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Homestead Act of 1862
Homestead Act History

Homestead Act of 1862
Homesteading and Homesteader

Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862, the Homestead Act encouraged Western migration by providing settlers 160 acres of public land. In exchange, homesteaders paid a small filing fee and were required to complete five years of continuous residence before receiving ownership of the land. After six months of residency, homesteaders also had the option of purchasing the land from the government for $1.25 per acre. The Homestead Act led to the distribution of 80 million acres of public land by 1900. (Map of United States and its Acquisition of Territory: Expansionism History)

The major goal of the Homestead Act in 1862, which took effect on January 1, 1863, was to encourage settlement of the west. It offered homesteaders free title to a quarter section (160 acres) of public land if they built a home and improved the property for five years. (See also Manifest Destiny and Monroe Doctrine.)  A second goal was to connect the west to the north politically and economically during the Civil War. There were no Southern representatives in Congress when the bill was passed.

Manifest Destiny and the Homestead Act in 1862 assisted in the destruction of the American Indian

Potential settlers viewed the Homestead Act as a virtual gift, a way to get a fresh start in life. Yet the public lands eligible for homesteading varied considerably as to quality of soil and quantity of yearly rainfall. Some of the land lay in regions that had too little rainfall to ensure successful farming. On the high plains, especially west of the 98th meridian, rainfall was so sparse that effective farming or ranching was extremely difficult on less than a full section of land; a full section was four times the amount of land available through the Homestead Act. Many settlers who filed a homestead entry actually did not complete the process. (See Homestead Act: A Detailed History.)

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.

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.

(Sources and related reading listed below.)

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: 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

 

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.
 

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 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: American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic (Hardcover). Review: From the prizewinning author of the best-selling Founding Brothers and American Sphinx, a masterly and highly ironic examination of the founding years of our country. The last quarter of the eighteenth century remains the most politically creative era in American history, when a dedicated and determined group of men undertook a bold experiment in political ideals. It was a time of triumphs; yet, as Joseph J. Ellis makes clear, it was also a time of tragedies—all of which contributed to the shaping of our burgeoning nation. Continued below...

From the first shots fired at Lexington to the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the negotiations for the Louisiana Purchase, Ellis guides us through the decisive issues of the nation’s founding, and illuminates the emerging philosophies, shifting alliances, and personal and political foibles of our now iconic leaders—Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Adams. He casts an incisive eye on the founders’ achievements, arguing that the American Revolution was, paradoxically, an evolution—and that part of what made it so extraordinary was the gradual pace at which it occurred. He shows us why the fact that it was brought about by a group, rather than by a single individual, distinguished it from the bloodier revolutions of other countries, and ultimately played a key role in determining its success. He explains how the idea of a strong federal government, championed by Washington, was eventually embraced by the American people, the majority of whom had to be won over, as they feared an absolute power reminiscent of the British Empire. And he details the emergence of the two-party system—then a political novelty—which today stands as the founders’ most enduring legacy. But Ellis is equally incisive about their failures, and he makes clear how their inability to abolish slavery and to reach a just settlement with the Native Americans has played an equally important role in shaping our national character. He demonstrates how these misjudgments, now so abundantly evident, were not necessarily inevitable. We learn of the negotiations between Henry Knox and Alexander McGillivray, the most talented Indian statesman of his time, which began in good faith and ended in disaster. And we come to understand how a political solution to slavery required the kind of robust federal power that the Jeffersonians viewed as a betrayal of their most deeply held principles. With eloquence and insight, Ellis strips the mythic veneer of the revolutionary generation to reveal men both human and inspired, possessed of both brilliance and blindness. American Creation is a book that delineates an era of flawed greatness, at a time when understanding our origins is more important than ever. About the Author: Joseph J. Ellis received the Pulitzer Prize for Founding Brothers and the National Book Award for his portrait of Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx. He is the Ford Foundation Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, Ellen, and their youngest son, Alex.

 
 
 
Sources and Additional Reading: Library of Congress; Dick, Everett, The Lure of the Land: A Social History of the Public Lands from the Articles of Confederation to the New Deal, 1970; Gates, Paul W., The Jeffersonian Dream: Studies in the History of American Land Policy and Development, 1996; Hyman, Harold M., American Singularity: The 1787 Northwest Ordinance, the 1862 Homestead and Morrill Acts, and the 1944 G.I. Bill, 1986; Lause, Mark A., Young America: Land, Labor, and the Republican Community, 2005; Phillips, Sarah T., "Antebellum Agricultural Reform, Republican Ideology, and Sectional Tension." Agricultural History 74(4), 2000; Richardson, Heather Cox, The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies during the Civil War, 1997; Robbins, Roy M., Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776-1936, 1942.

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