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Homestead Act Sewed Its Way Into U.S. Fabric


Of course, the Homestead Act was born during troubled times in American history. It passed during the Civil War, but just barely. And it came at the expense of Native Americans, who were displaced from lands they have settled for generation. We spoke to Jonathan Earle, an associate professor of history at the University of Kansas, and asked him why the Homestead Act was so difficult to pass.

JONATHAN EARLE: The groups that were against it were very powerful. They are the owners of factories in the East that are worried that their workforce is going to bleed out to the West and become farmers. Then there's the powerful slave-holding bloc in Congress that did not want to have the West settled by small-time farmers, yeomen from the north and from Europe. They knew that that would kind of block them from cultivated the West the way they had cultivated the South and the old Southwest.

WERTHEIMER: So, now, when you talk about the Homestead Act passing in 1862, when did it really get underway? I mean, when did the large numbers of people start to take advantage? It's sort of a difficult situation to do this in the middle of a war.

EARLE: It is, and it really didn't get started that much during the Civil War. But you're right. The real peaks for homesteading were the first two decades of the 20th century, when you had this huge influx of immigrants from Europe, really that ended up being this incredible valve for European overpopulation. More and more Germans, more and more Swedes - people from northern Europe who had the means to get across the ocean, had the means to pay the filing fees - the land was free, but you had to come up with a little bit of cash for the filing fees - and also the amount of money to buy seed, to buy tools. It was not for the indigent. You couldn't have made it work unless you had both a little bit of capital and a lot of knowhow about how to farm.

WERTHEIMER: Now, how much land was given away finally?

EARLE: Ten percent of the entire United States land mass - over 270 million acres. So, we're talking about a lot of land.

WERTHEIMER: But that was pretty much the United States as we know it now. I mean, they included California, it included Texas.

EARLE: Correct. It's pretty much in the 48 states. Now, homesteading actually lasted in Alaska until halfway through Reagan's presidency - I think it might have been 1986. But until the '70s, when you could homestead and make the lower 48, it was pretty much the Great Plains, Florida has a significant amount. The leading state in terms of acreage is Nebraska - that had 45 percent of its land area homesteaded, claimed by these actual settlers on the Plains.

WERTHEIMER: And that would include my grandparents, who homesteaded in Oklahoma. Now, what did you get?

EARLE: What did you get? Well, when you first got there, you had 160 acres, which is a quarter section, a quarter mile, that you would file for in a land office. And it took a long time - it takes five years that you have to stay on the land, you have to improve the land, which means you have to build fences and a structure. You have to live on it, and after five years you can apply to the Federal Land Office to get clear title to the land. And then you get 160 free acres of our public lands.

WERTHEIMER: How many of the people who homesteaded made it, do you think? I mean, can you figure that out?

EARLE: I can tell you, well, I can tell you, first of all, even the people who applied and were granted that homestead, the title after five years, it's only 40 percent. So, 60 percent of even the people who filed the paperwork failed inside of that first five years. After that, it really depends on what you mean by succeeds. I mean, I think your grandparents, it sounds like, are a fabulous success. They made a living, they raised families. I mean, there's a whole...

WERTHEIMER: Thirteen children.

EARLE: Oh, my gosh. And there's a list of really successful Americans who came from homesteading stock. You know, in your business, Chet Huntley is the children of homesteaders and Whoopi Goldberg, I think, is the granddaughter or great-granddaughter of homesteaders in Florida. But there were ecological problems, there was a lot of fraud with the Homestead Act. Powerful people banded together to game the system, to get large estates that could hoard water rights or mineral rights or timber rights. So, there was a lot of chicanery that went along with it. But overall, I have to say that, you know, if you're looking at how America got it character, that can-do, rural character that we hear about during election years, a lot of that is because of the Homestead Act. When you think of the homesteader in your head, whether that's Pa Ingalls from "Little House on the Prairie" or the Tom Cruise character in "Far and Away," it's a rugged, individualistic pioneer type. And I think that that gave our Western states a lot of their character.

WERTHEIMER: I think, and historians like yourself, don't you believe that this was the beginning of the middle class in the heartland of the country?

EARLE: I absolutely do believe that. I mean, the two great significant aftereffects of the Homestead Act are this growing and burgeoning and exploding rural middle class; mostly white, a lot of immigrants, although you could file for a homestead if you were an ex-slave or a single woman head of household. And the other is when you're looking down from an airplane from seven miles up, you see the landscape that the Homestead Act created - that grid of quarter sections...

WERTHEIMER: That checkerboard, yes.

EARLE: Exactly, with a farmhouse in the corner and fields in the rest of it. It literally etched itself onto our landscape.

WERTHEIMER: That's Jonathan Earle. He's an associate professor of history at the University of Kansas. Dr. Earle, thank you so much.

EARLE: You're welcome. Thank you.


WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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