Problems with the Homestead Act of 1862

A homestead and family west of Callaway, Nebraska, between 1886 and 1912.
A homestead and family west of Callaway, Nebraska, between 1886 and 1912. | Source

The Homestead Act of 1862 was introduced and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War on May 20, 1862 as a way to accelerate the settlement of the areas west of the Mississippi River out to the Pacific Ocean. Adult heads of house could acquire 160 acres of land provided they cultivated it, built a dwelling and lived on it for 5 years.

The Homestead Act of 1862 most certainly brought a large amount of settlers beyond the western Missouri border all the way to the Pacific, and while sounding like the savior to the poor, it had its share of problems. One of the main problems was the amount of land. 160 acres was a large chunk of land, but not large enough to sustain a viable farm. Also, just because the land was free did not ensure success. Money and experience were still necessary for the farm to be profitable. Most settlers had one or the other, or neither, leading to failed farms.

Migration, or more accurately, the fear of migrating west was an issue. Southerners, in particular Southern Democrats, feared it would lead to new states opposed to slavery as well as bringing poor white Southerners out of the South and into the west and also enticing European immigrants, who typically held a anti-slavery position, to migrate west. Some Northerners feared these European immigrants migration as well, as it would lead to the loss of cheap factory labor in the booming Northern industrial climate. Then there was the risk of harsh living conditions. high winds, cold weather, limited timber and disease led to farmers failing in their efforts and abandoning their claims, or worse yet, losing their life. Add to this the constant threat of displaced and native Indians and you are left with homesteaders living in conditions they were not prepared for.

Probably the biggest issue was the corruption involved in the whole process. Very little oversight of the act was done by the government which led to many people and groups "squatting" with no intention of living on the land, but only to turn it around for profit or to control water rights and huge tracts of land for cattle. By 1900, 52% of original homesteaders followed through to take legal title of their land with the rest falling into the hands of the railroads, private speculators or swindlers. Of the 500 million acres dispersed a paltry 80 million acres actually went to homesteaders.

Overall, the Homestead Act provided well for a significant number of the population, providing them with the means to fulfill their dreams they might never have been able to without the Act. The expansion of the country westward most certainly showcased the corruption and wickedness that was inherent with such expansion, but this probably would have occurred with or without the Homestead Act of 1862.

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