Study Guide

Homestead Act Compare and Contrast

By Congress

  • Donation Land Claim Act 1850

    Ah, Donation Land. Our least favorite theme park, boasting attractions such as all-you-can-eat campfire stew and the famous rollercoaster "Only White Dudes Allowed."

    Let's break down what is essentially the Homestead Act, only smaller and less equal rights-y.

    The Who:

    The Donation Land Claim Act only let white males take ownership of land…because the writers were clearly jerks. A married couple could double their land in the name of the wife, but it wasn't the egalitarian premise of the Homestead Act, which allowed single women to own their own land. The earlier law allowed claimants of eighteen years or older, as opposed to the twenty-one year age limit of the Homestead Act.

    The What:

    The Donation Land Claim Act only included land in the Oregon Territory, while the Homestead Act opened up pretty much the rest of the western territories. The earlier act allowed for 320 acres per white male and up to 640 acres for married couples. The Homestead Act allowed much less with a cap of 160 acres.

    The How:

    Four years of constant improvement were required by the Donation Land Claim Act, although those could be retroactive to the passing of the law, and claimants were granted immediate ownership. The Homestead Act required five years of constant improvement after the claim, plus a filing fee and two witnesses, and then the title was transferred.

    Just like the Homestead Act, a couple of later addendums to the Donation Land Claim Act were passed changing the amount of land and allowing purchase instead of working the land. The Donation Land Claim Act was moot after 1863, however, when the Homestead Act took effect across the whole country. (Source)

    Good riddance, Donation 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, 1857

    No; really. That's the name of this act. Not exactly catchy, is it?

    Seeing as how Section 7 of the Homestead Act was put in place purely to inform the reader that this whole other act was in effect in the western territories, it’s probably a good idea to take a quick look.

    Basically, this was an addendum to an earlier (1825) "Act more effectually to provide for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States, and for other purposes." (Another un-pithy act name, courtesy of Stuffy 19th-Century Language.)

    Both of these earlier pieces of law dealt specifically with treasonous actions against the United States and how to deal with them on par with the laws of where the act took place.

    Making the 1857 act plainly part of the Homestead Act gave the state and territorial governments a whole lot of power. Any person being prosecuted wouldn’t only be a prisoner of the U.S., but a prisoner of the state—double trouble.

    And each state had its own laws and regulations subsequent to federal law. Ceding prosecution to the state and territories, the government assured punishment was basically a total gamble if someone was caught and tried…because conditions varied greatly.

    It also took the burden off the already stretched U.S. government during a time when the majority of the South was considered as having performed or aided traitorous actions. Plus, it showed confidence in the territorial governments, even as they had to deal with an influx of settlers and their problems.

  • Pacific Railway Act of 1862

    The Homestead Act granted land to individuals who were jonesing for getting a slice of the American West pie.

    The Pacific Railway Act granted land to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads to build a transcontinental railway along the 32nd parallel. (Source)

    That sounds easy enough, right?

    Well, actually not.

    Land became as valuable as gold, and competing interests fought like dogs over scraps of available or not so available pieces of earth. Not content with the nearly 128 million acres of land granted by the government between 1862 and 1872, the railroads and the doctrine of Eminent Domain—or the power vested in the railroads to co-opt land because they were working on a federal improvement project—ripped even more land from homesteaders.

    Even if they weren’t on the track per se, the railroads still had the power to set bumpers to the track (ten square miles per mile of track) and take more land than strictly necessary. (And then turn around and sell it, because they were greedy dirtbags.)

    Of course, if the land was already occupied, owners were meant to be compensated…but whether that was fairly or not is another story. (See what we mean about the greedy dirtbag part?)

    How could this happen when there were meant to be records of these things, you ask? Well, not only did it take until 1869 for the railroad to be finished, but also homesteaders popped up all over the place and there was poor communication between Land Office outposts. (The railroad was also working on bringing the telegraph to the West.) The Union Pacific was working west while the Central Pacific was working east, so progress varied, making it difficult to keep track (pun totally intended) of where things were or were going.

    Basically, 1863 onward was a free-for-all in trying to nail down land.

  • Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862

    1862 was a very busy year for the Wild West. In July, President Lincoln signed the Morrill Land Grant Act, just over a month after the Homestead Act and one day after the Pacific Railway Act.

    Manifest Destiny raising its head again, the Morrill Land Grant Act specifically set aside land in each state to be sold and the profits used for the establishment of colleges. Of course, being a government doctrine, the land wasn’t free of strings. Nope, the colleges had to focus on agriculture and/or "mechanical arts."

    And they weren't talking about industrial sculpture.

    So yeah; it was great that the government was getting involved in making sure more of the population could get an education, but they were determined to have a new generation of informed farmers and engineers to bring progress across the expanding nation. Of course, the majority of homesteaders under the Homestead Act couldn’t take advantage of the opportunities provided by the Morrill Land Grant Act.

    The first college to be built under its auspices didn’t open its doors until 1868, five years after the first homesteaders had headed off. And let’s not forget that homesteaders were mostly the poor and undereducated, anyway.

    The Morrill Land Grant Act was, however, just as important in the long run as the Homestead Act. Cornell, MIT, and over sixty more schools still in existence today owe their start to money from the Morrill Land Grant. (Source)

  • Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976

    This is an easy one: the Homestead Act of 1862 giveth and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 taketh away.

    With this act, the Lower 48 states, after sixty-four years of homesteading and the closing of the frontier, finally ended homesteading. Alaska, having only gained statehood in 1959, was granted an extra decade of homesteading. (This turned out well for Ken Deardorff, the last official homesteader.)

    Admittedly, the land for homesteading had shrunk, especially after FDR took back a bunch of it for National Parks. Otherwise, 27 million acres of land had been distributed for homesteads from 1863 to 1986. Pretty much all the good land was taken…and we saw what happened in the 1930s when the not-so-good land was tried (cough* Dust Bowl cough*).

    It was time to end the program.

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