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Beware of Free Lunches, Especially When It's Offered by the Government

"Free Land!" That was the cry heard across the country when Abraham Lincoln signed into law the greatest giveaway in American history: 270 million acres of public land, almost 10% of the entire country! It sounds too good to be true, and many Americans, and Europeans for that matter, rushed to get a piece of the action. It was truly a gesture that represented the best democratic ideals of America. The Homestead Act of 1862 ushered in a new land rush as Americans journeyed to the Midwest this time to try and make their dreams come true. But like the California Gold Rush, the reality of the Homestead Act was cause for more despair than joy.

So what made the government have the insane idea to try and give away land for free? Credit the little guy for making it happen. The US government had been giving away land for ages, although it was usually to businesses and corporations for moneymaking opportunities. Millions of acres of land had been turned over to railroad companies to try and foster development in the American West. During the Oregon Trail, most of the pioneers bypassed all the land between the Missouri River and Rocky Mountains. Most thought of the Great American Desert with its prairie and plains as being uninhabitable but with the West and the East now heavily populated, people started to think about settling in the Midwest.

Miles and miles or grass and plains on the Homestead

As railroads ate up more land west of the Mississippi, small farmers started getting angry and began "squatting" on land, demanding their fair share. Missouri Senator Tom Benton in 1841 wrote legislation saying these squatters could buy the land they occupied from the government, but the farmers wanted to know why the railroads could get a free ride and not them. Congress began working on legislation to give farmers land, but Southern states were loud in opposing any such measure. Free land would stop the expansion of slavery in their view. When the South seceded from the Union, Congress and Lincoln felt free to enact the Homestead Act. The governor of Nebraska was ecstatic: "What a blessing this wise and humane legislation will bring to many a poor but honest and industrious family."

The Act granted anyone over the age of 21 the right to 160 acres of land if they farmed on it for five years. People didn't even have to be US citizens. They only had to declare their intention to become one. As the song "Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm" became popular, one Iowan decided to file a claim for the first day the law could take effect: January 1, 1863. On Daniel Freeman's original plot of land is the Homestead National Monument of America in Beatrice, Nebraska.

Typical Homestead dwelling

The site has an original schoolhouse and log cabin, miles of prairie trails and a museum showcasing all the tools needed to make the homestead a success. By all accounts, Daniel was well regarded in the community and managed a productive farm. But Daniel represents the exception. For most of the homesteaders, the free land turned out to be an exercise in frustration.

After the Civil War, claims under the Homestead Act started to pick up. Formerly enslaved African Americans, single widows, veteran soldiers, all sought a new life. Much of the fertile land in California and the Southwest was already privately owned, so the options consisted mainly of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Minnesota and Kansas. Because the Act did not require claimants to have any knowledge of farming, many of the wanna-be farmers were doomed to failure. We're talking about land here that is nothing but grass with little rainfall. Willa Cather, the famous Great Plains author, described the environment as, "There seemed to be nothing to see - no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. There was nothing but land. Not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made."

The government didn't quite realize that you can't just dump people on some land, especially land as harsh as the Plains, and expect people to prosper. Lacking decent tools, guidance, credit and cash, many homesteaders gave up and moved on. Still, by 1900, 600,000 aspiring farmers had applied for farms. Those who endured the blizzards, tornadoes, rain, hailstorms and locust attacks would come up with a song of their own:

Hurrah for Green County! The land of the free,
The land of the bedbug, grasshopper and flea;
I'll sing of its praises, I'll tell of its fame,
While starving to death on my government claim.

You had to learn how to use this if you wanted to grow anything

But soon, those hardy folks would develop new technologies to plow the land. Windmills helped with irrigation and barbed wiring replaced wooden fencing. The landscape was drastically altered as orchards bloomed and sod houses were replaced by sturdier bricks. And that brings us to the always difficult issue beneath the hopeful, breathless tales about the American frontier: what about the Native Americans and their rights to the land? They had grown up and lived on the Plains for centuries and were used to dealing with the whims of the natural world. The nomadic hunter Plains Indians were already suffering from the lack of buffalo being killed by the Oregon Trail people. Now they found the land being completely plowed and reshaped according to the needs of American agriculture. The government, in satisfying the demands of the settlers, forced the Indians to relocate to reservation lands. The Homestead Act may have been an act of democratic idealism for everyone in the Union, but it certainly took something precious away from the Indians.

The Homestead Act may have brought out the best in some of the farmers who toiled the land, but it brought out the worst in others who chose to exploit it for corrupt economic gain. Most of the people seeking free land heard about it through the advertisements of railroad companies, who claimed the land so fertile "you only have to tickle it with a plow and it will laugh a harvest that will gladden your hearts." Ads in Scandinavia and Germany brought scores of Europeans to the United States. Many would feel betrayed by the promises of the railroads. Railroad companies controlled a lot of the good land, so people who wanted to farm had no choice but to pay outrageous prices for it. Railroads also were interested in luring farmers out to the Plains because then they would need railroad services to ship their products to the East. The other land monopolists were land speculators who would buy the land from a disgruntled homesteader and sell it at a high profit to the next unsuspecting farmer. At any time, only about 15% of the available land was settled by homesteaders. The rest were owned by corporate business interests.

So in one sense, the Homestead Act represented courage, fortitude, hard work, ingenuity and perseverance, all qualities we associate with America. And yet it also represented tragedy for the Plains Indians, and showed just how easily man could prey upon man when easy money was at stake. Much of the Homestead Act's legacy lingers on, particularly when it comes to the state of family farms in America. Right now, there is a farm crisis going on around the world. Small farmers find themselves battling record low commodity prices for their crops and facing increasingly powerful corporate monopolies who control the research and distribution process much like the railroads did a century ago. Only two or three companies control the majority of grain elevators in the US. Last year, one company, ConAgra, was fined $50 million for not weighing properly the farmers' grain. And like the Indians, the farmers find their entire way of life endangered as gigantic, corporate megafarms take over. History seems to be repeating itself all over again.

Let the truth be told, I was bored to death driving through Nebraska. All that grass and rows and rows and rows of corn made for a rather loooong drive. I told Neda to crank up the Bruce Springsteen so I wouldn't fall asleep at the wheel. And yet, to think that one hundred and fifty years ago, this was all dust and plains and little else makes me reconsider the landscape. The cornfields have become now a stirring testament to the extraordinary will and determination of the homesteaders. Their heritage is something we need to honor and cherish, particularly as family farmers across the country struggle to survive. Just remember that as you're chowing down your mashed potatoes or cornbread.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - Pack 'em in and move on out West!
Neda - The Donner Party: How far would you go if you were starving?
Kevin - The battle that begat the anthem heard 'round the world
Neda - Steamboating the Mississippi...in a floating McDonald's?
MAD - We speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues
Irene - Extra! Extra! Hunting for Gold Leads to More Misery Than Happiness!