Your RDA of Irony

How the West Was Really Won

(This is my latest article in Boss Magazine’s series on history.)

Hollywood movies have created our image of the American West: a lawless land tamed by the six-shooter. Yes, the prospector and the cowboy were part of the saga, but the West really was won by the farmer. The plow did more than the gun to settle and build, literally breaking the ground that turned wilderness into farmland. Venturing into the Great Plains, where the prairie grass grew as high as six feet, those first farmers—sodbusters– had been drawn not just by the hope of a better life on the frontier. They had a guarantee from the Federal government: free land to anyone who would farm it for five years. That guarantee was the Homestead Act of 1862.

Although the Native American tribes disagreed, the Federal government had title to the Great Plains, the territory extending in the Midwest from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, as part of the Louisiana Purchase. But a vast, undeveloped prairie was of no value to an expanding nation. The territory needed to be populated and cultivated, and the government was willing to give land to any adult willing to farm there. The Homestead Act created an orderly process that fostered the settlement of the West.

The need for such a policy would seem obvious, but it took a Civil War to enact the legislation. During the 1850s similar bills had been proposed in Congress and passed by the House of Representatives. In the Senate, however, the proposals were defeated by Southern opposition. There was a political calculus to this: the South feared that the Western territories, once sufficiently populated to qualify for statehood, would enter the Union as states opposed to slavery. The South had a smaller population than the North (12 million vs. 18 million), a disparity evident in the demographically proportioned House of Representatives. However, the Senate’s composition was based on the number of states, and the slave states had a rough parity with the free states: 15 versus 18. But new states might tilt that balance, so the South opposed any legislation that promoted Western settlement.

But in 1862 the South was conspicuously absent from the U.S. Congress. The Homestead Act finally passed; and was signed by President Lincoln on May 20. Going into effect on January 1, 1863, the Act permitted any U.S. citizen, male or female, over the age of 21 to acquire 160 acres of land in the public domain. The applicant would need to file a claim at the nearest government land office and pay a registration fee of ten dollars. (Ten dollars in 1862 would be the equivalent of 1500 dollars today. So it was not a trivial amount but still a bargain.) Within six months of the application, the settler had to establish residency on the property. After five years of farming the land, the settler would be granted the deed of ownership. On January 1, 1863, the first day of the Homestead Act, 418 people filed their applications.

The land was free but not effortless. Just getting to the frontier was a difficult and expensive journey. The settlers traveled by covered wagon. The most common type was called the Prairie Schooner, a small and sturdy vehicle that could traverse the tall grass of the prairie. Its wagon ruts often were the only roads on the frontier. The Prairie Schooner might cost $75, more than $11,000 in today’s dollars. Four feet wide by twelve feet long and a canvas cover that reached ten feet, that wagon had to hold the settler’s family, the essential possessions including farm tools and seed, and at least a six months’ of food.

There were guidebooks at the time, and prospective settlers were recommended to take the following supplies: 150 lbs of floor, 20 lbs of corn meal, 50 lbs. of bacon, 40 lbs of sugar, 10 lbs. of coffee, 5 lbs. of salt (to preserve meat), and 15 lbs. of beans. Additional meat presumably could be killed along the way. Yes, guns were part of that essential inventory.

Everything that could be required had to be taken because the frontier had no convenience stores. The pioneer had to be self-sufficient. Of course, that packed wagon required draft animals to pull it; a team of six oxen or ten mules would suffice. (At $150 each a draft horse was a luxury, costing ten times the price of a mule.) Adding up the costs of the wagon, the draft team, the farm tools, and all the supplies, a settler was likely to have spent a minimum of $1000, our equivalent of $150,000.

The settler would want to arrive on his claim in the spring, making full use of the growing season and have a harvested crop in the first year of his residence. Plowing the soil also provided the farmer with the construction materials for his first home. The Homestead Act required the settler to build a home on the land; so did common sense. No one would want to endure a prairie winter in a covered wagon. However, the common building materials of the East—wood and stone—were not found on the Great Plains. So the prairie itself would provide the building blocks. The sodhouse, composed of bricks of soil, because the standard home of those early pioneers. Each sod brick was approximately was 18 inches wide by 24 inches long, and weighed about 50 pounds; and the bricks had to be checked to remove any wildlife, especially snakes. It required an acre of sod, 3000 bricks, to build a one-room house just 16 feet wide and 20 feet long. The sod construction was solid and insulating: warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and also bulletproof. It was ugly and practical, exactly what the pioneer needed and no more than that.

If the settler could last five years, if the harvests proved worth the struggle, then the land was his. The local land office would grant the settler full title to the acreage. But, in fact, most applicants failed in their attempt at farming. The land grant records indicated that fewer than half of settlers held on for the required time. Despite that high toll, the Homestead Act was encouraging a Western migration and the settlement of the Great Plains.

In 1860, Nebraska’s population was 28,841; by 1870, it was 122,993. Nebraska became a state in 1867. The settlers moved further west. In 1870, Colorado’s population was 39,864, by 1880, it was 194,327. Colorado entered the union in 1876. South Dakota and North Dakota became states in 1889, and Wyoming in 1890. The development of the transcontinental railroad greatly improved travel to the west, but it was Homestead Act that gave people a reason to go there.

Ten percent of the United States—270 million acres– was settled through the Homestead Act. By 1900 over 600,000 claims had been filed. The Act remained in effect until 1986 encouraging settlement in Alaska, our last frontier. Today, the wagon rut trails of the Great Plains have been paved over by superhighways. The grass prairie now yields crops that feed America and the world. This is the legacy of the Homestead Act and the pioneers who pursued its promise.

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