Re-examining the Homestead Act, a Favorite But Flawed National Myth

Re-examining the Homestead Act, a Favorite But Flawed National Myth

The mythology, rather than the history, of homesteading, looms large in the American imagination. Included in this mythology is the idea of ‘valueless’ land made valuable in the process of homesteading, and the supposed egalitarian nature of land distribution; this is supposed by many Americans both to have made the United States an inherently middle class country, free of the class distinctions present in Europe, and to have provided the space necessary for an open immigration policy. These ideas work together to form one cohesive narrative: after the Homestead Act of 1862, valueless land was made available to all, on equal terms and largely after slavery had been extinguished, and so the hardest working or most adventurous individuals took advantage of the opportunity and thus gained an ethical right to the land, which they passed down to their children. Ayn Rand, whose novels are persistent best sellers in the United States and whose thought has been cited as influential by numerous politicians, expressed the common perception of the Homestead Act thus:

 The citizens did not have to pay the government as if it were an owner; ownership began with them, and they earned it by the method which is the source and root of the concept of “property”: by working on unused material resources, by turning a wilderness into a civilized settlement. Thus, the government, in this case, was acting not as the owner but as the custodian of ownerless resources who defines objectively impartial rules by which potential owners may acquire them.

This is generally the view endorsed by right-leaning libertarians to justify the relative lack of a social safety net in the United States compared to other industrialized countries. If the initial land in the United States was distributed on an equitable basis, then the creation of subsequent wealth must be due either to hard work and intelligence or simple luck, since initially all had equal access to the foundations of wealth. Or so the argument goes.

It is true that land occupation and ownership progressed very differently in the United States than in other countries. However, the myths simply do not hold up in historical fact.  ‘Homesteading’ was not the neutral addition of value to an untouched landscape it is claimed to be, and the Homestead Act did not avert the problems related to land ownership experienced by every settled country, though it may have dulled them.  Exposing these weaknesses and exploding this American myth, especially as it pertains to Western states, is important for shifting Americans to a more realistic mindset about racial inequality and corporate power in the country. 

The common perception of North American land before the ‘settlement’ was that it was both ownerless and valueless.  Indeed, for the ethics of homesteading to make sense, it is important to assume that land is valueless before labor is expended upon it; arch-libertarain Murray Rothbard’s assertion that “before the homesteader, no one really used and controlled, and hence owned the land. The pioneer, or homesteader, is the man who first brings the valueless unused natural objects into production and use“ is vital. After all, if land is seen as a resource of immense value before any human has laid hands on it, or if the value of land is seen as greater than that of the improvements upon it, it seems difficult to argue that a relatively superficial transformation thereof—the clearing of trees or building a fence, which constituted the greatest ‘improvements’ taken by homesteaders—entitles one to perpetual ownership of the land below it. In the case of a hypothetical, truly empty area of land, this might make some sense—but that was by no means the case in the United States during the settlement period.

By any measure, the land in the West was incredibly valuable to many frequently competing parties.  First, it was the basis of survival for many hundreds of thousands of people.  While the exact population of Native Americans supported by the land is impossible to calculate, and dropped significantly over time, the fact that so many people made their living on the land would seem to impute it with value.  Indeed, Rothbard himself argues that if, after a shipwreck, two men reach for a plank of wood to save themselves,

… our homestead principle of property right comes into play: i.e., the first person who reaches the plank “owns” it for the occasion, and the second person throwing him off is at the very least a violator of the former’s property and perhaps also liable for prosecution for an act of murder

Though it was not his intention, this analogy clearly vindicates the right of the already present peoples to keep the land which was keeping them alive.  The land on which they lived clearly had immense value to them, and it is difficult to reconcile the principle of homesteading with the idea of thrusting them off of the property they live on, under the justification that the white man could make ‘better’ use of it. The lives lost in defending the right to use ‘valueless’ land testify to its value. The lives lost due to starvation and deprivation when they were pushed off the land also gives the lie to Rothbard’s claim that “In fact, there is no way of measuring or knowing when [the people desiring access to land] are worse off or not.”

It is quite obvious that the indigenous Americans were much worse off as a result of the ‘settlement’ of the US, which robbed from them their most valuable asset.  Indeed, the land was so valuable that in most cases where some manner of exchange was made for it, the Native people did not agree to a fee simple price, but rather to a recurring payment of food, tools, or some other good—a payment made not by individual homesteaders, but by the government.  That critical role of government action will be more salient later in the discussion. 

It is also obvious that the land was financially valuable to white society well before it was ‘settled’. While it is difficult to account for the financial value of the land to Native Americans, who were largely outside the market revolution occurring in the 19th century United States, it is easy to see the financial value to others who used it.  Numerous commercial enterprises emerged for the gathering of furs, timber, and other resources from the land west of the Mississippi.  Indeed, the first nominal millionaire in the United States (whose fortune is difficult to even translate into modern dollars), John Jacob Astor, made his fortune from the fur trade in the pre-homestead United States. After the Civil War, millions of cattle were raised in the unfenced West, based again on a legal right to use unleased land for the purpose of grazing. The ability of those individuals to use the land, which they (like the Native Americans before them) saw a natural right, had to be circumscribed to make room for the homesteaders, and it was not uncommon for them as well to violently resist.  Finally, when given the opportunity, speculators were willing to invest vast sums into purchasing land that had not yet been put to any use (by white men). Henry George describes (from his first hand experience) how speculative value was place on unworked resources, and the lengths men would go to realize that value for themselves:

That mineral land, when reduced to private ownership, is frequently withheld from use while poorer deposits are worked, is well known, and in new States it is common to find individuals who are called “land poor”—that is, who remain poor, sometimes almost to deprivation, because they insist on holding land, which they themselves cannot use, at prices at which no one else can profitably use it.

Clearly to many people, the land was worth a great deal, by any measure, practical or financial. To the Native Americans, it was a resource of incalculable value, as it was critical to their survival (as the large numbers who died of starvation on reservations makes clear).  To pre-homesteading white users, it was useful for generating millions of dollars in revenue and providing both luxuries and necessities for the Eastern United States.  And the fact that speculators would pay to hold the land idle indicates that in fact the land was considered more valuable without ‘improvements’ than with them. The idea, then, that the homesteaders were the first to make something of ‘valueless’ land is absurd when subjected to even rudimentary scrutiny. Of course, the United States government, and many philosophers before and since, did not consider these activities sufficient for staking a claim to land, but that is immaterial in determining its actual value or the ethics of divvying it up via homesteading.  If the justification for homesteading in theory is that the unimproved land is valueless, then homesteading in the western United States cannot be justified. 

This understanding changes the picture of ‘early’ settlers quite a bit.  Rather than a valueless lump of potential, waiting for homesteaders to act on it, the ‘unsettled’ West instead appears as a veritable treasure chest, full of land whose value was well known. The United States government expended millions of dollars and plenty of blood in violently pacifying the other potential claimants to the land, and paying off those it could not defeat outright, in order to gain control of this valuable land and assert the right to distribute it. Rather than the Lockean utopian of homesteading myth, the reality is much closer to European feudalism or the Spanish hacienda system, with the government choosing who would benefit from the land windfall according to criteria beneficial to itself.

The picture that emerges is of a conquering power proactively populating its valuable, recently seized territory. Indeed, given the continued indigenous resistance to the US government throughout the 19th century, the post-Civil War settlement perhaps most resembles the Tsar’s use of Cossack hosts to populate marginal or disputed areas with settlers whose loyalty would be rewarded with the newly conquered land. Viewed through this lens, the settlement policy of the US was both a way to reward loyal supporters of the government (especially, after the Civil War, the Republican party) and to bring the area more firmly under the control of that government.  This, much better than any Romanticized story of rugged individuals creating value where there had been none, explains the both the egalitarian and hierarchical aspects of the land distribution that followed. 

To be sure, there were somewhat egalitarian aspects of the distribution of Western land, especially the much-lauded Homestead Act of 1862.  Under this act, nearly four million families receive something like 270 million acres of land for very low rates.  Unsurprisingly, these were precisely the sort of people who brought the Republican party to victory in 1860—the small farmers, attracted to the promise of free land and frightened at the prospect of it being carved into slave worked plantations, who formed the core of the Free Soil party and opened the way to Republican victories in states like Illinois and Indiana that had previously voted for Democrats. These numbers, in turn, would help the government reliably hold onto areas recently subject to violent conflict between the US government and Native Americans (and Mormon settlers previously established in the Rocky Mountains). Moreover, the most heavily homesteaded states were more likely to remain loyal to the Republican party, with Democrats not making real inroads in the Great Plains or Northern Rockies until William Jennings Bryan in 1896.

The terms of the Homestead Act made this almost inevitable. First, applicants were required to affirm that they had “never borne arms against the United States Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies”; this ensured that at least the first wave of settlers would be Unionists, and gave such men a leg up on former Confederates who in many cases were seeking the same land.  Moreover, the land required a continuous occupancy of five years, and “That no lands acquired under the provisions of this act shall in any event become liable to the satisfaction of any debt or debts contracted prior to the issuing of the patent therefore”.  This effectively prevented borrowing against future land. No doubt this was seen as an important safeguard against speculation, but it had another effect: since the land needed to be cultivated, and the first crop would not be ready until it had been occupied for many months, would-be homesteaders needed at last 6 months provisions (and more if they were traveling any distance) saved for themselves in order to make a successful claim, assuming (dangerously) that the land would produce an adequate crop the first harvest, and that they could not borrow substantially to get those provisions unless they already owned some other valuable collateral. 

This effectively restricted who could make use of the Homestead Act—the truly destitute, whether Freedmen in Alabama or paupers in New York, could hardly hope to make a successful claim.  Thus, while a great deal of valuable land was made available, this primarily enriched the working middle class or those who otherwise had some manner of capital to make a successful claim.  Four million claims were successfully made, peaking in 1912.  By contrast, in the peak Homesteading period (1862—1912), 20 million new immigrants arrived, the vast majority of whom were not populating the frontier, but rather living in the burgeoning cities (New York alone had 6 million people by 1912). 

Even those who did succeed in acquiring land by homesteading were not able to fully escape the realities of land distribution in the ‘new’ West.  Most major cities in the West, with the notable exception of Phoenix, were founded before the Homestead Act was passed, and thus before most Americans (including almost all African Americans) had the capacity to claim the land.  They were either seized from Mexican landowners (Los Angles, San Francisco, Santa Fe) or had already been settled by previous waves of settlers (Salt Lake City, Seattle, Denver).  The most valuable land in the West today was, thus, never available to the homesteaders arriving after the 1862 Act.

At the same time as the government was giving out the vaunted 270,000 acres of land to the settlers, it also handed out 130 million acres to railroad companies between 1850 and 1871, as well as generous loans and credit to help with railroad construction, an aid of course not extended to homesteaders.  In sum, those arriving under the 1862 act were faced with a situation wherein the land under the largest markets and chief transportation routes was already spoken for—leaving them dependent on these interests if they wanted to effectively use the ‘free’ land they had been given.  This certainly contributed to their defection; despite the largess of the Republican party in championing the Homestead Act, by 1896 most of the states most impacted thereby backed William Jennings Bryan and his explicitly anti-railroad campaign.

The Homesteaders themselves clearly did not believe that the ‘free’ land was sufficient to put them on an equal footing with the real economic powers in the country, and there is plenty of evidence—particularly the growth of the tenant farming system on the plains—that they were right.  This despite their privileged position relative to Native Americans, Chinese, and other ethnic minorities, whose de jure and de facto rights to land ownership were continuously under assault in the late 19th century.

This more accurate understanding of land distribution in the West, especially of the Homestead Act, is of more than historical interest.  Drawing attention to the conscious process of how land and mineral rights were distributed in the past can inform an understanding of how they function in the present, and discussions of the most just way to use them in the future. Since land is uniquely fixed in supply, it is easy to imagine how the historical distribution of land can impact economic hierarchies a century later; thus, the realization that the Homestead Act did not distribute Western land on an equal—opportunity basis after the end of slavery can help explain the dramatic wealth inequalities seen in the 20th century. Moreover, understanding that the majority of immigrants since 1862 were never able to take advantage of the Homestead Act should also inform any discussion of why it was deemed necessary to impose immigration quotes for the first time in the 1920s—and casts doubt on the argument that it was a result of changes in a frontier that most immigrants would never see.

Most importantly, a better understanding of history erodes some of the meritocratic myths used to justify inaction on economic inequality. Much of white rural America believes their socioeconomic and political—especially electoral—advantages over African Americans and Native Americans to be earned; the claiming of land by creating value on it, ex nihlio, is a critical component of the broader American meritocratic narrative. It’s certainly the case the homesteaders worked hard for the privilege of land ownership, but the other half of the story—the forceful confiscation of that valuable land from Native Americans, as well as the effective exclusion of African Americans from the same opportunity—undermines America’s myth of the undeserving poor. 

Featured image is Homesteading at Marmarth, by Michael Christiansen