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Okay—it was more like land for $10 in filing fees and five years of backbreaking work…but that just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
But still: the Homestead Act was giving away tracts of land for super-cheap. If you were brave enough to take the plunge, you could "Go West, young man," and get your homestead on.
Here's a super-condensed history lesson: 1862, the Republican Party was newly in power with an agenda dead set against expanding slavery into the West. (Lincoln’s Republican Party was actually more in line with our Democratic Party, while modern Republicans are more like Democrats of Lincoln’s time.) (Source)
And President Lincoln & Co. were ecstatic to get a chance to make America the land of the yeoman farmer (a.k.a. independent small landowners). But don’t think the Homestead Act was in any way non-political. The legislation was actually a big raspberry blown in the face of the newly formed Confederacy.
See, it's the history behind the Homestead Act that makes it more than just a way to move the population around and set the stage for the ’90s nostalgia masterpiece Oregon Trail. It boils down to control and fear of change: all that land lying around was at the center of a serious game of tug-o-war between the abolitionist and industrial North and the pro-slavery and agricultural South.
The western territories were like an axe hanging over the head of the slave states. Any shift in the balance toward more free states would hurt their chances of keeping their slaves. This resulted in a lot of time spent blocking any government action toward the Homestead Act before 1861. After that, the Southern states said, "Peace out" (but without the peace part), and formed the Confederacy…which led to the Homestead Act being passed and the biggest game of land-grab ever began.
And we’re not talking about small bits of land here and there—we’re talking plots of land across Ohio, Washington, Illinois, California, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Alabama, Wisconsin, Florida…well, it’d be faster to list what wasn’t included.
This was totally revolutionary.
Also revolutionary? The Homestead Act allowed women, immigrants, and freed slaves to own land. The very careful use of "person" and "individual" make it beyond clear that the government had to respect any person brave enough to try their luck at homesteading. That was crazy progressive.
Sure, there were plenty of downsides to the Homestead Act. It totally discounted the fact that Native Americans were already on the land out West (a running theme in American history) and the success rate of homesteaders was only 40 percent.
But it's known today as a document that both a) was the legal doctrine equivalent of flipping the bird at the Confederacy and b) stated that anyone, regardless of race, gender, or original nationality, had a right to build a home on the range (where the deer and the antelope play).
When you ask a non-American what they think of when they imagine the American landscape, they'll probably paint you a verbal picture of vast deserts, rolling prairies, craggy mountaintops, and chilly alpine streams. (Except they'll do it with an adorably sexy accent.)
Because, while New York is the undisputed American cultural capital, the South is known for the United States’ tastiest buttery food, and Boston is, well, mocked mercilessly…the American West is thought of as the America.
Cowboys. Dusty saloons. Prairie schoolteachers. Loyal ponies. Spacious skies. Amber waves of grain. Purple mountains majesty.
All of that stuff is out West.
And we have to thank the Homestead Act for allowing us access to all this "America The Beautiful" goodness, because it pretty much paved the way for the good ol’ U.S. of A as we know it. Sure, the U.S. owned the land west of the Mississippi, but statehood only existed from the East Coast to the line of the Mississippi River, and then skipped over vast tracks of frontier to the Rockies. (Source)
Of course, even statehood didn’t mean fully settled. Nope, sometimes you had to travel for days to go between towns or isolated farms. And let’s not even contemplate the serious endeavor that was going from say, Kansas to Nevada, shuffling through open plain and occasionally hitting outposts, mining towns, and army forts.
That’s a lot of unclaimed wild territory.
The Homestead Act changed all that. Cities like Reno sprang up around special spots in the landscape, such as river crossings, as more and more people headed west. The Homestead Act prompted settlement all the way across the western territories. Sure, it was still spread out a bit far to drop in on the neighbors just to borrow a cup of sugar, but travelers didn’t have quite as far to go to find 19th-century AAA assistance when they broke a wagon axle.
So yep: opening up all that land to allow for the Republican dream of "yeoman farmers" definitely paved the way for the whole Lower 48 to actually come into being. It also cemented the notion of the American as self-sufficient, hardworking, and adventurous…and inspired floods of immigrants seeking the American Dream.
That's how the west was won: thanks to one stuffily-written legal doctrine.
Homestead, the Place
There’s an entire National Park dedicated to the memory of the Homestead Act. Daniel Freeman’s homestead is appropriately the focus of Homestead National Monument in where else but Homestead, Nebraska. The site is full of tasty tidbits and factoids.
A Day in the Life of the Homestead Act
This is a pretty intense look at the Oklahoma Land Rush and a side of reality about homesteading.
The Official Governmental Historical Context
This would be the government’s take on historical context and the shaping of the Homestead Act.
Timeline Take Two
This is a much more extensive timeline (with pictures) about the events leading up to and beyond the Homestead Act. Seriously, we’re talking 1785 to 2000.
Things Going Wrong
This site pulls no punches when listing off where the Homestead Act went wrong.
Even More Problems
This is a run-down of quite a few of the problems involved in homesteading.
No list is ever complete without the History Channel’s take on something. Good synopsis, but the linked videos and articles are awesome.
The 1925 Version
Feel up to a silent movie? Buster Keaton does his comedic thing in a movie that epitomizes the dream of Westward Expansion.
The 1940 Version
The Marx brothers. 'Nuff said.
History of Homesteading in about Fifteen Minutes
Okay, so the voice-over is a little something, but the first half is full of amazing historical photographs of homesteaders. The second half is more about modern "homesteading" or living off the land, which isn't really about the Homestead Act, but it's worth the watch.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Five minutes about the Homestead Act, problems with homesteading, and changing the course of the West.
And Even More
Sure, it’s an hour of your life, but this is chock full of primary source material.
From the Man Himself
A tiny snippet of an interview with Ken Deardorff about homesteading.
The Homestead Act
Want to see the actual Homestead Act?
Homestead Act States
Take a look at a map of where the Homestead Act applied (marked in brown).
Boldly Going Where No Man Has Gone Before
This is David Freeman’s Homestead Certificate, the very first issued under the Homestead Act. And a few more certificates under the Homestead Act, including the last one in 1988.
Last of the Pioneers
Ken Deardorff and the final iteration of his homestead.
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