Monday, May 14, 2012

Homestead Act is 150

Session II Chapter 75 1862

Chap. LXXV -- An Act to secure Homestead to actual Settlers on Public Domain.
       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 . . .

       May 20 is the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Homestead Act.  Blocked three times by Northern factory owners and slave state Congressmen, and then once more by President Buchanan, the great giveaway had only to wait for the building of the transcontinental railroad — and for the vast interior land to be cleared of Native Americans — in order to spur growth in the young nation beyond even Manifest Destiny’s loudest adherents’ dreams.
       My novel, Willow Vale, tells the story of the promise of free land from two points of view.  The immigrant woman, Francesca Sittoni, is fleeing the aftermath of war and poverty in Europe.  She arrives in America with little except her young daughter, and loses most of it when her husband dies.  Francesca comes to live as housekeeper to the American, Kent Reed, a former doughboy finishing proving up on his dad’s 160-acre homestead claim. 

1906 homestead soddy near Cimarron, Kansas.
From Our Home on the Prairie by Joe Englert, 1978
 A homesteader had to file an application with a fee of $10 plus $2 to the land agent, improve the land and remain on it five years, and then file with an additional $6 for a permanent patent on the land.  In Willow Vale, Kent, as beneficiary of his father’s claim, is lucky to have water running through his land.  Government land near waterways was quickly snapped up and settled, leaving only land without irrigation for future homesteaders such as Kent's fictional neighbors, the Broadbents.  The Timber Culture Act of 1873 allowed claims of 160 acres if 40 acres were planted in trees, amended later to ten acres in trees.  In my story Harv Broadbent dry farms 640 acres, 320 acres apiece homesteaded by Harv and his wife Agnes, thanks to the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909.  In addition to his dad’s claim, Kent Reed also benefited from the Stockraising Homestead Act of 1916 which granted 640 acres of public land for livestock grazing. 

"Sod College."  The soddy school near Cimarron, Kansas.
From Our Home on the Prairie by Joe Englert, 1978
There were some radical — for that era — ideas embedded in the Homestead Act of 1862.  First, women could file if they were at least 21 years old and a citizen, or heads of families.  Second, a filer didn’t have to be a United States citizen but only to have filed a declaration to become a citizen, and never have borne arms against the United States.  Third, after the Emancipation Proclamation, freed slaves could claim land if they had the necessary filing fee.
Neighbor helping neighbor.
From Our Home on the Prairie by Joe Englert, 1978
My paternal great-great-grandparents tried farming in several places in southwestern Kansas, initially near a new settlement of German Catholic immigrants called Windthorst.  They couldn’t make a go of it and were eventually driven out by drouth and grasshoppers.  My great-grandparents bought a homestead of 160 acres sixteen miles north of Cimarron, Kansas from the original claimant, for $150 in 1906. The land had a dugout and a well.  My great-grandfather built a sod house, shelter for himself, his wife, an adopted son and three biological children.  Two more children were born to the couple and delivered in the soddy.  It was a difficult, unpredictable life.  The adopted boy died of a rattlesnake bite incurred while herding cows out on the prairie; most of the work was done by hand or with horses and mules.  Although things progressed well financially for a few years; by 1919 the family had to build a new barn to house a herd of sixteen work horses.  During the 1920s the sodbusters starting going into debt to buy modern machinery to plant more crops. 

1916 Kansas wheat harvest.
From Our Home on the Prairie by Joe Englert 1978

Altogether, the U.S. government gave away ten percent of the land in the United States with the various homestead land grants: 270 million acres altogether in 30 states — to poor white Americans, European immigrants, and Southerners both black and white displaced by the Civil War. 

Tearing down the old soddy attached to the new frame house.
From Our Home on the Prairie by Joe Englert 1978
Only about 40 percent of Homestead claimants stayed five years and prospered enough to prove up.  The rest were driven off by fierce forces of nature, the aggressive merging of many small claims into bigger land holdings, or the thrust of unaffordable modernization and its attendant debt into independent American agrarian life. Then in the 1930s came the Depression.  The bottom fell out of the commodities market and farmers were burning the corn from their fields instead of coal to keep warm.  Money was in desperately short supply.  My own family had the boys hunting jackrabbits to eat.  The Dust Bowl was the final blow, finishing off many Kansas farmers, including my great-grandparents, who could not make payments on their loan to the Federal Land Bank and lost the original homestead as well as the additional acreage they had bought over the years.
            In Willow Vale, my fictional account of Wyoming homesteading, my characters fared better.   Writers are free to make up happy-ever-after endings to their stories, even if that’s often not the way things went in real life.


Anonymous said...

What did your great-grandparents do post-depression era? Did they migrate to where war jobs were available and plentiful?

Mike Staton

Cora Blu said...

What an awful shame to go through so much and lose it. My eyes watered after I read it. That was a very hard life to live.
Thanks for sharing that story.

Cora Blu

Alethea said...

Thank you, Mike. Thank you, Cora. Mike, all I know is that my great-grandparents moved to town when they lost the homestead. My great-uncle's book says they got enough out of the farm to buy a small house in Ingalls, Kansas, so apparently the farm was sold and not repossessed by the bank as so many others were.