Where I was wrong was in a romantic notion that the Homestead Act sprung full blown as a unique idea in the middle of the Civil War. In truth the Act was the culmination of a long series of laws passed from the time of the Revolution attempting to deal with transfer of the millions of acres of the Louisiana Purchase and other public lands to private hands.
Hard as it may be to believe in these days of political amity, policy changed as the government of the time changed hands from one party to the other. Early on the government sold public lands in parcels of no less than 640 acres at a price no less than $2 an acre. What this meant was wealthy speculators bought the large parcels and made fortunes dividing it into smaller parcels and selling those. (Things just don’t change over the centuries, do they?)
Over time, pressure grew to allow purchase of smaller and smaller parcels for smaller sums. The full section (640 acres) fell to 320 acres, to 160, and even to 40. The price fell to $1 an acre.
Pressure also grew to allow squatters, individuals who forged ahead onto public lands, often before they were even surveyed, to purchase the land. So Congress passed a series of “preemption” laws allowing just that until in 1841 it passed a general preemption law allowing settlers to acquire title to land they squatted on by meeting certain conditions. The settler had to be:
- a "head of household" or a single man over 21, or a widow;
- a citizen of the United States (or a non-citizen intending to become naturalized); and
- a resident of the claimed land for a minimum of 14 months.
So the Homestead Act of 1862 followed in the footsteps of the preemption laws. It allowed a settler to claim 160 acres for a filing fee of $18. Requirements resembled those of the Preemption Act but were expanded, so the homesteader had to be:
- a "head of household" or a single person over 21;
- a citizen of the United States (or a non-citizen intending to become naturalized);
- live on the claimed land for five years and make prescribed improvements.
There were some twists on this law, which was, remember, passed in the middle of the Civil War. Anyone who had borne arms against the United States was not eligible. (Former Rebel Matt Slade in my romance Sing My Name could not have homesteaded.) Those who served in the Union armies could get credit against the five-year residence requirement. Freed slaves were eligible.
Harking back to preemption (and the Preemption Act stayed in effect after passage of the Homestead Act), title could also be acquired after a 6-month residency and the required improvements, provided the claimant paid the government $1.25 per acre.
The Homestead Act was of course riddled with all sorts of political conflict. New England states were against it fearing loss of cheap labor. Southerners opposed it for fear the lands would be settled by anti-slavery elements. The Act passed when it did because after secession, Southern representatives and senators weren’t there to stop it.
The Preemption Act was repealed in 1891. The Homestead Act was modified by other acts over the years until it was repealed as to the lower 48 states in 1978 and as to Alaska in 1986.
The Act was one more weapon in the government’s arsenal to subdue native tribes by taking their land, and it was certainly a success there. In a time when women couldn’t serve on juries or vote, they could, and did, homestead and acquire land in their own name, which must have increased economic power for at least some women.
Only 40% of all homestead claims were “proved up” and the homesteader given title, and there was considerable abuse and corruption surrounding the act, leading to it being referred to by some as a “magnificent failure.” However, 10% of all U.S. lands were settled under these acts, which doesn’t seem much like a failure to me.
Oh, and the book that required me to look into the Preemption and Homestead Acts? It’s titled Beautiful Bad Man, and I hope to have it out in September.
The photo above is of a South Dakota homestead and is by Chitrapa (Creative Commons license).