Already deeply engaged in a bloody war, a young, untested president– whose thin resume noted but a handful of undistinguished terms in the Illinois General Assembly and a brief stint in Congress — did not hesitate when Congress delivered legislation that might spark a new beginning for a tiring nation.
When Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act of 1862 he sent a clear signal to all Americans that he believed the Union would endure and it would stride toward its greater destiny with a new element of freedom, land.
Lincoln, of course, was right. The Homestead Act became one of America’s most enlightened — and to Native Americans, most damnable — moves: 1.5 billion acres owned by the federal government would be offered to nearly anyone for the taking, a fabulously radical idea in a world still mostly owned by nobles and aristocrats.
Next year marks the Homestead Act’s 150th anniversary and plans are under way for a year’s worth of activities at the National Park’s Service’s Homestead National Monument of America, 40 miles south of Lincoln, Neb. (http://www.nps.gov/home/index.htm)
“Many of the events that shaped 100 years of American history had their beginnings in the Homestead Act,” notes Mark Engler, superintendent of the site.
Some, such as Land Grant university system and the USDA, remain key parts of American society today, he adds. All were an extension of Thomas Jefferson’s yeoman-farmer ideal for the nation.
Two generations after his buy-now, tell-Congress-later purchase of the Louisiana Territory and 36 years after his death the ideal reached its zenith: anyone 21 years old — including single, unmarried women — was entitled to 160 acres of America.
Few restrictions to “homesteading” made it attractive to both Americans and any immigrant who had filed an “intention” to become a citizen. All you had to do was swear to not “taken up arms” against the nation, move to the land within six months of its survey and filing and, most importantly, “improve it” — settle and farm it.
If those conditions were met and $10 was paid, the land was deeded to the homesteader — patented, as it was called — after five years.
According to data compiled by the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis, 3 million people applied for this “source of opportunity and wealth” over the succeeding 77 years the law was fully in force.
Even more remarkably, almost 1.5 million “households were given title to 246 million acres of land” by 1939, or, “approximately 20 percent of all public land in the United States was given away” by the nation to it citizens.
And it just wasn’t in states most Americans consider homestead havens; it was in virtually every state west of the Allegheny Mountains.
For example, 24 percent of Arkansas, 20 percent of Minnesota and 29 percent of Wyoming were “successfully” homesteaded.
And, too, states most thought of as homestead-settled were, indeed, settled by homesteaders — 45 percent of Nebraska, 30 percent of North Dakota, 35 percent of Montana and 34 percent of Oklahoma. (The last homestead “patent” was granted in 1988 to Ken Deardorff for his piece of Alaska.)
But the unique law was not universally accepted. The first Americans, natives of the more than 500 nations already established in what was to become the United States, viewed it as a leading cause for their cultural decline and virtual demise. Many still do.
In fact, because of the Homestead Act, “Promoters, frontier settlers and fur traders pushed the government to enter treaties with Indians which today would be regarded as unconscionable,” notes Washington University research.
That legacy, as well as the estimated 93 million American descendants of homesteaders, makes the Homestead Act a vital, still-alive piece of American history.