Homestead Act

Homestead Act2019-02-22T04:15:09+00:00

The Homestead Act for APUSH

About the Author: Johnny Roy has been an Advanced Placement US History teacher for the past 8 years at Cuyahoga Heights High School just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. He has been actively involved with the AP Reading as a grader for the past 3 years having scored the DBQ, LEQ, and SAQ sections of the exam.

The Homestead Act

While officially a series of acts passed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Homestead Act most widely discussed was the Homestead Act of 1862 and 1866. After the secession of the southern states and the outbreak of the Civil War, the early Homestead Acts (1862 and 1866) were a series of acts designed and passed to encourage western land settlement, the establishment of smaller individually owned farms, and to choke off the potential expansion of slavery west of the Mississippi River.

The early Homestead Acts (1862 and 1866) were a series of acts designed and passed to encourage western land settlement.

Following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill near San Francisco, California in 1849, hundreds of thousands of people flocked to Northern California in hopes of striking it rich. Eventually this search for gold and silver would extend to Nevada and Oregon as people from all over the country and the world flooded into the area.

Due to the hard and unpredictable nature of prospecting, people rarely stayed in any one area very long. Mining towns would spring up, seemingly overnight, and then disappear just as quickly.

From Boom to Bustling

Highly unstable and oftentimes lawless, these towns and the people that lived there, had little interest in settling, establishing a residence in the area, or developing prospering economic markets for eastern businesses. They wanted quick fortune and the freedom to move on to the next town. However, the United States Government wanted to grow cities not stopovers.

Miners wanted quick fortune and the freedom to move on to the next town; the United States Government wanted to grow cities not stopovers.

Northern politicians (the southern political delegates had left Congress due to the Civil War) encouraged western civilization in order to establish individually owned farms and domestic marketplaces so as to grow the country economically; not develop slave filled plantations, saloons, and gambling halls. The Homestead Acts would encourage western settlement by offering to the public one of the greatest resources the federal government had, land.

The Homestead Acts would encourage western settlement by offering to the public one of the greatest resources the federal government had, land.

Free Land

Following the passage of the Homestead Acts, the Federal Government would eventually transfer more than 270 million acres of public land to private ownership throughout the Central and Western United States. In order to gain access to the land, prospective owners had to meet several requirements that were outlined in the acts:

  1. The Homesteader had to be the head of household or at least 21 years of age.
  2. Homesteaders must build a home, live on, improve, or farm the land for a minimum of 5 years.
  3. Pay a filing fee of $18 dollars.
  4. Had to be a United States citizen or have filed a declaration to be a citizen.

After the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and the secession of the southern states, the Free-Soil Party and the new Republican Party saw an opportunity to pass legislation that would help prevent slave expansion into the western United States regardless of the outcome of the war.

By encouraging the individualized ownership of western land into farms too small to support a slave system, northern politicians hoped to end the debate of slave expansion once and for all.

By encouraging the individualized ownership of western land into farms too small to support a slave system, northern politicians hoped to end the debate of slave expansion once and for all. Homesteading was not a new concept and Southern Democrats had previously fought against the idea knowing the intention was to curb slave expansion west of the Mississippi River, but thanks to their absence from Congress, northern politicians were able to pass the legislation they had been wanting for several decades.

Nothing is Free

With the land came much unanticipated hardship, a majority of the land was granted in what were known as the plain states. This is the central part of the United States where the land is very dry with few rivers and trees. This arid (really dry) land made building homes (remember, no trees for lumber) and farming difficult and while 160 acres (sometimes more depending on the area) sounds like a lot, these farms were too small to yield enough crops to make farming sustainable and profitable.

A majority of the land was granted in what were known as the plain states and these farms were too small to yield enough crops to make farming sustainable and profitable.

Due to the harsh and dry conditions, “dry farming” was developed and successfully used by some, but it was hard and difficult for many others. Dry land farming is a process involving the capture and effective use of available moisture (rainfall), soil conservation, and close monitoring of expenses in order to lessen the impact of the really dry years that yield little to no crops.

Many farmers were not able to adhere to this style of farming and it made existence on the land virtually impossible. Tens of thousands of homestead claims were never fulfilled as people left the Great Plains and returned to the East Coast to look for work.  More than 2 million homestead claims were filed with the U.S. Government under the Homestead Acts, yet less than half met the 5-year threshold due to the harsh conditions and took full ownership of the land.

More than 2 million homestead claims were filed with the U.S. Government under the Homestead Acts, yet less than half met the 5-year threshold due to the harsh conditions and took full ownership of the land.

Impact on Native Americans

Having been pushed off their lands in the East, American Indians had begun a new way of life in the Great Plains and northwest territories but the influx of settlers, prospectors, and railroad speculators had once again threatened their way of life. The Homestead Acts disregarded previous treaties and once again forced American Indians from their adopted homes.

The Homestead Acts disregarded previous treaties and once again forced American Indians from their adopted homes.

A systematic effort to undermine Indians tribal ways of life was seen as another effort to “Americanize” the Indians and encourage cultural assimilation. As the Indians were forced from the land, more and more American Indians fell under the control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the continued growth of the reservation system.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, American Indian children were sent to off reservation “boarding schools” in order to “Americanize” them. This effort further solidified the divide between the federal government and the personal interests of Native Americans.

Land Speculators

While not illegal, land speculators wanting access to western timber and rivers for themselves, would encourage land claims to be filed and collected. Then for a price or promise of a share of potential profits the individual owners of those claims would sign their lands over to the speculators. This process allowed them to accumulate massive amounts of land and resources (primarily water access) throughout states like Colorado, Wyoming, Oregon, and the Dakota’s.

Families themselves took advantage of the Homestead Acts minimum age requirements by having age-eligible children file claims to nearby lands in order to grow the family holdings.

So Did It Work?

The Homestead Acts were successful in preventing the expansion of slavery to the western territories and states, though the northern victory in the Civil War itself was going to do that anyways. The passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments following the Civil War cemented the death of chattel slavery in America, though much discrimination still existed throughout the nation.

The Homestead Acts were successful in preventing the expansion of slavery to the western territories and states, though the northern victory in the Civil War itself was going to do that anyways.

The Homestead Acts created further conflict and mistreatment of American Indians as they were pushed off tribal lands and forced into the reservation system. Often times these reservations were on less than ideal land for farming and/or hunting. This increased the already existing tensions between American Indians and the U.S. Government.

The Homestead Acts created further conflict and mistreatment of American Indians as they were pushed off tribal lands and forced into the reservation system.

Even though western settlement and expansion for economic and population growth was achieved, it was undermined by speculators, corporate land grabs, and areas of farm land that were unsustainable. However, large and profitable western farms were created in areas where access to water was available.

Farm machinery producers Cyrus McCormick and John Deere who had achieved moderate success were now able to expand their businesses and sell products to farmers all over the western United States.

Mail order catalog companies like Sears Roebuck and Co and Montgomery Ward used the isolation of farmers to their advantage by offering them goods from all over the country delivered straight to their doors. This isolation and economic competition with railroad companies and other monopolies would pave the way for a new era of politics known as Progressivism as the country continued to change and evolve and move towards the 20th century.

This isolation and economic competition with railroad companies and other monopolies would pave the way for a new era of politics known as Progressivism as the country continued to change and evolve and move towards the 20th century.

Keep Learning!

The Missouri Compromise

Missouri Compromise for APUSH Apprend
Learn More

Bacon’s Rebellion

Bacon's Rebellion APUSH
Learn More

Mercantilism

Mercantilism for APUSH
Learn More

The XYZ Affair

XYZ Affair for APUSH Apprend
Learn More

Articles of Confederation

Articles of Confederation for APUSH
Learn More