The Civil War: Lincoln's Homestead Act of 1862, bane or blessing?

For whites and blacks, the Homestead Act was a windfall; for the American Indians it was the beginning of the end. Photo: A typical sod house, complete with cow on the roof

VIENNA, Va., May 28, 2012 — One of the more immediate results of President Abraham Lincoln’s early Emancipation Proclamation, which was given in 1862, was the Homestead Act.  The Homestead Act was signed shortly after the Emancipation Proclomation, a little over 150 years ago this past week, on May 20, 1862.

Not the “forty acres and a mule” previously promised, but an act which provided 160 acres of free public land to settlers who would build a home on it and agree to continue farming for at least five years. It was specifically open only to citizens of the United States or to those who made public their intention to become citizens. 

Obviously this was directed to benefit the newly freed slaves all over the South, since no slaves in the North or in Border States were to be affected by the Proclamation of Emancipation.

There was, however, a final caveat: no one who had been “in rebellion against the United States” could apply for a land claim. In other words, “former Confederates need not apply.”

President Abraham Lincoln

The Homestead Act effectively opened up thousands of acres of land in the Midwest where slavery had been discussed but not approved, as well as the upper South where blacks would be more welcome as well as further West, which was open to all.

By the time it was over, some four million settlers had filed claims to be allowed to receive the land, which covered 270 million acres in 30 states. This accounted for roughly ten percent of the landmass of the country. 

Since the varying peoples of the United States, even then, could not unanimously agree on much of anything, the land deals were equally as divisive. The land proposition had initially been talked of in the 1850s, but Southern congressmen had blocked the proposed legislation each time it was brought up. It was their fear that this expansion might produce more free states, which would not be in favor of the expansion of slavery.

The early pioneers who availed themselves of the land were elated at the idea. They even promoted the idea of sod houses where one could dig up lengths of sod and place them against a wall to have instant housing. Since much of the acreage was on open Midwest land, where trees were few and far between, this was a good idea.

The newly released slaves also saw it as an opportunity to have what the whites had: housing, a sense of community, and as much as anything, freedom from the overhanging fear of lynching, which followed them in the South.

As hard as it may be to believe today, about 10% of the claims came from single women, who would no longer have to wait for a man to provide them with a home.

Native American Indians in 1908

If there was a down side to this land largesse from the government, it was where the land was taken from. There had been Indian reservations scattered throughout the new land area, and swiftly the Indian land was broken up into individual plots, which could go to the Indians, regardless of whether the hunter/gatherers had any interest in farming or not.

Thus by the time allotments were finally halted in 1934, what had been Indian Country, claimed and settled by the Native Americans decades before, had been cut down by 63%, to a total of roughly 52 million acres. Most of the land involved soon passed out of Indian ownership to white men, and the ongoing evolution of broken treaties and agreements has continued to this day.

The West began to be settled and railroads were built, permitting more and more people to move, settlements to grow, and businesses to start up.

The land explosion which Horace Greeley had termed “one of the most beneficent and vital reforms ever attempted in any age or clime, a reform calculated to diminish sensibly the number of paupers and idlers and increase the proportion of working, self-subsisting farmers in the land evermore” had come to pass.

Looking back at the Homestead Act from today, we realize the Indians might have a slightly different viewpoint.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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