Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Kinkaid Act of 1904

by Todd Arrington, Historian
Homestead National Monument of America

The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed any qualified individual to claim up to 160 acres (a quarter-section) of free public land from the U.S. government for the purposes of settlement and cultivation. Many seeking homes and farms jumped at the chance to acquire land under the Act, and unfortunately many were also misled regarding the quality of much of the land the government made available to homesteaders. Land speculators, railroad companies, and even the government itself produced advertisements promising “the land of milk and honey” and soil of “a rich, black, loam.” Nebraska was billed as the “garden state of the West.” Many prospective homesteaders’ dreams were crushed upon arriving in the West and finding land of such poor quality that farming it was nearly impossible. This certainly partially accounts for the failure rate of approximately 60 percent among homesteaders.

In an attempt to give settlers in his state a better chance at success, Republican Congressional Representative Moses P. Kinkaid of Nebraska proposed a new bill in 1904. The Kinkaid Act, as it came to be known, allowed settlers in 37 counties of western Nebraska—known as the “Sandhills”—to claim up to 640 acres (a full section) rather than the standard 160. Providing so much additional land in an area of the state with a harsh climate and lower-quality soil would, Kinkaid believed, give those settlers a much better chance at completing all of the government’s requirements and eventually taking title to the property.

The Kinkaid’s Act legal provisions were nearly identical to those of the Homestead Act. Claimants had to be at least 21 years old (or 18 if the head of a family); be either a U.S. citizen or eligible to become one; and stay on and improve the land for five years. Lands that were deemed irrigable, however, were exempted from the law since the government believed that settlers would willingly pay for them. President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Kinkaid Act into law on April 28, 1904, and “Kinkaiders” began taking up claims in western Nebraska soon after.

However, even with a full section, farming in the Sandhills was very difficult.

On the other hand, ranching with only 640 acres was nearly impossible as well. This made the Kinkaid Act something of a mixed bag: it opened up millions of acres to agriculture where farming wasn’t likely to succeed, and it prevented those lands from being effectively ranched by handing them out in parcels much too small.

Like the original Homestead Act, the success rate was much less than the government or individual settlers hoped for. In all, about 14,000 claims were made under the Kinkaid Act, and over 9,000,000 acres distributed. Most Kinkaid claims did not succeed, however, and when Kinkaiders left their lands were often bought up by ranchers looking to expand their operations. In this manner, the overall failure of the Kinkaid Act led to the rise of western Nebraska’s cattle and ranch culture.

Most historians view the Kinkaid Act as a failure, but not everyone agrees. “The Kinkaid Act,” writes one, “was an avenue for bringing progress to what had been considered an undesirable region of western Nebraska.” The law undoubtedly spurred settlement to the Sandhills, and though most claims did not succeed, there can be little debate about the Kinkaid Act’s value to those who took advantage of it or to the many descendants still living on ancestral Kinkaid claims in modern western Nebraska.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post!

I was up early with my 83 year old retired farmer/history teacher father in law, and he recalled the Kincaid act, and the Nebraska origins of it, as he talked about the fragility of the Nebraska Sandhills.

Anonymous said...

My Grandfather, claimed 640 acres under the Kincaid Act, his Ranch was called Swede Valley, located 9 miles south of Ashby, Nebraska in the Sandhills. He raised 10 of his 17 children there.

Anonymous said...

Both of my grandparents filed for homesteads under this act in Arthur County. George Wilson and Arthur Ward improved their land and eventually sold their properties. Arthur Ward was sheriff of Arthur Co. and Geo. and Nellie Wilson moved to northern California and developed rental properties. My parents were graduates of Arthur High.