaska was one of the last places in the country where homesteading remained a viable option into the latter part of the 1900s. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 substantially decreased the amount of land available to homesteaders in the West. Because much of the prime land had been homesteaded decades earlier, successful Homestead claims dropped sharply after this time.

 

On March 16, 1936 Congress passed Public Law 480 of the 74th Congress created a new unit in the National Park System on the site of the Daniel Freeman homestead. On March 19, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the law and Homestead National Monument of America "as an appropriate monument to retain for posterity a proper memorial emblematical of the hardships and the pioneer life through which the early settlers passed in the settlement, cultivation and civilization of the Great West."

 

Homesteading by the Numbers: Interesting Facts

Compiled by Homestead National Monument of America Historian Todd Arrington, April 24, 2007

 

1: Number of National Park Service sites dedicated to the commemoration and interpretation of the Homestead Act of 1862 and the many changes it initiated in the United States and the world.

 

10: Percentage of U.S. land given away under the Homestead Act.

 

24: Presidential administrations during which the Homestead Act was in effect (Lincoln to Reagan).

 

30: Number of states in which homestead lands were located.

 

40: Percentage of homesteaders that “proved up” on their claims and earned the deed from the federal government.

 

45: Percentage of Nebraska’s acres distributed under the Homestead Act [Largest percentage of any state].

 

123: Years the Homestead Act was in effect (1863-1986).

 

160: Number of acres in a typical homestead claim.

 

2,000,000: Number of claims made under the Homestead Act.

 

11,000,000: Acres claimed in 1913, the peak year of homestead claims.

 

93,000,000: Estimated number of homesteader descendants alive today.

 

270,000,000: Total number of acres distributed by the Homestead Act.

 

Total Homesteads: State by State and in Descending Order

 

Montana (151,600 homesteads):

Total acreage: 93,155,840

Total homestead acreage: 32,050,480

Total percentage: 34%

 

North Dakota (118,472 homesteads):

Total acreage: 44,156,160

Total homestead acreage: 17,417,466

Total percentage: 39%

 

Colorado (107,618 homesteads):

Total acreage: 66,386,560

Total homestead acreage: 22,146,400

Total percentage: 33%

 

Nebraska (104,260 homesteads):

Total acreage: 49,201,920

Total homestead acreage: 22,253,314

Total percentage: 45%

 

Oklahoma (99,557 homesteads):

Total acreage: 43,954,560

Total homestead acreage: 14,865,912

Total percentage: 34%

 

South Dakota (97,197 homesteads):

Total acreage: 48,573,440

Total homestead acreage: 15,660,000

Total percentage: 32%

 

Kansas (89,945 homesteads):

Total acreage: 52,366,720

Total homestead acreage: 13,089,258

Total percentage: 25%

 

New Mexico (87,312 homesteads):

Total acreage: 77,672,960

Total homestead acreage: 19,422,958

Total percentage: 25%

 

Minnesota (85,072 homesteads):

Total acreage: 50,954,880

Total homestead acreage: 10,389,606

Total percentage: 20%

 

Arkansas (74,620 homesteads):

Total acreage: 33,328,000

Total homestead acreage: 8,133,791

Total percentage: 24%

 

Wyoming (67,315 homesteads):

Total acreage: 62,147,200

Total homestead acreage: 18,225,327

Total percentage: 29%

 

California (66,738 homesteads):

Total acreage: 99,822,720

Total homestead acreage: 10,476,665

Total percentage: 10%

 

Oregon (62,926 homesteads):

Total acreage: 61,441,280

Total homestead acreage: 10,513,945

Total percentage: 17%

 

Idaho (60,221 homesteads):

Total acreage: 52,960,640

Total homestead acreage: 9,733,455

Total percentage: 18%

 

Washington (58,156 homesteads):

Total acreage: 42,611,840

Total homestead acreage: 8,465,002

Total percentage: 20%

 

Alabama (41,819 homesteads):

Total acreage: 32,480,000

Total homestead acreage: 4,578,323

Total percentage: 14%

 

Missouri (34,633 homesteads):

Total acreage: 44,094,720

Total homestead acreage: 3,644,306

Total percentage: 8%

 

Dakota Territory (33,951 homesteads):

Total acreage: 92,729,600

Total homestead acreage: 5,244,345

Total percentage: 6%

(Dakota Territory was the cumulative land area of North and South Dakota prior to their splitting into two different territories in 1889. North and South Dakota both acquired statehood on November 2, 1889.)

 

Wisconsin (29,246 homesteads):

Total acreage: 34,760,960

Total homestead acreage: 3,110,990

Total percentage: 9%

 

Florida (28,096 homesteads):

Total acreage: 34,519,680

Total homestead acreage: 3,326,712

Total percentage: 10%

 

Mississippi (24,126 homesteads):

Total acreage: 30,024,960

Total homestead acreage: 2,637,412

Total percentage: 9%

 

Louisiana (22,988 homesteads):

Total acreage: 27,882,240

Total homestead acreage: 2,561,334

Total percentage: 9%

 

Arizona (20,268 homesteads):

Total acreage: 72,730,880

Total homestead acreage: 4,134,356

Total percentage: 6%

 

Michigan (19,861 homesteads):

Total acreage: 36,357,760

Total homestead acreage: 2,321,937

Total percentage: 6%

 

Utah (16,798 homesteads):

Total acreage: 52,587,520

Total homestead acreage: 3,607,688

Total percentage: 7%

 

Iowa (8,851 homesteads):

Total acreage: 35,760,000

Total homestead acreage: 903,164

Total percentage: 3%

 

Nevada (4,370 homesteads):

Total acreage: 70,275,840

Total homestead acreage: 704,167

Total percentage: 1%

 

Alaska (3,277 homesteads):

Total acreage: 365,039,104

Total homestead acreage: 363,775

Total percentage: less than 1%

 

Ohio (108 homesteads):

Total acreage: 26,209,920

Total homestead acreage: 7,707

Total percentage: less than 1%

 

Illinois (74 homesteads):

Total acreage: 35,579,520

Total homestead acreage: 5,667

Total percentage: less than 1%

 

Indiana (30 homesteads):

Total acreage: 22,956,800

Total homestead acreage: 1,785

Total percentage: less than 1%

The Homestead Act of 1862 (Transcript)

 

37th Congress Session II 1862

 

Chapter LXXV. - An Act to secure Homesteads to actual Settlers on the Public Domain.

 

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, 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 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 preemption claim, or which may, at the time the application is made, be subject to preemption 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 and 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.

 

SEC. 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 case of a widow making such entry, her heirs or devisee, in 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 that he has borne rue 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 ensure 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 en- titled to a patent from the United States, on payment of the office fees and sum of money herein specified.

 

SEC. 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.

 

SEC. 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.

 

SEC. 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.

 

SEC. 6. And be it further enacted, That no individual shall be permit- ted 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 a 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 on account of not having attained the age of twenty-one years.

 

SEC. 7. And be it further enacted, That the fifth section of the act en- titled" 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 hundred and fifty-seven, shall extend to all oaths, affirmations, and affidavits, required or authorized by this act.

 

SEC. 8. And be it further enacted, That nothing in this act shall be 80 construed as to prevent any person who has availed him or herself of the benefits of the fir8t 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.

Sources listed at bottom of page.

Recommended Reading: Seizing Destiny: The Relentless Expansion of American Territory. From Publishers Weekly: In an admirable and important addition to his distinguished oeuvre, Pulitzer Prize–winner Kluger (Ashes to Ashes, a history of the tobacco wars) focuses on the darker side of America's rapid expansion westward. He begins with European settlement of the so-called New World, explaining that Britain's successful colonization depended not so much on conquest of or friendship with the Indians, but on encouraging emigration. Kluger then fruitfully situates the American Revolution as part of the story of expansion: the Founding Fathers based their bid for independence on assertions about the expanse of American virgin earth and after the war that very land became the new country's main economic resource. Continued below...

The heart of the book, not surprisingly, covers the 19th century, lingering in detail over such well-known episodes as the Louisiana Purchase and William Seward's acquisition of Alaska. The final chapter looks at expansion in the 20th century. Kluger provocatively suggests that, compared with western European powers, the United States engaged in relatively little global colonization, because the closing of the western frontier sated America's expansionist hunger. Each chapter of this long, absorbing book is rewarding as Kluger meets the high standard set by his earlier work. Includes 10 detailed maps.

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Recommended Viewing: 500 Nations (372 minutes). Description: 500 Nations is an eight-part documentary (more than 6 hours and that's not including its interactive CD-ROM filled with extra features) that explores the history of the indigenous peoples of North and Central America, from pre-Colombian times through the period of European contact and colonization, to the end of the 19th century and the subjugation of the Plains Indians of North America. 500 Nations utilizes historical texts, eyewitness accounts, pictorial sources and computer graphic reconstructions to explore the magnificent civilizations which flourished prior to contact with Western civilization, and to tell the dramatic and tragic story of the Native American nations' desperate attempts to retain their way of life against overwhelming odds. Continued below...

Mention the word "Indian," and most will conjure up images inspired by myths and movies: teepees, headdresses, and war paint; Sitting Bull, Geronimo, Crazy Horse, and their battles (like Little Big Horn) with the U.S. Cavalry. Those stories of the so-called "horse nations" of the Great Plains are all here, but so is a great deal more. Using impressive computer imaging, photos, location film footage and breathtaking cinematography, interviews with present-day Indians, books and manuscripts, museum artifacts, and more, Leustig and his crew go back more than a millennium to present an fascinating account of Indians, including those (like the Maya and Aztecs in Mexico and the Anasazi in the Southwest) who were here long before white men ever reached these shores. It was the arrival of Europeans like Columbus, Cortez, and DeSoto that marked the beginning of the end for the Indians. Considering the participation of host Kevin Costner, whose film Dances with Wolves was highly sympathetic to the Indians, it's no bulletin that 500 Nations also takes a compassionate view of the multitude of calamities--from alcohol and disease to the corruption of their culture and the depletion of their vast natural resources--visited on them by the white man in his quest for land and money, eventually leading to such horrific events as the Trail of Tears "forced march," the massacre at Wounded Knee, and other consequences of the effort to "relocate" Indians to the reservations where many of them still live. Along the way, we learn about the Indians' participation in such events as the American Revolution and the War of 1812, as well as popular legends like the first Thanksgiving (it really happened) and the rescue of Captain John Smith by Pocahontas (it probably didn't).

 
Recommended Reading: The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (Paperback), by David M. Potter. Review: Professor Potter treats an incredibly complicated and misinterpreted time period with unparalleled objectivity and insight. Potter masterfully explains the climatic events that led to Southern secession – a greatly divided nation – and the Civil War: the social, political and ideological conflicts; culture; American expansionism, sectionalism and popular sovereignty; economic and tariff systems; and slavery. In other words, Potter places under the microscope the root causes and origins of the Civil War. He conveys the subjects in easy to understand language to edify the reader's understanding (it's not like reading some dry old history book). Delving beyond surface meanings and interpretations, this book analyzes not only the history, but the historiography of the time period as well. Continued below…
Professor Potter rejects the historian's tendency to review the period with all the benefits of hindsight. He simply traces the events, allowing the reader a step-by-step walk through time, the various views, and contemplates the interpretations of contemporaries and other historians. Potter then moves forward with his analysis. The Impending Crisis is the absolute gold-standard of historical writing… This simply is the book by which, not only other antebellum era books, but all history books should be judged.
 

Recommended Reading: A House Divided: Sectionalism and Civil War, 1848-1865 (The American Moment). Reviews: "The best short treatment of the sectional conflict and Civil War available... Sewell convincingly demonstrates that the conflict was a revolutionary experience that fundamentally transformed the Republic and its people, and left a racial heritage that still confronts America today. The result is a poignant discussion of the central tragedy of American history and its legacy for the nation." -- William E. Gienapp, Georgia Historical Quarterly. "A provocative starting point for discussion, further study, and independent assessment." -- William H. Pease, History. "Sewell's style is fast moving and very readable... An excellent volume summarizing the stormy period prior to the war as well as a look at the military and home fronts." -- Civil War Book Exchange and Collector's Newsletter. Continued below…

"A well-written, traditional, and brief narrative of the period from the end of the Mexican War to the conclusion of the Civil War... Shows the value of traditional political history which is too often ignored in our rush to reconstruct the social texture of society." -- Thomas D. Morris, Civil War History. "Tailored for adoption in college courses. Students will find that the author has a keen eye for vivid quotations, giving his prose welcome immediacy." -- Daniel W. Crofts, Journal of Southern History.

 

Recommended Reading: CAUSES OF THE CIVIL WAR: The Political, Cultural, Economic and Territorial Disputes Between the North and South. Description: While South Carolina’s preemptive strike on Fort Sumter and Lincoln's subsequent call to arms started the Civil War, South Carolina's secession and Lincoln's military actions were simply the last in a chain of events stretching as far back as 1619. Increasing moral conflicts and political debates over slavery-exacerbated by the inequities inherent between an established agricultural society and a growing industrial one-led to a fierce sectionalism which manifested itself through cultural, economic, political and territorial disputes. Continued below...

This historical study reduces sectionalism to its most fundamental form, examining the underlying source of this antagonistic climate. From protective tariffs to the expansionist agenda, it illustrates the ways in which the foremost issues of the time influenced relations between the North and the South.
 

Recommended Reading: Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right (Critical Issue Book). From Booklist: In this concise essay, Stephanson explores the religious antecedents to America's quest to control a continent and then an empire. He interprets the two competing definitions of destiny that sprang from the Puritans' millenarian view toward the wilderness they settled (and natives they expelled). Here was the God-given chance to redeem the Christian world, and that sense of a special world-historical role and opportunity has never deserted the American national self-regard. But would that role be realized in an exemplary fashion, with America a model for liberty, or through expansionist means to create what Jefferson called "the empire of liberty"? Continued below…

The antagonism bubbles in two periods Stephanson examines closely, the 1840s and 1890s. In those times, the journalists, intellectuals, and presidents he quotes wrestled with America's purpose in fighting each decade's war, which added territory and peoples that somehow had to be reconciled with the predestined future. …A sophisticated analysis of American exceptionalism for ruminators on the country's purpose in the world.
 

Recommended Viewing: American Experience - Transcontinental Railroad (2003) (PBS) (120 minutes). Description: Go behind-the-scenes of one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th century: the building of a transcontinental railroad across the United States. Completed in only six years by unscrupulous entrepreneurs, brilliant engineers, and legions of dedicated workers, the Transcontinental Railroad left a horde of displaced, broken Native Americans in its wake. See how the railroad helped shape the politics and culture of mid-19th century America.

 

Recommended Reading: What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford History of the United States) (Hardcover: 928 pages). Review: The newest volume in the renowned Oxford History of the United States-- A brilliant portrait of an era that saw dramatic transformations in American life The Oxford History of the United States is by far the most respected multi-volume history of our nation. The series includes two Pulitzer Prize winners, two New York Times bestsellers, and winners of the Bancroft and Parkman Prizes. Now, in What Hath God Wrought, historian Daniel Walker Howe illuminates the period from the battle of New Orleans to the end of the Mexican-American War, an era when the United States expanded to the Pacific and won control over the richest part of the North American continent. Continued below…

Howe's panoramic narrative portrays revolutionary improvements in transportation and communications that accelerated the extension of the American empire. Railroads, canals, newspapers, and the telegraph dramatically lowered travel times and spurred the spread of information. These innovations prompted the emergence of mass political parties and stimulated America's economic development from an overwhelmingly rural country to a diversified economy in which commerce and industry took their place alongside agriculture. In his story, the author weaves together political and military events with social, economic, and cultural history. He examines the rise of Andrew Jackson and his Democratic party, but contends that John Quincy Adams and other Whigs--advocates of public education and economic integration, defenders of the rights of Indians, women, and African-Americans--were the true prophets of America's future. He reveals the power of religion to shape many aspects of American life during this period, including slavery and antislavery, women's rights and other reform movements, politics, education, and literature. Howe's story of American expansion -- Manifest Destiny -- culminates in the bitterly controversial but brilliantly executed war waged against Mexico to gain California and Texas for the United States. By 1848, America had been transformed. What Hath God Wrought provides a monumental narrative of this formative period in United States history.

 

Recommended Reading: Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History (Harvard University Press). Description: "Before this book first appeared in 1963, most historians wrote as if the continental expansion of the United States was inevitable. 'What is most impressive,' Henry Steele Commager and Richard Morris declared in 1956, 'is the ease, the simplicity, and seeming inevitability of the whole process.' The notion of 'inevitability,' however, is perhaps only a secular variation on the theme of the expansionist editor John L. O'Sullivan, who in 1845 coined one of the most famous phrases in American history when he wrote of 'our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.' Continued below...

Frederick Merk rejected inevitability in favor of a more contingent interpretation of American expansionism in the 1840s. As his student Henry May later recalled, Merk 'loved to get the facts straight.'" --From the Foreword by John Mack Faragher. About the Author: Frederick Merk was Gurney Professor of American History, Harvard University.

Sources: Homestead National Monument of America; National Park Service; National Archives and Records Administration; Library of Congress; ourdocuments.gov; Cross, Coy F. Go West, Young Man!: Horace Greeley's Vision for America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995; Lee, Lawrence Bacon. Kansas and the Homestead Act, 1862-1905. New York: Arno Press, 1979; Ottoson, Howard W., ed. Land Use Policy and Problems in the United States. Edited by Howard W. Ottoson. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963; Stephenson, George Malcolm. The Political History of the Public Lands From 1840 to 1862: From Preemption to Homestead. New York: Russell & Russell, 1967.

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