Study Guide

Homestead Act Quotes

By Congress

  • Manifest Destiny

    […]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)

    Let’s go forth and get that land settled. Please: come take the wonderful free land the government has to offer. One-quarter section may sound like nothing, but a family of five to ten, with only a portion of those being adults, would have their hands full working 160 acres and making it productive. Not to mention having to build a structure (usually a minimum of 12x14 ft) to house everybody and their animals.

    But, hey, where’s that American spirit? Go on out west and try your hand at homesteading.

    […] Provided, That any person owning and residing on land may, under the provisions of this act, enter other land lying contiguous to his or her said land, which shall not, with the land so already owned and occupied, exceed in the aggregate one hundred and sixty acres. (Section 1)

    If you work the land for couple of years and decide it isn’t so bad, then go rustle up a few more acres of nearby land! Just make sure nobody else has claimed it and the whole plot isn’t over that magic 160 acres.

    The government really wanted that land settled.

    This was fairly permissive and probably caused a few problems with inaccurate mapping and surveying. But what’s a game of tug-o-war over a few acres between neighbors, right?

    […] and that such application is made for his or her exclusive use and benefit, and that said entry is made for the purpose of actual settlement and cultivation […] (Section 2)

    This one has a couple of meanings. The obvious is that, hey, the government is graciously granting this land, given to the U.S. by God, so it better be used for the betterment of American lives. The second is private ownership of the land. 

    Sure, it’ll all be America when it’s settled, but there’s this concept of mine vs. yours throughout property law. This caveat was probably meant to stave off any fraud or transfer of the land before the claim was validated, but it definitely works on multiple levels.

    […] That no person who has served, or may hereafter serve, for a period of not less than fourteen days in the army or navy of the United States, either regular or volunteer, under the laws thereof, during the existence of an actual war, domestic or foreign, shall be deprived of the benefits of this act on account of not having attained the age of twenty-one years. (Section 6)

    Manifest Destiny rears its head here, too. There was a domestic war on when the Homestead Act was signed, but the inclusion of foreign wars is highly suggestive of a Congress who felt the U.S. was going to become a major player on the world stage. After all, if they had all that land, what was to stop them from taking over the whole continent? 

    The Mexican-American War was proof that land could be gained from their neighbors. It was nice of them to look after their younger soldiers and sailors in wars that hadn’t even been conceived of yet. Weren’t they a little busy militarily already?

    [… ] That the fifth section of the act entitled '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,' approved the third of March, in the year eighteen hundred and fifty-seven, shall extend to all oaths, affirmations, and affidavits, required or authorized by this act. (Section 7)

    It was jumping the gun a bit to be setting up the penal code and its enactment in the territories (and future states). Congress knew there would be more states to the Union eventually, so they slipped in a bit of a rider clause that didn’t really have much to do with homesteading, but enabled a set treatment of federal crimes within states and territories. They were that sure about Manifest Destiny that they covered the whole of U.S. lands…even before there was a solid Union.

  • Equality

    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)

    This is the big one. "Any person" is the key phrase there. This meant women, Blacks, and immigrants all had the opportunity to own federal land. Of course, some restrictions still applied, like the citizen or nearly clause and the whole no treason thing.

    But Blacks and naturalized immigrants weren’t awarded citizenship until 1868 and the 14th amendment, right?

    Well, that little phrase "intention to become such" was a bit of a loophole. Both groups could file their intention to become citizens. At that point, it wasn’t federal law (the 1866 Civil Rights Act was the first law to overturn the Dred Scott decision, followed hastily by the 14th Amendment). Also, there was a war on, which included abolition as a striking point, so the three years between the enactment of the Homestead Act and the Civil Rights Act were a bit hectic.

    […]Provided, That any person owning and residing on land may, under the provisions of this act, enter other land lying contiguous to his or her said land, which shall not, with the land so already owned and occupied, exceed in the aggregate one hundred and sixty acres. (Section 1)

    Not only was the application process equal—or at least an attempt at equality—the actual process and amount of land was too. Nobody, but nobody, was allowed to go over the one-quarter section maximum.

    Sure, a homesteader could claim less, but that was by their own choice. The government laid out an equal amount of land per claim, with no caveats or extra requirements to get the full amount of promised land. It was entirely up to the homesteader to take advantage of it.

    The fairness even extended to allowing more land to be annexed later on, if the homesteader managed to make a go of it and hadn’t already taken their fair share. This was an awesome law that really did provide all sorts of fair deals to the person brave enough to go after them.

    […]That the person applying for the benefit of this act shall, upon application to the register of the land office in which he or she is about to make such entry, make affidavit before the said register or receiver that he or she is the head of a family, or is twenty-one years or more of age, or shall have performed service in the army or navy of the United States, and that he has never borne arms against the Government of the United States or given aid and comfort to its enemies, and that such application is made for his or her exclusive use[…] (Section 2)

    This is just a repeat of the reqs from Section 1, but let’s take a minute to enjoy that use of "he or she" and "his or her." Ah, how refreshing. A lack of institutional misogyny in a government document.

    Of course, being 1862, the military clause is strictly "he," but the impact of female landowners in an era where women couldn’t even vote was definitely felt. Okay, so this only applied to women without a husband. If there was a man of the house, everything was in his name. But an act that didn’t automatically exclude women who were single, widowed, or even divorced? Inconceivable.

    […] That no person who has served, or may hereafter serve, for a period of not less than fourteen days in the army or navy of the United States, either regular or volunteer, under the laws thereof, during the existence of an actual war, domestic or foreign, shall be deprived of the benefits of this act on account of not having attained the age of twenty-one years. (Section 6)

    Ageism is a prejudice, too. If they’re old enough to serve their country, they’re old enough to go cut a life out of the wilderness. The Homestead Act was quite progressive all the way around. Of course, letting the young soldiers have a glimpse of the future in the midst of war was pretty savvy. Also, once the war was over, this had the added benefit of taking young soldiers without jobs back out of the city and keeping unemployment and homelessness down. Never let it be said the government can’t multi-task.

    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[…] (Section 8)

    Of course, being the government during an expensive war, they certainly weren’t going to exclude anybody who happened to have the cash to pay for the land and just got bored with playing farmer. Equal rights for all…especially if they’ve got the cash to hand to buy their homestead and support the war effort. Not the typical type of equality, but boy, does the Homestead Act have it all.

  • Perseverance

    […] That no certificate shall be given or patent issued therefor until the expiration of five years from the date of such entry […]  (Section 2)

    The government was basically daring homesteaders to stick it out for five years. They dangled the carrot of the deed to land, which only increased in value as the West was settled, and said, "Have at it." Given the increasing poverty and crime in the cities, people took that dare.

    […] shall prove by two credible witnesses that he, she, or they have resided upon or cultivated the same for the term of five years immediately succeeding the time of filing the affidavit aforesaid, and shall make affidavit that no part of said land has been alienated, and that he has borne rue allegiance to the Government of the United States ; then, in such case, he, she, or they, if at that time a citizen of the United States, shall be entitled to a patent[…] (Section 2)

    Not only did they have to work the land for five years, but homesteaders also couldn’t really leave their land. At all.

    So yeah, they may have known what they were getting into, but this little gem meant no trips home for family, since travel plus visiting could last up to a couple of months. Nope, settlers were in it for the duration and they went in knowing it, determined to make their homestead work.

    Sure, some people probably did take off now and then, but it basically came down to who they got to witness for them. You’d definitely want a buddy who could overlook the occasional escape from bad weather or vacation from working the land. Nobody likes a tattletale.

    […]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)

    Congress flat out eliminated any get-out-of-jail-free card for people in trouble. Can’t just go file a claim then turn around and use the land to pay off any debts. Nope, folks who filed a claim were dead set on making a living off their land. No ulterior motives here, just pure cussedness and determination.

    And be it further enacted, That if[…]before the expiration of the five years aforesaid, it shall be proven[…]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)

    Even with Manifest Destiny and the rise of the hardy and adventurous American spirit, Congress had to get real and acknowledge that not everybody was going to be able to cope with the trials of homesteading. Being the government, of course, this just meant a redo on the filing fees.

    Hey, at least they didn’t penalize the losing team.

    Having this section pretty far down in the document kind of suggests Congress had more faith in the American people than you’d expect. Of course, not even half the claims actually made it to handing over the deed, but considering the nearly four million claims made, that’s a lot of people who tried their hand at homesteading.

    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)

    Okay, so Congress did put in a loophole for folks who just couldn’t hack it. Provided, of course, that they could scrape up the dough. But they still had to show proof that they had worked the land, so the shortcut actually ended up costing more unless they had a buyer waiting in the wings for the deed. So there may have been an escape hatch written into the law, but the majority of homesteaders went in with grit and a desire to make good on their claim.

    Yay for the American spirit.

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