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–by Joanna Hallac

The Civil War is known and remembered for many actions and speeches that took place on and off the battlefield; however, what can sometimes get overlooked or overshadowed in the midst of all the action was what kind of legislations was (or wasn’t) moving through Congress during that period. While the decade leading up to the outbreak of the war was fraught with severe divisions within Congress, once the obstructionist southern Democrats left both chambers in 1861, numerous pieces of legislation were able to finally move through, including the Homestead Act.

The importance of the Homestead Act in our country’s history cannot be overstated, but it is an interesting idea to think about how if not for the Civil War and the secession of the southern states that the legislation likely would not have passed. For years prior to its passage, the Senate in particular had blocked every previous attempt to pass a homestead bill. Given its significance, I think digging a little deeper into why there was legislative opposition to the Homestead Act prior to the Civil War and why it was such a key piece of our country’s history and continued expansion westward is an important exercise.

Much like every other major issue in the mid-19th century, making lands in the western territories more readily and easily available to American settlers was a divisive one. Southern plantation owners were opposed to homesteading because they feared that more small farms would begin to pop up and compete with them, not to mention the fact that they were worried that any new states created would want to ban slavery. Northern factory owners were afraid that new business opportunities opening up across the expanding country would drain their steady stream of cheap laborers. Prior to the mid-19th century, most Americans couldn’t afford to buy lands out west; with the arrival of more and more immigrants in our country, many of them wanted to seek new lives in the western territories, as well. With the property acquired after the Mexican War, more opportunities presented themselves for further settlement and expansion westward and there seemed to be a greater level of support for homesteading. The House passed homesteading legislation three times in the 1850’s—1852, 1854, and 1859— only to have the Senate fail to do so as well. When a bill finally did pass both chambers in 1860, the measure was vetoed by President Buchanan.

With the strongest opposition removed from the Senate chamber by late 1861, Congress finally took up and passed the Homestead Act, which President Abraham Lincoln signed into law on May 20, 1862; this Sunday marks the 150th anniversary of the law’s enactment. The Homestead Act created a three-tier process to allow all Americans and those intending to become American citizens (the one stipulation is that none of them could have ever fought against the United States at any time) to acquire 160-acre swaths of land out west. According to the law, once the application for the land was filed, the claimant had to spend the next five years living on and cultivating the land, including constructing a dwelling that measured 12 feet by 14 feet, and by also growing crops. Following the five years, the claimant could file for his or her deed by submitting the proof of residency and necessary paperwork to a local land office for approval.

The first land application was filed in Nebraska on January 1, 1863, and the last was filed in Alaska in 1979, although the law would officially be replaced in 1976 (since Alaska still had lands available, the law was phased out there in 1986). Despite the seeming ease of the application process, it was a difficult life in many areas of the unsettled west and a number of those who attempted to make a new life, simply could not and did not make it through the five year period. Once the Railroad Act was passed a few years later, which paved the way for the transcontinental railroad, life was certainly made easier in this regard, although it still was not a walk in the park.

The Homestead Act helped our country rapidly increase the speed at which we were able to complete our expansion westward, leading to much eventual economic prosperity for our country. Unfortunately, while land grants were allowed for nearly every American who wanted one, including many women and African Americans, the one group who continue to get forcibly removed and displaced until they were relegated to the reservations upon which they stay today were Native Americans. Our shameful treatment of them haunts our country’s history to this very day.

Overall, the Homestead Act was a law that was so significant to our country’s history for so many reasons, not the least of which was that it allowed ordinary Americans to create a home for themselves and their families and live out their version of the ‘American Dream.” Perhaps some legislation would have eventually passed the Congress to allow for homesteading and to make federal lands available and affordable for the masses, but there is no question that the Civil War made such a law inevitable.

Sources consulted:
National Archives

Smithsonian Magazine