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From the 1967 book, America’s Western Frontiers.
FOR A WHOLE GENERATION after the first tier of trans-Mississippi states filled up the orderly westward advance of the farming frontier of the United States and Canada was held up by the myth (and in some places the reality) of the “GREAT AMERICAN DESERT.”
First, further technological advances in agriculture, in fencing, and in the provision of water, had to occur, and the Indian menace had been removed from the Plains.
There was nevertheless a tremendous amount of agricultural “infilling” in those parts of the Far West which (like the Willamette and San Joaquin valleys) were well watered or easily irrigated, or which were reached earliest by railroads.
It has already been seen how easily certain areas (as in Colorado east of the Continental Divide and central Montana) turned to farming after their mining booms had first opened them up and then passed them by.
The Far West was patched and striped with agricultural in-filling long before the middle eighties saw the break-up of the open range and the end of the great cattle drives up from Texas.
The farmer—or “nester”—was breathing down the neck of the stockman, even in the High Plains, by the early seventies, and by the late seventies he had been recognised as yet another of the cowman’s enemies—like cattle fever, sheep-men, rustlers, and barbed wire.
But the farmer had powerful allies, including the transcontinental-railroad promoters and the federal government itself. Such a combination was to prove irresistible!
The public-lands policy of the federal government—which also comprehended the railroad land grants not made by separate states—has played a dominant role in the settlement of the United States west of the Alleghenies. The greatest landmarks in this policy were the Ordinance of 1785 (passed by the Continental Congress), the Pre-emption Act of 1841, the Homestead Act of 1862, and the ending of all private purchase of public land in 1935.
Up to 1841 the national land policy was conservative, favoring Eastern and monied interests; thereafter it tended to be radical, favoring the Western settlers and farmers; but at no period did it fully or even adequately achieve its ostensible objectives.
When it failed openly to favor the land speculator (as did the Act of 1820, which ended the purchase of land on credit), the speculator found a way around its provisions.
This applied particularly to the famous Homestead Act of 1862, passed by Lincoln’s administration in the midst of the Civil War, which, after nearly a century of agitation, at last provided (on paper) free land for the poor and land-hungry settler, but (in fact) poured many more millions of acres—and dollars—into the pockets of capitalists, speculators, railroad magnates, and other strictly non-agrarian interests.
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There is no doubt that Congress meant to make its legislation effective, and the administration its policy efficient, but, even in the agrarian West, opinions were often sharply divided as to how best, and most equitably, to distribute the public domain.
Nor did the small farmer refrain from speculating himself. Some farming families moved on to new land seven or eight times in one lifetime, not through failure, but in order to benefit financially from either the improvements they had made or from the unearned increment that had accrued from the increased demand for land in the areas where they had settled.
When every small farmer was a land speculator (or would-be land speculator), and individual gain was the guiding star, it was hard for a land system devised for the greatest good of the greatest number to remain valid.*
* Sometimes, it has to be admitted, a farming family moved on out of sheer restlessness, and did not necessarily improve its lot by doing so. The Garlands and the McClintocks, their kinsmen, were a case in point. Hamlin Garland, in his vivid autobiography, A Son of the Middle Border (New York, 1925), tells how they moved in the 1840’s from Maine to Ohio, then on to Wisconsin (where he was born in 1860), to Iowa, and to the Dakota Territory, where (in 1889), “after eight years of cultivation, father’s farm possesses neither tree nor vine. . . . Doesn’t the whole migration of the Garlands and the McClintocks seem a madness? After nearly a third of a century the Garlands were about to double on their trail.”
The somewhat conservative Ordinance of May 20, 1785, applied to the Western lands handed over by seven of the original states to the Continental Congress and which now constituted the public domain of the United States. This land was to be surveyed, divided up into six-mile squares (“Townships”), and every alternate township divided into “sections,” each a mile square (640 acres).
Apart from the five sections in each township reserved by Congress for special purposes (the sixteenth was to provide common schools), each section could then be offered by public auction to the highest bidder at a minimum price of $1 per acre. Surveying fees, payable by the purchasers of the land, were fixed at $1 per section.
This was a workmanlike system and had many merits, which were enhanced by the more comprehensive Northwestern Land Ordinance of 1787. The new federal government accepted these land ordinances of the Continental Congress and continued to apply them.
Unfortunately, the ordinary settler possessing little or no capital could not afford even the minimum cost of $640 for a section, plus the cost of transporting himself and his family to it. But he could start by picking up land, with ample credit facilities, at twenty cents per acre in western New York, for instance.
For some years the separate states possessing unsettled public domains could sell easily below the federal minimum. It was the monied interests that moved into the national domain. By the year 1800 only about 50,000 acres of land had been sold to settlers under the terms of the Ordinance of 1785, and an act of May 10, 1800, attempted to make the acquisition of land easier for them.
It provided liberal credit and reduced the minimum amount of land to be offered for sale; but the minimum, at $2 an acre for 320 acres, and the down payment of one fourth of the purchase price of the land at auction, were still too high.
An effort to introduce the principle of ”pre-emption” (or sale of land on specially favorable terms to the actual squatters who had settled on it and improved it, while it was still unsurveyed), was unsuccessful, and pre-emption had to wait for adoption until 1841.
With the Louisiana and Florida purchases, a liberal land policy became all the more urgent for the United States, and many settlers went into Mexican Texas in the 1820’s and early 1830’s, owing to its more liberal system, especially in the Austin colonies.
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|Territorial Growth of the United States, 1776-1853.|
In fact, a fresh outburst of land speculation accompanied these great national land purchases, and the speculators were also to get hold of most of the land made available by Indian removals in these years.
The economic depression in the West which produced the Panic of 1819 was attributed by many (including Andrew Jackson) to the deficiencies of the national land system, although the pro-government ‘National Intelligencer’ declared in 1819 that “so wise, beautiful and perfect a system was never before adopted by any government or nation on earth.”
An act passed in 1820 made matters even worse by eliminating credit facilities in the purchase of the public domain altogether. A minimum of eighty acres could now be purchased for as little as $1.25 per acre—but only for cash. This played straight into the ever-ready hands of the speculator. “The land act of 1820 brought the whole population of the frontier to the brink of ruin.”
A halfway Pre-emption Act of 1830 gave the squatter some privilege in the purchase of 160 acres of the land he actually occupied; Senator Benton’s plea for a “graduated price” for Western land, to accord with its fertility and accessibility, was met by the Eastern campaign (with which Henry Clay was associated, although a Westerner) for “distribution” of the public domain among the several states.
Clay’s distribution bill passed Congress, but Jackson subjected it to a “pocket veto.”
The limited pre-emption system of 1830 was continued in 1838 and again in 1840 on a temporary basis, with some modifications, but it was not until 1841 that the frontier interests at last triumphed in the shape of fullblooded pre-emption for squatters.
The Panic of 1837 had served to bring this nearer as a measure of relief for the poor or impoverished farmer, driven by foreclosure from his farm further east, although some of these foreclosures had been prevented by the action of “Claim Clubs,” or Settlers’ Associations. In 1838 the Territory of Wisconsin protected “sitting” settlers by law against the speculative buying up of land occupied and improved by them.
“The Battle between the Log Cabins and the Palaces” of 1840-50 produced Benton’s “Log Cabin Bill,” which Clay fiercely opposed. Clay then produced his own bill, which the Democrats proceeded to emasculate. Both distribution and pre-emption remained features of the bill, but distribution was not to take effect if the tariff were raised above a 20% level. Thus Clay was ultimately defeated and Benton was partially triumphant.
Occupation prior to purchase by a “squatter” was no longer legally a trespass, and the pre-emption of 160 acres at $1.25 per acre was now open to heads of families and single men over twenty-one years of age who were citizens or who had taken out first papers. Lands reserved by the government for special purposes or granted to railroads, or for public improvements, were not subject to pre-emption.
The frontier had triumphed—but at a price—though free homesteads for all were still a long way off.
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The enormous accessions of land to the United States resulting from the Texas and Oregon settlements of 1846, and the cessions by Mexico in 1848, greatly increased the public domain (though it did not extend to Texas, which kept control over its own unsettled land) and also greatly complicated the situation.
In California, in particular, the old Spanish and Mexican land grants were challenged in the courts, and many of them were subjected to the depredations of squatters who, knowing that the titles might be questioned, took a chance and settled upon land they knew to be claimed by others.
This was a rather different and much more aggressive procedure than simply moving out ahead of the official U. S. land surveyors and hoping to retain land by the process of pre-emption, or priority right to purchase when it was put up for sale.
The gold rush only added to the pressure on land in California. “Squatter trouble” harrassed not only those (like John Augustus Sutter) who held Mexican land grants, but also those (like John C. Frémont) who had bought land after the commencement of the American occupation and who had always been American citizens.
Many Mexican grants had been obtained for less than value received and a few by outright fraud, but most were genuine and the land held had often been considerably improved. Most of these grants were overrun by squatters in the early 1850’s, and it was the large landowners, like General Vallejo and Sutter (with his thirty-three square leagues), who suffered most.
Even the eleven square leagues to which Sutter was given full title by the U. S. courts, although the twenty-two square leagues granted to him by Governor Micheltorena were taken away, became the happy hunting ground of squatters, who not only took his land but also destroyed his crops, slaughtered his cattle, and attacked his servants and field hands.
This was the man who had shown so many kindnesses to the overland settlers from the United States in their time of need in the early and middle forties. Landowners who were “just Mexicans” suffered even greater indignities at the hands of the land-hungry and gold-greedy squatters, not all of whom, by any means, were from the United States.
Lawyers argued the cause of the California squatters with great ingenuity and skill through many courts, and much eloquence and special pleading was poured out on their behalf in the state legislature and in Congress. More lately, historians have sought to explain, and in some cases justify, the squatters’ actions as an outgrowth of their craving for land, and the wide extent, lack of development, and shaky titles of some of the Mexican land grants.
But it remains a sordid story, one of the most disreputable in the history of the American frontier, as Josiah Royce long ago pointed out, and it left a legacy of bitterness which lasted for a whole generation between the Spanish-Mexican and American peoples in California.
While the advance of the American frontier of settlement (except in the gold and silver regions) was temporarily halted between 1842 and 1862 under the blighting influence of sectional rivalries and of an inadequate land-disposal system, reformers, both Northern and Southern, continued to be active. In 1843 Robert J. Walker, of Mississippi, initiated in Congress a new drive for Benton’s old “graduation” of the price of public land.
Horace Greely, still a distributionist at this time, claimed in the New York ‘Tribune’ that “demagogues . . . are incessantly trying to squander the public lands by reducing their price.” ‘Walker, as President Polk’s Secretary of the Treasury, continued to work for graduation and persuaded Polk to advocate it, with respect to swampy or sterile land at least, in his annual message in December 1845.
The Whigs’ opposition (and Henry Clay’s in particular) to graduation brought them much unpopularity. Clay’s opposition to pre-emption, said an opponent, his “unjust and impolitic aspersions” upon “honest squatters,” his advocacy of distribution, which led him into opposition to graduation, induced the people of the Western states to turn away from him “with odium and disgust.”
The advocates of completely free land for homesteaders on the public domain now began to press their case, led by such men as G. H. Evans. Evans’s philosophy was a sort of advanced Fourierism applied specifically to the American public domain: land reform was to effect a social revolution and finally defeat the speculator. Even Horace Greeley, who as late as 1843 had claimed “Pre-emption is trespassing,” was won over to this crusade and, by 1845, was being openly accused of being “a Fourierist, an Agrarian, and an Infidel.”
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A national party was advocated, with the slogan “Vote Yourself a Farm” and the objective a free grant of a quarter-section (160 acres) from the public domain to every landless man. Greeley even went on to propose something akin to the French national workshops, set in the midst of rural areas—a crude foreshadowing of Henry Ford’s celebrated idea of “industrial barns” nearly a century later.
He urged the urban unemployed to migrate to rural areas, only to be told by his opponents: “We should soon have the whole contents of European poorhouses emptied down upon our fertile West.”
He replied by asking: “‘Whoever heard of a farmer starving on his land?” and proposed that the starving Irish be welcomed to “the untilled lands of the great West” to help create “a mighty empire resting upon the Great Lakes and the Northern Mississippi.” He then went West himself on a trip that reinforced his new stand on land reform.
The first true homestead bill was introduced into Congress by Representative McConnell, of Alabama, on March 9, 1846. Andrew Johnson, of Tennessee, produced another three days later. But homestead legislation was an early casualty of the Mexican War, which broke out that same spring, and none of the three parties—not even Martin Van Buren’s Free Soil party—which fought the 1848 election could be persuaded to adopt land reform and homestead legislation as planks of its official platform.
Greeley thought that “land reform” could have elected Van Buren, and when the latter would not advocate it, the mercurial editor threw in his lot with General Taylor and the Whigs. Greeley, when an interim member of Congress in 1848, introduced a homestead bill of his own, but could get only twenty members to support it.
By 1849 both Sam Houston and Stephen A. Douglas were advocating homestead legislation. William H. Seward and Daniel Webster were also supporting land reform. A homestead bill that passed the House on May 12, 1852, by 107 votes to 56, failed even to get debated in the Senate. This bill, reintroduced in 1854, again failed to pass, and further homestead legislation was now to be smothered by the great Kansas-Nebraska debate, which absorbed everybody’s attention.
“Suddenly in 1853 and 1854,” says Paul Gates, “the Kansas-Nebraska country beyond the Mississippi loomed up as a tremendously attractive area, and there erupted in Congress the press and the pulpit, an ominous war of words. . . . For the next forty years Kansas was the focus of greater public attention than any other western community,” and for that reason the fight for free homesteads and the fate of the homesteads on the sod-house frontier can be studied no better than on the wide expanses of the Sunflower State, where “In God We Trusted, in Kansas We Busted.”*
* P. V. Gates: Fifty Million Acres: Conflicts over Kansas Land Policy, 1854-1890 (Ithaca, 1954), pp. v-vi. He calls “the Kansas Story a grotesque composite of all the errors involved in the growth of the American West.”
Kansas was in many ways an ideal testing ground for the system the United States had so laboriously worked out by the middle of the 1850’s for the disposal of her public lands. If the system worked there, it would probably work anywhere.
Kansas Territory was on the borders of the North and the South, lying as it did between 37° and 40° N., and while two thirds of it lay in the reasonably well-watered prairies east of the hundredth meridian, the other third stretched westward in the treeless and water-deficient High Plains, as far as the hundredth and second; an almost unbroken Indian barrier of tribal lands stretched from the southern to the northern border of eastern Kansas. This meant that when the Kansas Territory was officially opened to settlers on May 30, 1854, “not an acre of land was available for pre-emption of purchase.”
Much Indian land was very soon afterward made available to settlers by the ratification of Indian treaties, but this easement was to be more than canceled out by the enormous extent of land grants to railroad companies (all of which land had to be withdrawn from public sale) in the later fifties and the sixties. These grants, in some cases, cut wide swathes right across the state.
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Federal land grants to railroads in Kansas amounted to 8,346,603 acres, while nearly another 2 million acres were given by the State of Kansas to these railroads or purchased by them for nominal sums per acre from the Indians or the government. Only a very small proportion of these grants was subsequently voided or forfeited through non-compliance of the railroads with the conditions on which they had accepted them, though in many cases these conditions were either not met at all, or only after delays running sometimes into decades.
While in some places the railroads were very enterprising in advertising and selling their lands (at considerably “improved” prices, in most cases) to settlers, in others they were most dilatory, especially as they did not have to pay taxes on any land they had not yet patented for sale.
The Kansas and Pacific Railroad, which stretched right across the state from east to west, was a special offender in this respect. The “K.P.” began land sales in 1869, completed its line in 1870, and finished surveying the adjacent land in 1875, but patented no land in Kansas before 1873 or in Colorado before 1875.
As late as 1882 the K.P. had taken title to little more than one sixth of its land and therefore paid no tax on the other five sixths. The record of the Santa Fe Railroad was very much better.
Thus, before the Homestead Act of 1862 gave settlers free land in Kansas and elsewhere on the public domain—provided they could locate themselves legally on it—such land was very hard to reach and find, and even after 1862, in Kansas at least, it still tended to be inaccessible and of poor quality, for the speculators and the railroads were there first and wanted money for their “improvements.”
Things also became worse before they got, even theoretically better; the extremely conservative land policies of the Pierce and Buchanan administrations in the latter part of the fifties played—it would almost seem deliberately—into the hands of the speculators once again, just as had the legislation of the twenties.
Eighteen Indian reserves in Kansas were barred from becoming part of the public land of the United States (including the Osage reserve of nearly 9 million acres) or subject to homestead or preemption laws. Instead they “became the booty of speculators, land companies and railroads, with substantial benefits accruing to helpful politicians.”
In addition, the period of grace for pre-emption was cut back sharply to one year. This greatly contributed to the depression of 1857, for squatters who had expected up to four years in which to pay for their lands, under the pre-emption acts, now had to find the balance right away, or forfeit.
It was this illiberal land policy that was largely responsible for the decisive defeat of the Democratic party in 1860. Kansas moved almost bodily into the Republican camp, as became even more evident in the presidential election of 1864, the first in which voters from that State participated.
A bill passed the House in May 1860 to restore the right of squatters, in frontier areas not yet surveyed, to purchase their claims over a period of four (in some cases even eight) years, but again failed to be debated in the Senate.
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Then an even more radical House bill, providing free homesteads, was amended by the Senate, giving squatters on public land two years more grace, and reducing the cost of land occupied for at least five years to twenty-five cents an acre. The Southern opponents of land reform let it pass thus “eviscerated,” though Greeley called it “a miserable makeshift”.
But President Buchanan, with incredible stupidity, vetoed it, giving as one of his reasons: “It is a boon exclusively confessed upon the cultivators of the soil.”*
* Horace Greeley, in the New York ‘Weekly Tribune’ of June 30, 1860, in criticizing Buchanan’s veto of the earlier homestead bill as typical of a man who “has no sympathy for the poor, and who regards only the interests of the speculators,” had rightly prophesied that Abraham Lincoln would never veto such a bill. Greeley was probably the author of the homestead plank of the Republican platform of 1860.
It was only natural that the Republicans should now make full political capital out of the land-reform issue, which the Democrats had so woefully fumbled during the last two administrations, and their presidential-election platform of 1860 contained a strong plank favoring free homesteads. As most Western Democrats wanted this also, many left the party when neither of its wings came out in favor of the policy.
The bill vetoed by Buchanan in 1860 was reintroduced with some emendations in 1862 after Abraham Lincoln had become president, and with its Southern opponents now absent, it passed both houses of Congress without undue difficulty. The bill was signed by Lincoln, who had long been in favor of free homesteads, on May 20, 1862, almost exactly ten years after the House of Representatives had first accepted a homestead bill.
Both by personal inclination and by his election pledges, Abraham Lincoln was bound to approve the passing of a free-homesteads bill. “I am in favor,” he said on February 1, 1861 , “of settling the wild lands into small parcels so that every poor man may have a home.”
It is doubtful that he—or, for that matter, anyone else living at the time—was able to judge the effect this bill would have on the settlement of the West. Certainly Horace Greeley was not, for he called the bill “one of the most beneficient and vital reforms ever attempted in any age or clime”.
Indeed, in that year of great decisions, it was regarded as far more important than the Morrill bill for land-grant colleges, or the first Pacific Railroad Act, and as equal in significance to the Emancipation Proclamation itself.*
* A contemporary Canadian view of the Homestead Act of 1862 declared it to be “the complement of the prohibition of slavery” and commented: “The civil transactions of the last few months at Washington will make their impression upon ages to come, when the battles on the Potomac and Tennessee will be regarded as mere incidents in history”—Montreal ‘Herald’, quoted in the New York ‘Daily Tribune’, May 27, 1862. Robbins, p. 206.
That the Homestead Act was to have far less beneficient results than its promotors and well-wishers hoped for was, to a large extent, owing to circumstances beyond both their control and their ken; it has in fact only gradually dawned upon economic and agricultural historians that the Homestead Act turned out to be a fiasco: some popular histories still speak of it in superlatives.
That it was a landmark is undoubtedly true, but Walter Prescott Webb exaggerated somewhat when he claimed: “There is no question but that the Homestead Act gave a great impetus to the advancing frontier while it remained in the fertile prairie region”. . . .
. . . he was nearer the truth in saying: “The Homestead Act had not solved the problem in the region where it had to do most of its work”—the arid regions of the United States beyond the hundredth meridian. The judgments of later critics, such as Robbins ( 1942), Shannon ( 1945 ) , and Gates ( 1953 ) , grew increasingly severe, until the Homestead Act, instead of being one of the two “most important land acts in the history of the world,” has nearly been demoted into a costly mistake.
What did the Homestead Act of 1862 really seek to do, and to what extent and for what reasons did it fail?
Under the Act, any American citizen, or alien immigrant who had filed his first papers of intention to become a citizen, provided he was over twenty-one or the head of a family or had served for fourteen days in the armed services of the United States, could claim 160 acres of surveyed and unappropriated public land on paying $10 and, after occupying this land for five years, receive full title to it upon paying a further small fee.
No charge per acre was payable unless the homesteader wished to accelerate the grant of the title, when he could secure the freehold after only six months residence by paying $1.25 per acre.
These and other simple conditions appeared straightforward and easy to administer, but in fact the Act turned out to be full of holes. “In its operation,” claims Shannon, “the Homestead Act could hardly have defeated the hopes of the enthusiasts of 1840-1860 more completely if the makers had actually drafted it with that purpose uppermost in mind.”
Poor farm tenants or laborers, or city dwellers in the East, could afford neither the cost of travel to the trans-Mississippi West, where nearly all the remaining public domain was situated, nor even the modest claim and registration fees amounting to from $22 to $34 in all; they could not maintain themselves until their first year’s crops were harvested and sold; they had no more wherewith to build houses or to fence their land. Such people were simply non-starters in the race for free homesteads.
Most of the actual homesteaders—like the Garland family—were already farming in the Midwest, in states like Wisconsin and Illinois by 1862, and even at that, about two thirds of all homestead claimants up to 1890 failed to make successes of their farms.
Not more than 2 million people settled on free government land up to the year 1900, although between 1860 and that year the population of the United States increased by 5 million. In the same period, by contrast, over 7 million additional people settled on farms which they either had to buy or rent or where the breadwinner was a hired laborer.
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Besides bringing far too few of the people who most needed free land onto the homesteads, the Act gave inadequate protection against the speculator. The commutation clauses of the Act, and of amending legislation, permitted speculators and capitalists to secure large numbers of homesteads through nominees, and to obtain title after six months for $1.25 an acre. The title could then be transferred to the large landowners.
These and the speculators could also purchase foreclosed or forfeited homesteaders’ claims at public auction. After 1900 a speculator could double his money, for anybody who had already commuted one homestead was thenceforward permitted to claim and commute a second.
This meant 320 acres, at $1.25 an acre, in his own name, plus all he could arrange to secure in addition through nominees, plus all he managed to buy cheaply at public auction out of the two thirds of all homesteads that had to be forfeited by their original claimants.
Finally, the size of the free homestead under the Act of 1862 was far too small to be economically viable in the arid lands beyond the hundredth meridian, where, after 1865, vast numbers of would be homesteaders sought their fortunes and ended up, like the “Lane County Bachelor,” starving to death on their government claims.
One verse of this famous folk-ballad, with its chorus is:
How happy am I on my government claim,
Where I’ve nothing to lose and nothing to gain,
Nothing to eat and nothing to wear,
Nothing from nothing is honest and square.
But here I am stuck, and here I must stay,
My money’s all gone and I can’t get away;
There’s nothing will make a man hard and profane,
Like starving to death on a government claim.
But, hurrah for Lane County, the land of the free,
The land of the grasshopper, bedbug and flea,
I’ll sing loud her praises and boast of her fame,
While starving to death on my government claim.
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Whereas eighty acres were as much as a farmer needed, or could manage, to start with, on the untilled lands of the well-watered and abundantly timbered East and Midwest, he required much more even than 16o acres to make a living for himself and his family on the High Plains of western Kansas, where “Lane County” was situated, even if he used dry-farming techniques.
From 10,000 to 25,000 acres of grazing rights were the best economic unit in many areas further west, of which (before 1890) 1,280 acres at most could be secured free by any one individual directly from the government by the use of every legal resource available. Larger holdings cost money (which most settlers did not have) and often involved the use of extralegal devices as well.
The plight of a homesteading family that had failed to make good in Kansas, and then had moved back further east as tenants of a run-down farm owned by a speculator (and when they sought to purchase the holding, they found they were being charged for the improvements they themselves had put into it), is poignantly told by Hamlin Garland in “Under the Lion’s Paw”:
“Sarah, this is Mr. Haskins, from Kansas. He’s been eat up ‘n drove out by grasshoppers. . . ”
“I didn’t like the looks of the country, anyhow,” Haskins said. . . . “I was ust t’ Northern Ingayannie, where we have lots a timber ‘n lots o’ rain, ‘n I didn’t like the looks o’ that dry prairie. What galled me the worst was goin s’ far away acrosst so much fine land layin’ all through here vacant.”
“And the ‘hoppers eat ye four years hard running, did they?”
“Eat! They wiped us out. They chawed everything that was green. They jest set around waiting f’r us to die t’ eat us too.”
“Waal, why didn’t you stop and settle here? . . “
“Fer the simple reason that you fellers wanted ten ‘r fifteen dollars an acre, fer the bare land, and I hadn’t no money fer that kind o’ thing. . . . “
The results of the Homestead Act were by no means all bad, even though it failed utterly in the primary object of its promoters.
Its magic promise of “free land” for the land-hungry did draw people from all over the United States, and also many hundreds of thousands from Europe, into the underpopulated second tier of states Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas of the trans-Mississippi West, and on into the arid regions of the Great Plains, which had so recently been designated the Great American Desert.
It took the American farmer a whole generation to subdue these Plains and make them agriculturally profitable; but though this was done at a colossal expenditure and much waste of human effort, man could not have subdued the plains had he not been brought to them first. The Homestead Act may have been something of a will o’ the wisp, but westward it made the land look bright. Its propaganda value was enormous.
Added, of course, to the shimmer and gleam (even if it sometimes turned out to be a mirage) of “free land for the settler,” was the enormous promotional activity of railroads, land companies, and private speculators with land to sell, and of state and territorial governments with the desire for taxable population and (in many cases) with considerable amounts of public lands to dispose of themselves.
All these combined to draw farmers and would-be farmers westward almost as compellingly as the gold and silver of the mining areas had worked on the previous generation of Americans and immigrants.
But the population of the United States was now much larger, and the immigrant tide had resumed after 1862, to become greater than ever before.
There was enormous hunger for the land any land and if this land was marginal or sub-marginal for purposes of agriculture, perhaps blood, sweat, and tears and science could make it productive. There were plenty who were ready to try.
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