Study Guide

Homestead Act Analysis

By Congress

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  • Rhetoric


    Logos is all about logic, or arguing in a such a way that the reader things, "Okay, yeah, I can see that makes sense."

    The Homestead Act doesn’t have much of an emotional appeal—it's pretty dry n' dusty in its language—but it's all about the rational.

    While the propaganda involved in promoting the Homestead Act definitely played on the adventurous American spirit (cowboys! mountains! sod huts!) the actual text is straight-up legal "if this, then that."

    It makes for stuffy, sometimes confusing reading, but lawmakers like to cover all their bets and set limits. Try to stay awake. (We recommend listening to the Lone Ranger theme while you read it.)

  • Structure

    Legal Document

    You want crazy narrative structure? Check out some Virginia Woolf.

    You want straightforward, dry-as-kindling legal doctrine? Hey: you're in the right place. This act is mega-important…but it's not exactly innovative writing.

    Written by Congress, signed by the President, enforced through a government agency: this is definitely a legal text. The "be it enacted," "be it further enacted," and "provided" scattered throughout give that away, even before you get to the overuse of commas.

    It doesn’t have flow or rhythm like a speech or essay would, because it's just a bunch of consecutive sections that, put together, cover everything the law says you can, or can’t do. The beginning is easy to figure out with the very official sounding "Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled[…]" starting out Section 1.

    The following sections don’t really have any logical layout and there’s no real ending. It just ends when all the provisos and requirements are stated, which are organized in a way that suggest Congress was just throwing out ideas and writing them down as they liked ‘em.

    How it Breaks Down

    Section 1

    The Who, The What

    Twenty-one or older? Check. Head of household? Check. Citizen or becoming a citizen? Check. No traitorous actions? Check. Go pick out up to 160 acres.

    Section 2

    The How

    Swear to the above and pay $10 to the clerk. Now go and work the land for five years, and then come back and see us again sometime for the title to the land.

    Section 3


    Oh yeah, somebody better write down all the info about claims and proof and stuff like that. Better make it official and write it into the law. Bureaucracy: it’s a wonderful thing.

    Section 4


    Nope, sorry, can’t stake a claim and then give it up to satisfy debts. You can, however, attempt to make a living off your free land and pay back your creditors that way. You might starve to death or horribly maim yourself, but at least you can try.

    Maybe one of the senators had a bad run of luck with the ponies to throw this in right in the middle of the rest of the clauses.

    Section 5

    Game Over

    This section in particular gives the government a reset button to trade in new players. Why here? No idea, but it makes this clause seem a little more important than what follows after.

    Section 6

    What Have We Forgotten?

    This one is basically the dustbin of everything they left out earlier. A homestead can only be up to 160 acres. Also, the General Land Office clerks can’t get paid any more for claims under the Homestead Act than they do for land bought outright. Oh, and you can be grandfathered in if you’ve filed a claim before January 1st, 1863.

    But hey, if you’ve served in the military during actual wartime and happen to be younger than twenty-one, sure, you can file a claim for a homestead. There, that should be the end of it…unless they forgot something else.

    Section 7

    Don’t Do Bad Things

    They forgot something else

    Basically, if this other act—"An act in addition to an act more effectually to provide for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States, and for other purposes"—already listed out something that’s illegal and a prospective homesteader had already done it, they weren’t getting a homestead.

    Stay legal, folks.

    Section 8

    Money, It’s a Gas, or That’s a Wrap

    Don’t feel like waiting five years and actually proving you’ve done a lot of work? Just fork over the equivalent amount of cash according to the government, and you too can have your very own homestead.

    And that’s all she wrote. Not really a logical progression of ideas (this is Congress after all), but the basic gist was covered, at least.

  • Tone

    Dry, Hypothetical

    A legal text can’t, for the sake of tradition, be anywhere close to exciting.

    It has to set out terms and conditions for a bunch of if-this-then-that situations regarding the actions allowed/forbidden. The whole act is written in a future perfect tense that drags the tone down enough to make your eyes cross and your brain hurt. It’s not like it could be any different, since Congress had to cover all the possible actions and detail either the next step or that it’s prohibited.

    Section 4, for example, acknowledges that sometimes people manage to get themselves into some financial difficulties and may need a quick and easy way of paying off a debt. Think again.

    And be it further enacted, That no lands acquired under the provisions of this act shall in any event become liable to the satisfaction of any debt or debts contracted prior to the issuing of the patent therefor. (Section 4)

    It uses a lot of extra words to prevent anyone from attempting to wiggle out of debt by simply filing a claim.

    But hey, if this is your idea of light bedtime reading, maybe we’ll see you in Congress some day.

  • Writing Style


    Okay, we all know the Homestead Act is a legal document setting out rights, rules, and restrictions about homesteading in the West. There’s no getting around the fact that legal documents are tinder-dry (no, not Tinder dry) and not quite as clear as they should be.

    And let’s not forget each section is only one sentence. That’s a lot of caveats and addendums to a pretty basic directive of "work the land for five years and it’s yours." But more words = more official.

    Let’s take a look.

    And be it further enacted, That if, at any time after the filing of the affidavit, as required in the second section of this act, and before the expiration of the five years aforesaid, it shall be proven, after due notice to the settler, to the satisfaction of the register of the land office, that the person having filed such affidavit shall have actually changed his or her residence, or abandoned the said land for more than six months at any time, then and in that event the land so entered shall revert to the government. (Section 5)

    Breaking down Section 5 as an example, Congress threw in quite a few flourishes like "be it further enacted" to make it sound more like an official proclamation. Oh, those crazy 19th-century politicians.

    Then again, they were going off of precedent in how laws were phrased throughout the history of the country.

    Tradition. It can be a bit of a burden.

    Passive voice is key here, with each section providing a list of hypothetical future situations. Section 5 lays out how a claim is forfeit (and what happens then) without actually being active voice. "[…] it shall be proven[…]" is a beautiful example of the removed writing style Congress used to just layout guidelines.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The shortened, most widely known title is completely self-explanatory. The Homestead Act involves the legalities and process of homesteading. (Homesteading: the act of building a home in the wilderness and toiling away at the land to make it grow something.)

    No points for originality there, Homestead Act writers.

    Even the longer, complete title, "An Act to secure Homesteads to actual Settlers on the Public Domain," spells it out.

    But breaking that down, "secure" is an interesting choice of word. Secure, in this case meaning establish, also has a defensive or possessive ring to it. That land was put there by God for the U.S. and the U.S. alone, after all. (Ah, Manifest Destiny. You're such a narcissist.)

    "Actual Settlers" is, again, pretty specific. Nope, sorry, your imaginary friends don’t count. Neither do Native Americans, apparently, since Manifest Destiny only applied to citizens of the U.S., even if they were already living on the land. (Let’s just skip over the whole immigrant and former slave issue).

    Public Domain, as well, has a nice, regal tone to it. Not "Government Land," but "Public Domain" in a way that suggests the land is any American’s due right. Manifest Destiny is again rearing its head.

  • What's Up With the Opening Lines?

    Now, this being a legal text, the opening line is actually all of Section 1. Each section, through the crazy, legalese-y use of semicolons, colons, and commas, is a single sentence…and usually with multiple subjects.

    Hemingway, this ain't.

    Section 1, however, does lay it right out:

    Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such, as required by the naturalization laws of the United States, and who has never borne arms against the United States Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies, shall, from and after the first January, eighteen hundred and. sixty-three, be entitled to enter one quarter section or a less quantity of unappropriated public lands[…] (Section 1)

    It clearly states who, what, where, and when regarding homesteaders and homesteading. So, it’s in legalese, but at least it’s clear right off the bat what the rest of the document is going to be talking about.

  • What's Up With the Closing Lines?

    If we’re being pedantic, which is no fun, the actual closing lines are the words "Approved, May 20, 1862." But that’s not what you’re looking for.

    Maybe something more like this:

    And be it further enacted, That nothing in this act shall be construed as to prevent any person who has availed him or herself of the benefits of the first section of this act, from paying the minimum price, or the price to which the same may have graduated, for the quantity of land so entered at any time before the expiration of the five years, and obtaining a patent therefor from the government, as in other cases provided by law, on making proof of settlement and cultivation as provided by existing laws granting preemption rights. (Section 8)

    Now that’s more like it.

    Not that Section 8 actually sounds like an ending; it reads like there’s more coming. But, no, the final section of the Homestead Act, in true bureaucratic style, deals specifically with shortcuts to getting the title to the land without following the rules and regs laid out in the rest of the document.

    Let’s just invalidate everything already written into law, provided the homesteader had enough money. Way to go, Congress.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    The Homestead Act is a legal document, which means it’s written in legalese…quite possibly the least accessible dialect of English imaginable. (Not to mention it’s in Ye Olde Legalese, which adds at least a dozen unnecessary words per item.)

    So add a ton of difficulty points for the sheer frustration of attempting to translate the text.

    But once you have your decoder ring set appropriately, it’s really not that difficult to parse out the gist: homestead for five years after making a claim and/or appropriate payment and you get to keep the allotted land. Sure, there are a few provisos, but it's not so opaque once you get the general drift.

    At least it was only two pages long. We’d definitely hate to see what a modern version would look like with input from the IRS.

  • Shout-Outs

    In-Text References

    Political and Governmental References

    Senate of the United States (Section 1)
    House of Representatives of the United States (Section 1)
    United States (Section 1, Section 2)
    U.S. Army (Section 2, Section 6)
    U.S. Navy (Section 2, Section 6)
    U.S. Congress, An act in addition to an act more effectually to provide for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States, and for other purposes, March 3, 1857 (Section 7)

    References to This Text

    Article and Book References

    Hyman, Harold. American Singularity: the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, the 1862 Homestead and Morrill Acts, and the 1944 GI Bill. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986.

    McElroy, Wendy. "The Free-Soil Movement, Part 1." The Future of Freedom Foundation, 2001.

    Shanks, Trina R.W. "The Homestead Act: A major asset-building policy in American history." In Inclusion in the American Dream:Assets, Poverty, and Public Policy, edited byMichael Sherraden, 20-41. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    Focus on Women Homesteaders:

    Smith, Sherry L. "Single women homesteaders: the perplexing case of Elinore Pruitt Stewart." Western Historical Quarterly (1991): 163-183.

    Patterson-Black, Sheryll. "Women homesteaders on the Great Plains frontier." Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies (1976): 67-88.

    Pop Culture

    Any book or show about the prairie (e.g. Little House on the Prairie) or cowboys owes the Homestead Act, but people don’t tend to name-drop pieces of legislation. Even the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 doesn’t mention or allude to the Homestead Act.

  • Trivia

    Fun fact: what we tend to refer to as the Homestead Act actually includes a bunch of laws opening and regulating the acquisition of government land way out West. So, what did you just spend time reading about? That would be the first of those acts, which is why it is has the nickname of the Homestead Act. Plus, that’s a lot faster than saying/writing "An Act to secure Homesteads to actual Settlers on the Public Domain" every time. (Source)

    Daniel Freeman just wasn’t content with being the first homesteader, but had to go and make legal history, too. In 1899, he stirred up controversy by protesting the local schoolteacher adding Bible readings and exercises to the curriculum. Despite setbacks in local court, by 1902, he took it all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court in Daniel Freeman v. John Scheve, et. al. This was one of the precedent cases used in the U.S. Supreme Court to declare separation of church and state in Everson v. Board of Education in 1947. Go Daniel, you rabble-rouser, you. (Source)

    Not all federal land was open to settle right away. Nope, to get their pick of the choicest land, prospective settlers would gather around the border of not-yet opened territory. And get thrown out by the army. And then come back and do it all over again until the government got with the program and opened the land. (Source)

    Rome wasn’t built in a day, but cities on the frontier sure were. Places like Oklahoma City were established the same day the land opened for settling, thanks to the swarms of people involved in land rushes. Tents sprang up to mark future buildings and some enterprising people set up shop out of wagons. (Source)

    Follow college sports? The Sooners (University of Oklahoma) are named after the nickname for people who snuck into the Unassigned Lands of Indian Territory before it officially opened (noon on April 22, 1889) to settlers. Hence being "Sooner" than allowed. (Source)

    There are at least fifteen towns named Homestead in the U.S.: in Florida, Iowa, Colorado, Kansas, Pennsylvania, California (4 of ‘em), Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, Minnesota, and Oregon. Hmm, all of those (minus PA) seem to have been open to homesteaders under the Homestead Act. Coincidence? We think not. (Source)

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