In the final scene of Far and Away, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman plant a flag on a piece of Oklahoma land just moments ahead of a batch of rival homesteaders. With this simple act, they guarantee their futures. Just by planting a flag, they secure 160 acres of prime land and their piece of the American agrarian dream.
We don't expect Hollywood to always get things right. And if filmmaker Ron Howard erred in this case, he can't really be faulted. The Oklahoma Land Run and the Homestead Act are part of American folklore – prime western land, free for the taking, just claim it and it's yours. It plays to our sense of America's democratic western movement – self-driven pioneers racing to rich, uninhabited lands; America's vast interior simply given away by a federal government anxious to fill the West with small farms.
But in reality, it was not quite that simple. In fact, if Howard wanted to get things right, he might have ended the film differently. Cruise and Kidman would have discovered, in reaching their western destination, that all the best lands were not available – at least not for free. The railroads owned a large portion of the lands; the state government also owned thousands of acres. These could be purchased, but a small farmer would have to compete with the large land speculators buying up everything they could.
Free land was available, as the federal government had promised. But it lay miles from the railroads and just as far from water. For a poor immigrant, like the Irish character played by Tom Cruise, these distant, arid lands may have provided his only option. But once established there he would have quickly learned that only cattle ranching made sense on such dry lands – and 160 acres was simply not enough to feed a herd. The persistent Cruise might have explored other government programs. He could acquire another 160 acres if he planted a quarter of the land in trees, or he could get 640 acres of "prime" desert land if he agreed to bring it under irrigation within three years. But these sorts of projects were costly and may have only delayed the inevitable. Within a few years, Cruise probably would have failed in his western adventure; like almost two-thirds of all homesteaders, he would have called it quits and left his land before receiving the title granted after five years of residence.15 From here, who knows where his life's path would have led – quite possibly, he might have abandoned Nicole Kidman for another woman, perhaps a tall brunette sixteen years his junior.
To build a more realistic narrative of westward expansion, we need to begin by acknowledging that there was more to it than small farmers and free land. The federal government did not just open the door to the West and say, "Stake your claim." In fact, the federal government disposed of its western lands in a very calculating manner. This vast and wealthy territory was the federal government's most valuable resource, and it made deliberate and varied use of it to pursue a variety of goals.
The Homestead Act served one of these goals; for philosophical and practical reasons policymakers did want to open up a portion of the West to small farmers. And to be fair, the effort was not a complete bust. Passage of the Homestead Act culminated a half century of policy evolution that made federal lands increasingly affordable to common people. The nation's first land laws, passed before 1800, gave eastern speculators huge advantages. The minimum parcel was 640 acres and the minimum price was $2 per acre. These facts alone priced most small farmers out of the market. But in addition, the land was sold at auction in eastern cities where well-backed bidders could drive prices upward. In the decades that followed, democratically-minded lawmakers gradually pushed prices downward. Minimum parcels and minimum prices were reduced. By 1832, a person could purchase a 40 acre parcel at a minimum price of $1.25 per acre – if he was not outbid by speculators at auction. But in 1841, these speculators were partially removed from the picture. A preemption law allowed squatters to purchase up to 160 acres at $1.25 per acre without competition when the land came up for auction, so long as he had been living on the land at the time of the government survey.
The passage of the Homestead Act in 1862 was, thus, the last in a series of increasingly democratic land policies that made public lands more accessible to small farmers. And plenty of people did benefit from it. In certain regions, like the Dakotas and Nebraska, homesteaders found plenty of good land; more than half of their public lands were distributed under the terms of the 1862 act. Across the country, more than 200 million acres were distributed and almost 400,000 families were given a fresh start in the West.16
But still, the act did not achieve many of its objectives. Many hoped that through this legislation the West would draw off the majority of America's rapidly growing population – that free land would check the growth of America's crime-ridden and poverty-filled cities. But between 1862 and 1890, while the United States population increased by 32 million people, only 2 million acquired land through the Homestead Act.17 Moreover, its conditions suited only certain regions of the country. John Wesley Powell's 1878 report to Congress revealed that in the dry western states land grants needed to be more than ten times larger – to sustain a cattle operation, for instance, a rancher needed more than 2500 acres. But Congress could not imagine making such large grants.
Nor were subsequent homestead-type acts more successful. The Timber Culture Act of 1873 offered homesteaders 160 acres if they planted trees on 40 of them. The Desert Lands Act of 1877 offered farmers 640 acres at $1.25 per acre if they promised to place it under irrigation. But the premises underlying both were flawed. Nineteenth-century policymakers believed that "rain follows the plow" – if a vanguard of farmers irrigated and planted trees in the dry western states, weather patterns would change and the next wave of migrants would find a more farming-friendly climate. That wasn't quite right. More fundamentally, neither proposal suited the budgets of most homesteaders. It was tough enough to generate the start-up costs for a farm without the imposing irrigation or tree-planting requirements. In other words, bad economics and bad science combined to render these measures ineffective.
But it was more than flaws within the homesteading legislation that made the homesteading pioneer a misleading representative of westward migration. More critical was the fact that the government had other objectives to be advanced by the distribution of its lands. The federal government wanted to build railroads and advance education; and these goals impacted land policies. If the homesteader found his choices limited, it was because he was just one of the government's concerns.
The Homestead Act was actually just one of three land acts passed in 1862. In the same year, Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act and the Morrill Education Act. The railroad act subsidized the construction of a transcontinental railroad by awarding railroad companies ten square miles of public land adjacent to the tracks for every mile of track laid. This provision, doubled in subsequent acts, resulted in federal land grants of roughly 125 million acres from 1862 to 1872. State governments chipped in an additional 100 million acres.18 The Morrill Act awarded to individual states public lands that could be sold to build colleges providing agricultural and mechanical training. States received 30,000 acres for every senator and House representative. Ultimately, the act distributed more than 100 million acres to the states.19
Congress expected the railroad lands to pass quickly into the hands of farmers. They reasoned that railroads would want to dump these lands in order to finance construction, and therefore they would not hold out for high prices. And, they reasoned further, that even though these lands were not free, small farmers would benefit financially in the long run from proximity to the railroad lines. Congress also believed that states would sell the lands issued under the Morrill Act at reasonable prices in order to realize their educational objectives.
But things did not usually work out that way. Land prices along the railroad lines rose as high as $10 per acre, far beyond the reach of the small farmer. In some states, like California, this led to the accumulation of huge holdings by speculators and large ranchers. In other states, like Nebraska, prices, although high, remained within the reach of smaller farmers, but the debt burden incurred by purchasers actually inhibited farm development in these regions.20
The land awarded to states for education tended to be distributed even less democratically. Since many states were entitled under the Morrill formula to more public land than was available within their borders, they were awarded "scrip" that could be used to purchase public lands in other states and territories. States sold this scrip at auction where large speculators succeeded in engrossing rights to hundreds of thousands of acres. Even more than the railroad land grants, the Morrill Act, which aimed at financing an educational system for America's farmers, actually inflated land prices and increased the amount of land in the hands of wealthy speculators and absentee owners.
In other words, a narrative of western expansion that focuses on the humble homesteader gratefully embracing the government's simple offer of 160 acres does not really tell the entire story. It leaves out the millions of acres offered to railroads and states, and the huge opportunities subsequently made available to speculators and ranching and mining conglomerates to accumulate millions of acres.
Perhaps, even more fundamentally, this homesteader narrative misrepresents the far more complex and pervasive role played by the government in shaping the character of the western domain. The American West was not simply built by independent homesteaders following their dreams (and Nicole Kidman) to a better life; it was promoted and shaped by the federal government through carefully crafted land policies.
Nor did the federal government quit the picture once land was distributed. In eastern regions, state governments built schools and roads, established regulatory and judicial institutions, and maintained order with the assistance of state militias. But in the western territories, where state governments had not yet been established, the federal government filled the governmental and institutional vacuum – federal courts, federal agencies, and the United States Army filled roles occupied in the east by state institutions.
The homesteaders' resulting familiarity, and even dependence, on the federal government is reflected best in the post-Civil War battle to pacify the western Indian tribes.
During the 1830s, federal policymakers believed that they had solved the "Indian problem" by relocating close to 100,000 eastern Native Americans to territories west of the Mississippi River. Legislators believed that it was safe to set aside these remote, dry, and vast spaces as a permanent "Indian territory." But within a generation, the relentless legions of western settlers had pushed into these Indian-occupied lands, and the comparatively isolated American-Indian violence of 1820-1850 was replaced by a series of frontier wars. In the Great Plains, the American military fought the Sioux and the Comanche. In the Southwest, they battled the Navajo and the Apache. And in the Pacific Northwest, they fought the small tribes of the Washington Territory, the Yakimas, the Walla Wallas, and the Nez Percés. The commitment of American dollars and troops to these wars was great; the Commissioner of Indian Affairs estimated that these battles cost the United States more than one million dollars and 25 American soldiers for every Native American killed.21 But by the end of the period, the western tribes had been defeated and the surviving Indians, greatly reduced in number and broken into fragmented villages and bands, had been pacified.
The federal government did not leave the field with the last battle; in fact, during the years following the last major war, the Bureau of Indian Affairs expanded rapidly. Between 1881 and 1897, the BIA doubled in size. This growth was accompanied by the rationalization of the organization's structure and the professionalization of its employees. Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz centralized control of the agency and instituted new accounting and oversight protocols to reduce corruption. He required that certain positions be filled by civil service examination; eventually almost all rank and file positions within the bureau were taken out of the hands of politicians and distributed through civil service exams.
The professionalization of the BIA was accompanied by a shift in government Indian policy. With conditions on the frontier largely stabilized, the government developed a long term strategy that aimed at assimilation rather than removal or conquest. But this new policy, portions of which were encapsulated in the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, was just as hostile toward traditional Indian lifestyles as the old. (As one reformer put it, the goal was "to kill the Indian and save the man."22) Native Americans would be integrated into American society by breaking down traditional communities and political units, Indian children would be shipped to boarding schools to learn Anglo-American skills and values, and land would be expropriated from tribes and distributed to individuals.
In certain respects, this "peaceful" approach failed miserably. Indian parents balked at sending their children to distant and culturally hostile schools. And other attempts at suppressing Native American culture – prohibiting traditional religious ceremonies, forcibly cutting men's hair – bred resentment and even resistance. But from the perspective of many western migrants, the program was a complete success; the western Indians were further pacified, and the threat they formerly posed to western expansion was now all but eliminated. For the homesteaders, the railroad owners, and the state education officials, the federal government had taken yet another critical step in shaping their western home. In the process, moreover, the federal government had developed new administrative skills and structures. The Bureau of Indian Affairs had become a more efficient and professional agency; it had begun to acquire the institutional apparatus we have come to associate with our massive federal government.
By the turn of the century, the West had been "won." America's frontier had been settled, the hostile Indian threat had been removed, railroads stretched from coast to coast, and a series of colleges had been established to provide agricultural and technical training to America's western populace. But the hearty homesteader played only a supporting role in this victory. The federal government and its nation-building programs were the real stars of this epic. Far from a story about individual pluck and resourcefulness, the winning of the West was a collective enterprise managed by the federal government that culminated with the elaboration of a more rational and professional federal bureaucracy.
Perhaps, therefore, our homesteader would not have failed in the West. Statistically, Tom Cruise had only a one in three chance of making it on his own land. But there were plenty of jobs available in the expanding federal government. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Federal Land Office, the United States Geological Survey, and the United States Forest Service were all blazing a new "frontier" in this part of the country. Of course, Cruise would have had to pass the civil service exam – not beat a crowd of settlers to a claim. But if he outscored his competitors in this contest, he might have been able to carve out a successful career as a federal bureaucrat.