Thursday, May 20, 2010

Amber Waves of Grain

Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on this day in 1862. This legislation enabled free citizens and immigrants intending to become citizens--male and female--to lay claim to 160 acres of surveyed, unsettled territory in the public domain and earn their way to land ownership for the price of 5 years' labor, "improvement" to the property and a $10 filing fee.

Prior to this date, land acquisition had been based upon the Land Ordinance Act of 1785, which opened the western public domain to settlers for a per-acre price with minimum purchase requirements. Citizens complained that this policy favored speculators who drove up land prices, and over the course of the first half of the 1800s, minimum acreage requirements and per-acre costs were lowered by Congress a number of times. "Squatting"--laying claim to open, unsurveyed land, improving it and then claiming ownership by virtue of the "improvements" that had been made -- was legalized via the Log Cabin Bill of 1841, which granted rights of "preemption" whereby squatters could buy their land at a minimum price once such lands were surveyed and opened to settlement.

Why 1862? The Homestead Bill (before it was passed) was a topic of much contention between North and South. Northeastern industrialists attempted to win the support of westerners by supporting homestead legislation. The economic interests of North and South were often at odds, as the industrializing Northeast benefited from high tariffs while the South wanted minimal barriers to the transatlantic trade that sustained its cotton economy. The Republican Party grew to see small, independent landholders as a bulwark against the expansion of slavery. When the South was away from the Union, the North could play, politically speaking.

"Free land" had enormous rhetorical import, and between 1862 and 1935, when the homestead era officially ended, over 400,000 families received farms through the Act. Given that the surveying process continued to rely upon original, eighteenth century provisions, the western landscape was carved into 6-by-6 mile squares to be subdivided into smaller acreage -- regardless of natural features that might stand in the way. This is a major reason why flights over the middle of the United States reveal a patchwork quilt of squares where farm and settlement boundaries continue to follow these lines.

The impact of the Homestead Act on Native Americans was devastating, ultimately culminating in the Dawes Allotment Act of 1888. This act, an outstanding example of government paternalism and thinly veiled greed, eliminated remaining reservations and allocated individual parcels of acreage to certified tribal members. Remaining land was turned over to the public domain for white settlement, and Native traditions of joint custodianship of the land were ignored.

In reality, many western settlers continued to take up claims under the Log Cabin Act rather than the Homestead Act because they opted not to wait for land to be officially surveyed. Large parcels of land along railroad lines were kept out of the public domain, often going to the railroad companies themselves and spurring a new source of grievance among western settlers. Some unsavory characters manipulated the law, erecting pitiful tarpaper shacks as "improvements" and snapping up considerable swaths of land. Finally, much of the western landscape was simply not sufficiently hospitable to support agriculture intensive enough to make a 160-acre farm practical. (Later in the century, minimum land allotments were enlarged in some more arid regions of the west.) Forty-nine percent of registrants failed to "prove up" their claims.

Onward the course of history makes its march. Far western settlement was already happening, long before the Homestead Act became law. As I sit here in the Willamette Valley of Oregon I am sitting in country first prized for its agricultural bounty in the 1830s. California, too, saw early settlement both for its fertility and for its mineral wealth. Between us and the East, however, are thousands upon thousands of square miles of territory that owe their landscape, their political, economic and social history and even many of their contemporary problems to the Homestead Act, the Log Cabin Act and related legislation.

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