From the beginning, the west has exerted a pull on the American spirit. In
colonial times, those who dreamed of family farms went from the coastal plain
to the foothills, across the Appalachians to the Ohio Valley. George
Washington's words in 1784 were prophetic: "The spirit for emigration is
great." By the 1850s, huge land acquisitions had filled out the continental
United States. The country's sheer vastness strengthened the conviction that
the public domain rightfully belonged to the people. The grassy interior
between the Missouri and the Rocky Mountains was designated Indian Territory
in the 1830s and was bypassed by emigrants on the Oregon Trail. But as the
east and far west closed to settlement, expansionists pushed through the
Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which opened that territory to farmers.
Distributing land west of the Mississippi became an enormous project. The inability of small farmers to compete with larger concerns precipitated a series of anti-speculation laws. The Pre-emption Act, championed by Missouri Sen. Thomas Hart Benton in 1841, legitimized squatting by letting farmers claim unsurveyed plots and later buy from the government. But didn't working people have a right to free land? Tennessee Congressman Andrew Johnson took up the cause in the 1840s. Southerners opposed Johnson's land giveaway as benefiting working-class whites who were unlikely to vote slavery into the new states. The bill was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 after the Southern states had left the Union.
The Homestead Act declared that any citizen or intended citizen could claim 160 acres - one quarter square mile - of surveyed government land. Claimants must "improve" the plot with a dwelling and grow crops. After five years, if the original filer was still on the land, it was his property, free and clear. One of the first takers was a Union scout from Iowa named Daniel Freeman. Daniel and his wife Agnes joined the post-Civil War wave of homesteaders who hailed mostly from the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. Later came European immigrants lured to America by railroad companies eager to sell off millions of acres of grant land and to provide farm-to-market transportation - at a price.
The Homestead Act's lenient terms proved the undoing of many settlers. Claimants need not own equipment or know anything about farming. The quarter sections, adequate land in humid regions, were too small to support plains settlers west of the 100th meridian where scarcity of water reduced yields. Newer laws allowed homesteaders additional land if they planted 40 acres of trees, a practical impossibility. Or they could buy cheap land in the arid high plains, requiring costly irrigation. Speculators still got hold of homestead land by hiring phony claimants or buying up abandoned farms.
Then there were the natural barriers. In the eastern reaches (where Homestead National Monument is today) there was water for timber. Not so toward the west, in the rain shadow of the Rockies. Settlers built homes of sod which they prayed might withstand hailstorms, drought, prairie fires, blizzards and relentless wind. From 1874 to 1877, swarms of locusts darkened the skies and consumed just about everything in sight, including leather boots. If natural disasters were not trouble enough, there were the human struggles. Cattlemen resisted the dividing up of the open range by farmers. In the end it was barbed wire - cheap fencing - that decided the war in favor of the homesteaders. Indian attacks were rare; nevertheless, Agnes Freeman kept the peace while her husband was away by giving visiting Indians food and goods. Farmers faced heavy debt, lack of cash, expensive rail transportation and grain storage, and market fluctuations.
Though never the paradise lauded in popular myth, the plains finally became home to that breed of settler willing to cope with adversity. "You must make up your mind to rough it," advised an English emigrants guide. Eventually frame and brick houses replaced the soddies, trees grew high to shield dwellings, windmills pumped water from deep underground, and a host of technological advances made farming profitable. Today the endless rows of corn along the roadways show how farms have survived; many are occupied by the descendants of the original homesteaders. Meanwhile, the patches of prairie remind us that only a century and a half ago this looked like a most unpromising place to make a home.
| Homestead | History | World | Prairie | Links |