Friday, December 31, 2010

U. S. Land Laws

The Homestead Act of 1862 was just one of many laws passed by the United States to transfer land from the public domain into private ownership. Below are just a few of those other laws:

SALE LAWS – The sale of public lands at auction was the first general means of disposing of the public lands. The Congress under the Articles of Confederation first provided for sale in the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Land Ordinance of 1787 [Northwest Ordinance]. Under the Constitution the first sales act came in 1796, with changes enacted in 1800, 1803, and 1804. The Act of April 24, 1820, became the major sales act until repeal in 1891. Lands were offered at public sale to the highest bidder under the 1820 law at a minimum price of $1.25 an acre. There was no limitation on the acreage that could be purchased by an individual. None of the laws had residence or cultivation requirements.

MILITARY BOUNTY LAND LAWS – To reward those who had served in the nation’s armed forces; it was the practice of the federal government before the Civil War to give veterans public lands in reward for their service. The amount of land provided and how it could be taken differed under the numerous military land bounty acts. The practice was discontinued with the Civil War; however, veterans were given concessions under the homestead laws.

PREEMPTION LAW – Preemption allowed for settlers who built a residence and improved public lands to purchase claims at minimal price for public lands prior to the lands being offered at public sale. The first preemption law was enacted in 1799, after which, Congress continued to enact preemption laws of temporary nature from time to time. A permanent preemption law came with the passage of the Act of September 4, 1841. This legislation permitted an individual to settle and cultivate up to 160 acres of land and to then purchase that land within a specified time after either survey or settlement at $1.25 per acre. It was repealed in 1891.

SCRIP – By definition, scrip is a certificate which allowed the recipient to select a specified number of acres from the public domain. There were numerous types of script, among them being Agricultural College Scrip, Supreme Court Scrip, and Sioux Half-Breed Scrip. Conditions as the use of each type of scrip varied, as did the acreage given

DESERT LAND LAW – The Act of March 3, 1877 provided for the entry of 640 acres of irrigable public land. Claimant had to construct an irrigation system but no residence required. At the end of three years, land could be patented after payment of $1.25 per acre. In 1890 acreage for entries was reduced to 320 acres. Provisions of the act were at first extended to only the states of California, Nevada, and Oregon, as well as the territories of Arizona, Dakota, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. The law was extended to Colorado in 1891. This settlement law is still “on the books.”

DONATION LAWS – In an effort to encourage Anglo-American settlement of certain territorial acquisitions, Congress offered grants of lands to individuals who were already in possession of lands or were willing to immigrate to the areas of concern. Donation acts were passed for Florida in 1842 and 1844, Oregon and Washington in 1850 and 1853, and New Mexico in 1854. Most of the laws required residence and cultivation.

ENLARGED HOMESTEAD LAW – This legislation provided for 320 acre homesteads on semi-arid public lands designated as not susceptible to irrigation. Residence and cultivation were required. Enacted on February 19, 1909, the law was an act first extended to Arizona, California, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. In 1910 the law was amended to include Idaho and in 1915 South Dakota was brought under its provisions. It was repealed 1976.

GENERAL SEVERALTY LAW – The primary purpose of the act of February 8, 1887, also known as the Dawes Act and the General Allotment Act, was to provide Indians living on reservations with individual freeholds, or allotments. A little-known provision of the law, Section 4, however, provides allotments to Indians who occupied public lands. These public domain allotments were administered in a manner similar to the other public land settlement laws.

FOREST HOMESTEAD LAW – The Act of June 11, 1906 opened entry lands chiefly valuable for agricultural purposes within national forests to entry under the Homestead Law. Entries limited to 160 acres. It was repealed 1962.

RECLAMATION ACT LAW – The Newland Act of June 17, 1902 provided for federally funded irrigation projects. Lands within the projects were subject to the basic provisions of the Homestead Law. Individuals limited to overall ownership of 160 acres. In effect, the homestead provisions of this act were repealed with the Homestead Act in 1976.

STOCK-RAISING HOMESTEAD LAW – The last major settlement law, enacted December 29, 1916, this act provided for 640 acre entries on public domain classified as chiefly valuable for grazing and forage crops. Residence and certain improvements required. Passage of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934 made this ineffectual. It was repealed in 1976.

TIMBER CULTURE LAW – This 1873 legislation offered 160 acres of public land to an individual willing to plant 40 acres of trees for ten years. Later amendments changed planting and time requirements. Residence on the claim was not a requirement. The act was of little success. It was repealed in 1891.

[This information came from a document published by the Bureau of land Management in March, 1992: “A Few of the Major Public Land and Mineral Laws” by James Muhn, Denver, Colorado.]

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Western Railroads

A study of railroads in America can be said to be a study of the 19th century itself. The railroads carried heavy loads faster, and over longer distances, than any previous means of transportation. As railroads were built across the United States, they opened up wide farming and ranching areas. Cross-country migrations which took 4-6 months by wagon were reduced to trips lasting just four days. Railroads tapped rich forest and mineral resources, and brought better health to people by hauling a greater variety of perishable food than had ever before been available. Railroads connected the West to the East; towns sprang up along the tracks, and cities grew where rail lines met. Cattle were driven to the railheads of Missouri and later Kansas, creating towns in the process. Towns the tracks missed withered and sometimes died. Railroads promoted tourism, and enabled early legislators to justify the creation of the first National Parks. Railroads also had an enormous impact on the arts, in folk songs, storytelling, paintings, and popular culture during the 19th century.

Adapted from an article by Mike Corns

The epic story of the construction of the first railroad to run from coast to coast began in the 1840s, with the acquisition by the United States of vast new western lands as a result of the war with Mexico. But the individual states and regions argued among themselves about which route was the most desirable, causing a deadlock in Congress which lasted throughout the 1850s.

By June 1861, a railroad was a necessity for the over 300,000 inhabitants of California. The moneyed interests of the state decided to act on their own, and formed the Central Pacific Railroad Company in San Francisco. These same interests were able to push through the transcontinental railroad bill in Congress on June 20, 1862. With the Southern states out of the Union, a route along the 42nd parallel was chosen for the railroad, running from Omaha, Nebraska along the Platte River and through Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Nevada to San Francisco. The Central Pacific Railroad was chosen as the company to build over the Sierras. Congress gave them 10 to 20 square miles of public land plus up to $48,000 in loans for every mile they completed. Congress incorporated the Union Pacific Railroad Company to build west from Omaha, and gave them a right-of-way of 400 ft. and 20 sections of land (12,800 acres) for each mile of road in existing states, and 40 sections (25,600 acres) for each mile of road in U.S. Territories.

Ground was broken for the Union Pacific at Omaha on December 2, 1863 and the Central Pacific broke ground on January 8, 1863 at Sacramento, California and many long years of work commenced. Finally on May 10, 1869 with the telegrapher's message, "1, 2, 3, Done!" the golden spike had been driven home at Promontory, Utah, completing Americas' first transcontinental railroad, the Union Pacific/Central Pacific.


The first transcontinental railroad was only the beginning, however. Within thirty years the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, the Northern Pacific, the Southern Pacific, the Great Northern, and finally the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific railroads had been completed. In addition to the six transcontinentals, scores of regional feeder lines also came into being. Roads such as the Texas Pacific, the Missouri Pacific, the Denver and Rio Grande Western, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, and the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific became equally important in opening the American West. A person wishing to relocate to the West need not resign him or herself to leaving family, friends and civilization behind, for the railroads were civilization. It is no wonder that within just a few years the railroads carried as many people to new lives in the west as had taken the Oregon Trail in thirty years. William Tecumseh Sherman said in 1883: "I regard the building of these railroads as the most important event of modern times, and believe that they account fully for the peace and good order which now prevail throughout the country, and for the extraordinary prosperity which now prevails in this land."

The railroads changed the whole complexion of the West. Where once between the Mississippi and the Pacific only a handful of trading posts, mining towns, and forts now existed cities and towns. "The Great American Desert," as the plains of Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas had once been described, now became dotted with farms and ranches. The railroads not only provided the means to get there, but also an easy and affordable way to ship the goods to the market places back east.

For many people the railroads themselves became important employers and economic factors. Many end-of-rail towns, such as Cheyenne, Wyoming, became important rail junctions where locomotives were serviced, cars could be maintained, freight classification yards operated, and crews were changed, and travelers rested and ate. Other places grew from small towns into great cities as a result of the railroads. Denver, for example, had been a mining town and probably would have become a ghost town after the ore had played out if not for the entry of the rails. Soon after the arrival of the railroad, warehouses, stores and factories were built, and Denver became the great city of the Rocky Mountains.

Of course there is another side of the story to the construction of the railroads. American Indians, who contrary to Hollywood's version had looked upon the early wagon trains with more curiosity than maliciousness, now found their entire lifestyle threatened by the "iron horse." Often passengers shot buffalo from moving trains just for sport. The rails scarred Indian hunting grounds. Within a little more than a decade, Indians were relocated on reservations, and their once vast hunting grounds became farms, towns, ranches and cities.

By 1890 the United States Census Bureau determined that there was no longer a western frontier, since all parts of the west had been explored and settled. By 1900 there were 260,000 miles of track in the U.S. Gauges and time zones had been standardized, air brakes and automatic couplers installed, locomotives improved, rails strengthened, and Pullman and dining cars added. Not only were there regular railroad lines, but also interurban transit between cities and trolley lines, elevated railroads and subways within cities. America was a nation on rails everywhere one looked by the end of the 19th century, a century of steam and rails which united West and East more quickly and efficiently than any other single factor.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Canadian Homestead Act

The Canadian Homestead Act is more commonly called the Dominion Lands Act which is short for it’s official name: An Act Respecting the Public Lands of the Dominion. It passed in1872 and was in use until 1918. It aimed to encourage the settlement of Canada's prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchwan, and Manitoba. It was modeled on the U. S. Homestead Act of 1862. The Act's purpose was to encourage settlement by European and American pioneers, as well as settlers from Eastern Canada.

by Gene Finke

The act also launched the Dominion Lands Survey, which laid the framework for layout of the prairie provinces that persists to this day. The Dominion Land Survey was the method used to divide most of Western Canada into one-square-mile sections for agricultural and other purposes. It was based on the layout of the Public Land Survey System used in the United States.

The Canadian Homestead Act gave 160 acres for free to any male farmer who agreed to cultivate at least 40 acres and to build a permanent dwelling within three years. The only cost to the farmer being a $10 administration fee. This condition of “proving up the homestead” was instituted to prevent speculators from gaining control of the land.

An important difference between the Canadian and U.S. systems was that the Canadian system allowed the farmers to buy a neighboring 160 acres for the same $10 registration fee. This allowed most farms to quickly double in size. This was especially important in the arid areas of the prairie provinces where a farm of 160 acres was not large enough to be successful.

Manitoba wheat field
The Canadian Homestead Act did not immediately cause a great migration into the prairie provinces. Large-scale immigration to the prairies did not begin until 1896. The first version of the act limited the free land to areas more than 20 miles from a railway. It was very difficult for farmers to show a profit if they had to transort their products by wagon for 20 miles or more and therefore settlement was slow in the beginning. In 1879 the exclusion zone was shrunk to only 10 miles from the tracks and in 1882 it was finally eliminated.

The act went through many changes and amendments and was finally done away with in 1918 when a new system was set up designed to help World War I veterans settle more easily. Then in 1930 Parliament passed the Natural Resources Transfer Acts, turning over the control of public lands and resources in the prairies provinces to the provincial governments and thus relinquishing its right to legislate in these fields. Overall about 480,000 square miles of land were given away by the government under the Canadian Homestead Act.

For more information:
"Homesteading"in The Canadianen Encyclopedia
"Canadian Homestead Act" at E-How
"Dominion Lands Act/Homestead Act" in The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan

Friday, December 10, 2010

Homestead Success Was the Exception… Not the Rule

The Homestead Act of 1862 has had a dramatic impact on our past, present, and future lives. The history of homesteading extends into so many other aspects of history across both space and time. The magnitude of the impact homesteading had on the United States and the rest of the world makes it easy to look upon the history with reverence, often overlooking the hardships many claimants endured. Unfortunately, the majority of homesteaders were unsuccessful in their attempt to prove up their claim. The reasons for failure are numerous; cited most often was poor planning, uncooperative weather circumstances, and poor soil conditions. As a historian, I consistently read stories about failed claimants, and for the most part, they are similar to each other. However, on occasion I come across stories and letters that stand out from the others; stories that truly puts their difficulties in perspective, and I would like to share a couple I recently read.


The first one was written by a newspaper reporter, William Allen White, as he watched refugees coming back east from western Kansas. This article appeared in the Emporia Gazette, June 15, 1895.

There came through Emporia yesterday two old-fashioned “mover wagons” headed east. The stock in the caravan would invoice four horses, very poor and very tired; one mule, more disheartened than the horses; and one sad-eyed dog, that had probably been compelled to rustle his own precarious living for many a long and weary day.

A few farm implements of the simpler sort were in the wagon, but nothing that had wheels was moving except the two wagons. All the rest of the impedimenta had been left upon the battlefield, and these poor stragglers, defeated but not conquered, were fleeing to another field, to try the fight again.

These movers were from western Kansas--- from Gray County, a county which holds a charter from the state to officiate as the worst, most desolate, God-forsaken, man-deserted spot on the sad old earth. They had come from the wilderness only after a ten years hard, vicious fight, a fight which had left its scars on their faces, had beat their bodies, had taken the elasticity from their steps, and left them crippled to enter the battle anew.

For ten years they had been fighting the elements. They had seen it stop raining for months at a time. They had heard the fury of the winter wind as it came whining across the short burned grass, and their children huddling in the corner. They have strained their eyes watching through the long summer days for the rain that never came. They have seen that big cloud roll up from the southwest about one o’clock in the afternoon, hover over the land, and stumble away with a few thumps of thunder as the sun went down. They have tossed through hot night’s wild with worry, and have arisen only to find their worst nightmares grazing in reality on the brown stubble in front of their sun-warped doors.

They had such high hopes when they went out there; they are so desolate now--- no not now, for now they are in the land of corn and honey. They have come out of the wilderness, back to the land of promise. They are now in God’s own country down on the Neosho, with their wife’s folks, and the taste of apple butter and good cornbread and fresh meat and pie—rhubarb pie like mother used to make--- gladdened their shrunken palates last night. And real cream, curdling on their coffee saucers last night for supper, was a sight so rich and strange that it lingered in their dreams, wherein they walked beside the still water, and lay down in green pastures.

These next two entries are letters that came from the wife of a homesteader writing back to her family. Her name is Mary Chaffee Abell and these two letters were written during the winter of 1874-75.

[Mary Abell to her father, Nov. 21, 1874]

We’ve been obliged to tell the children that Santa Claus will not come here this year, everybody is so poor, and need food and clothes so much it won’t pay him to bring any playthings. I shall try and sell butter to get them some candy. I have aches and pains somewhere all the time, and with all am cross and nervous. If I was only where I could run home once or twice a year and get a rest, but I am here and here I must stay, how long?

[Mary Abell to her mother, Feb. 16, 1875]

Your two kind welcome letters have been received. I am sorry you worry about me so, but can’t blame you. I am not as bad as I was in that coldest weather because I can sit up more, but I have no strength to do anything and the least little thing tires me all out. Baby has been quite sick for three days, and he is so heavy that the lifting and care of him has quite used me up. The weather here is colder than with you, for with the cold is a fierce north wind which will freeze man or beast that happen to be out. The children had to wear their hoods at night. My eyelids froze together so I picked off the ice, the tops of the sheets and quilts and all our beds were frozen stiff with the breath. The cold was so intense we could not breathe the air without pain.

The homesteading story is full of hardship, worry, and pain. The Act benefitted countless people when we look at the agricultural and industrial foundation laid by or because of homesteaders during this era, but it is important to remember that success was the exception… not the rule.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Homestead Simulates Nature’s Solution, Fire

Homestead National Monument of America recently performed a prescribed burn on a portion of the restored tall grass prairie. I have been in and around areas that have conducted controlled burns, but I never took the time to learn about why this needed to be done. I began investigating the history of prescribed fire and its benefits to a tall grass prairie ecosystem and I would like to share that.

The tall grass prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. We have lost over 99% of all tall grass prairies in North America due in large part to agriculture and the construction of our vast infrastructure. In less than 200 years Euro-American society nearly destroyed what had been maintained for millennia by nature and the Native American Indian. Nature provided grazers, like the bison, along with droughts and fire to preserve this fragile environment. American Indian’s would routinely set fire to the prairie in order to attract the bison because bison were attracted to fire; bison sought the remnants of a burned prairie because it provided a nutritious meal. All of these natural efforts created a thriving ecosystem that covered over 250 million acres in the United States.

Fire on the prairie, however, became a hazard in the 19th and 20th centuries. The United States had expanded throughout the prairie and the plains and farmers transformed the vast tall grass prairies into crop fields. Tall grass prairies had been absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil for centuries, making it perfect for growing large quantities of crops. The combination of farmers clearing the land, towns and cities being built, along with railroads and highways spreading throughout the area, the once thriving tall grass prairie rapidly disappeared.

Today the existing tall grass prairie comes to us mostly through restoration efforts. State and National initiatives have brought back a small amount of this once flourishing ecosystem. Yet, restoration efforts are always fighting an uphill battle to control the delicate balance of these bio-systems. Natural resource specialists are constantly battling an onslaught of invasive species and noxious vegetation. Nature’s solution, fire, has become the tool of choice to limit and control harmful intrusions while stimulating the growth of native grasses. By simulating the natural conditions that had allowed the tall grass prairie to thrive, we can manage and maintain the little bit that we have left.
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