Friday, December 2, 2011

Three Factors and the Homestead Act

I had no idea that one of the primary reasons the Homestead Act was initiated may have been slavery, even though I am a native of Nebraska, home state of the Homestead National Monument. How many of you thought the sole purpose of the Homestead Act was to move people to the West?

by Jamie Sumner
Southeast Community College

I wanted to understand why the Homestead Act was initiated and what made it so successful so I spoke to Blake Bell who is the Historian at Homestead National Monument, as well as, researching many books in our library here at SCC. I will explain to you how the Homestead Act came to be and how the combination of three factors made it successful. I will start with what was occurring before the Homestead Act, and then tell you about the Homestead Act itself. Then I will tell you how important the Emancipation Act and the Pacific Railway Act were to make the Homestead Act successful.

Two key presidents were leading forces for the Homestead Act. The country was at war, there was a dream of a transcontinental railroad, and the slaves were about to receive their freedom. Rose Houk (2000) explains in her handbook Homestead National Monument of America that President Jefferson paid the French for the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. This doubled the size of the United States but the land was seen as uninhabitable. Ms. Houk also describes the difficulty our government had populating the area which ultimately led to President Lincoln signing the Homestead Act.

A combination of events and people helped to drive the homesteaders west and homesteading became a solution for many problems. In Union Pacific Country, by Robert Athearn (1971), it details how the transcontinental railroad helped people move to their new homes with the signing of the Pacific Railway Act in 1862. A preliminary emancipation of the slaves was issued in 1862 in addition to the climax of the Civil War as described in Robert Goldston’s (1968) book Negro Revolution. Now that I have talked a little about what was happening in our country, I will explain the Homestead Act in more depth.

Ms. Houk tells us that the Act was actually signed on May 20, 1862 but didn’t become law until January 1, 1863. I want you to know what it actually took to become a “homesteader” according to the Homestead Act. The land was “free” but with provisions. Ms. Houk relates in her handbook, that any person could claim land by paying a filing fee between $6-$18 dollars. They had 6 months to “establish residence” and had to live there 5 years before filing for their title/patent.

This same handbook also tells us that the Homestead Act was in force through 1976 in the lower 48 states with the last official claim filed in Alaska in 1986. This was only 4 years after my high school graduation!

Many different types of people wanted a chance of new life with the promise of “free” land. In Mr. Athearn’s book Union Pacific Country, I found that immigrants from Europe and white U.S. citizens were the best known homesteaders. In Search of Canaan, also by Robert Athearn (1978), vividly portrays another “group” not as well-known which consisted of the slaves who needed a new home after being freed. These free slaves were escaping fear and repression and were enticed by the railroad, investors, religious groups and politicians to the “land of Eden.”

A key ingredient that made the Homestead Act successful was the Emancipation Act. The Emancipation Act was passed and this left many previous slaves homeless. It is hard for me to imagine the fear and stress that these African-Americans had to face. Huge numbers of slaves moved to Kansas in droves in the late 1870’s, and was referred to as the Exodus by Athearn In Search of Canaan (1978). In Search of Canaan by Athearn also tells us about several African-American land prospectors who encouraged this movement to Kansas. The best known town, which still exists, is Nicodemus, Kansas, which was established in 1878.

The book Negro Revolution by Robert Goldston depicts the true feelings of the Negroes in this time period. They had no desire to return to Africa (as was expected) after living in a civilized society (Goldston, 1968). The land was considered unwelcoming and uninhabitable, contradicting the stories pushing the slaves to become homesteaders. In Search of Canaan by Athearn tells us of the harsh climate, poor crops, meager supplies, low wages and disease that they endured. Mr. Athearn also portrays a less than welcome atmosphere from the people who lived in this land of “Eden.” Regardless, these black people were leveraged for political gain and used by the railroad as cheap labor as Athearn explains in Union Pacific Country (Athearn, 1971).

People had a dream of a “transcontinental railroad” and were motivated by greed and the Homestead Act to move forward with a plan. The people behind the railroads had a strong desire for wealth and the money raised would answer the nation’s debt problems so they became relentless in pushing their “dream” forward. I want you to think as you listen to my next point on railroads about the immense amount of planning, investment and diligence required to build the transcontinental railways. The railways became the mode of transporting people and supplies to the West. Union Pacific Country by Athearn has many illustrations showing how the railroads strongly advertised to further their goals by moving people to their new homesteads.

Ms. Houk confirms in her handbook The Homestead National Monument of America that the Pacific Railway Act was initially passed in 1862 and revised in 1864. The earliest settlers had arrived by wagon, but quickly used the railroads as a better means of reaching their new homesteads. The intention of the transcontinental railroad was to help the military defend the country. However, there were many greedy people that profited from this venture. Railroaded written by Richard White (2011) is very graphic in explaining how bankers and investors planned to capitalize on building the transcontinental railroad in answer to the nation’s debt. Mr. White’s book tells us of the methods and complexity of their plans, which is similar to what our country has more recently experienced.

I have just given you information about how railroads tied three very different pieces of legislation together for a very successful homesteading process. I now understand it was a combination of events that made the Homestead Act truly successful, rather than only the promise of “free” land. It took the vision & will of Presidents Jefferson and Lincoln, the emancipation of our slaves, and the dream of a transcontinental railroad combined together with the Homestead Act to make it successful. I don’t think I ever connected the homesteading of our land by black people because after all their hardships, many of them moved on to improve their lives.


Athearn, R. (1971). Union Pacific country. New York, NY: Rand McNally and Company.
Athearn, R. (1978). In search of Canaan. Lawrence, KS: The Regents Press of Kansas.
Goldston, R. (1968). The Negro revolution. New York, NY: The MacMillan Company.
Houk, R. (2000). Homestead National Monument of America. Washington, PA: Eastern National.
White, R. (2011). Railroaded. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company Inc.