Scrapping One-Size-Fits-All Was the Key
Congress passed The Free Homestead Act in 1862 during the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln. It was enacted on January 1, 1863. By the 1860s, the Government had begun taking most of what is now the western United States from Indian control. Cities and farmland in the East were becoming overcrowded. That same 1862 Congress had just passed The Pacific Railway Act that gave grants of public land and Federal bonds to the Union Pacific Railroad Company. In return, Union Pacific constructed a railway from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. Many people, back east and on the frontier, felt it was high time to open the West to settlement. The Homestead Act was based on the belief that all people possess an equal right to land, so long as they are willing to live and work on it. Montana, in 1862, had what seemed like plenty of open space. The Free Homestead Act, and the Homestead Acts that followed it, affected Montana just as much, if not more, than any other state in the Union.
We have to understand that the land given away by Congress was first taken by force. It is difficult nowadays to understand why Congress would remove Native Americans from their homes. If living and working on a piece of land gives someone the legal right to claim that land, surely American Indians had as much right as anyone else to continue living and working lands throughout the West.
To the people running this country at that time, “working” a piece of land meant, “improving” it. It meant changing the land. One reason the government may not have recog-nized Indian claims to the West is that the Indians had learned to live in the Western region of the continent without physically changing it much. They collected native plants and hunted indigenous animals. Indians did not practice agriculture, as we understand it today. They were not farmers. By 19th century American standards, they were not “improving” the land at all. As it turned out, contributing traditional knowledge of Montana’s native vegetation may have been one of the most important “improvements” possible in the next century.
Let’s go back about a hundred and ten years. Around that time a man named John Wesley Powell came to Montana. He was the Director of the newly formed United States Geological Survey. Powell was a well-trained scientist and he studied Montana extensively. Back in Washington, DC, he made a series of recommendations as to how public lands in Montana should be managed. First of all, Powell recognized (as other people had), that Montana does not receive enough rain to practice traditional agri-culture across most of the state. He pointed out that twenty inches of annual rainfall is necessary to support farms in the area. But even during wet years, most of Montana barely reaches the twenty-inch mark. In some places, the annual rainfall can be as little as four or five inches; hardly enough to support large plantings.
Powell warned against “crude and careless” farming and grazing methods that he predicted would result in gullying, sheet erosion, alkalization, and blowing of the soil. For the same reason, he proposed that no fences should be raised in Montana unless they were meant to protect a small house or garden. He suggested that each family settling in the area should have equal access to water. Because people are so spread apart in the West, he also thought that some families should band together voluntarily and form loose communities rather than attempt to establish costly towns or counties. One of his most insightful recommendations was that each family be allowed at least 2,560 acres of land in order to support itself. All in all, John Wesley Powell stated that a Homestead Act should never be applied to Montana. Instead, he proposed that people pool their efforts and work large tracts of land together. Though many people seemed to envision the West as the ideal setting for a new and fair society, a place where all people could have an equal chance at a good life, Powell’s work was basically ignored by Congress.
The Free Homestead Act of 1862 entitled anyone who filed to a quarter-section of land (160 acres) provided that person “proved up” the land. “Proving up” meant living on the land for five years. Otherwise, after living on the land for six months, homesteaders could choose to buy it outright for $1.25 per acre. Each homesteader was also assessed a $10 filing fee. Several hundred miles east of Montana, where the average rainfall is much higher, 160 acres was plenty of land to support a family and produce an abundance of crops. But in Montana, especially in eastern Montana where we have an arid climate, crops do not grow well without irrigation. On high desert-like plateaus, it can be difficult to find water for irrigation. The same 160 acres that will produce abundant crops in places like Kansas or Nebraska, falls far short of the 2,560-acre mark drawn by John Wesley Powell. However, new seed varieties and farming techniques known as “dryland farming” eventually helped eastern Montana yield some of the best wheat in the entire country—for awhile.
After the Free Homestead Act was enacted people rushed to stake out their claims. But they didn’t really rush to Montana at first. The 100th meridian, that runs through Nebraska, was considered the farthest point west where people could still farm without irrigation. Soon, lands east of the 100th meridian were filling up. Slowly, settlers began drifting into places like Montana, Wyoming and Utah.
Montana’s first Homestead entry was made by a woman in 1868 on the outskirts of Helena, the present-day capitol. The first person to cultivate grain in the state was the Jesuit Father DeSmet. DeSmet grew grain to supply his mission in the Bitterroot Valley and to teach agriculture to the local Indian population. As the dry western states began receiving more and more homesteaders, it became clear that John Wesley Powell had been right: 160 acres couldn’t support much but a couple cows and a small garden; certainly not enough to make a living on.
So, in 1877, Congress passed the Desert Land Act. This act gave 640 acres (four times what the Free Homestead Act allowed) to any claimant who irrigated the land within three years. The person had to pay 25 cents per acre up front and an additional one dollar per acre after they’d done the irrigation work. This act appealed to cattle companies and many of them moved in or started up. These companies would often pay men to claim the land. In turn, the company built him a small cabin and irrigated the place. After three years the claimant then transferred title to the land into that company’s name.
In the first four years of this act 370 desert claim filings were made in Montana Territory covering 122,000 acres. In that same time, 608 homestead entries were made totaling just 93,671 acres. The idea behind the Desert Land Act was to “reclaim” some western lands not considered suitable for settlement. Homesteaders often had small orchards, a nice garden, and a few chickens to sustain themselves. We know now that this act contributed to overgrazing and a change in native vegetation; if excessive cattle speculation hadn’t occurred, the Desert Land Act may have proved to have been the best public lands model for the West.
Congress passed the Enlarged Homestead Act in 1909. This act raised the amount of land deeded to each homesteader from 160 acres to 320 acres. Also, it was required that one eighth of the land be continuously cultivated for agricultural crops other than native grasses. Now, Montana’s weather tends to come in cycles. We might receive ten or twenty years of wet weather, followed by ten or twenty years of dry weather. It just so happened that 1909 fell during a wet cycle. As soon as more free land was available and prospects looked good for farming, the first wave of “honyockers” flowed into Montana.
Three years later, in 1912, Congress dropped the “proving up” time from five years to three. More than 80,000 homesteaders moved into Montana between 1909 and the early 1920s. By the late 1920s, 60,000 of them had either packed up and left or were sent off to fight in World War I. Both farmers and ranchers had exploited the land during the wet years. They had over grazed, over farmed, and spread themselves too thin. Banks sprang up and new counties were formed almost on a whim. No one realized that when the rains subsided, all that free land would come back to haunt them.
Lawmakers wrote the 1862 Homestead Act to make as many “Americans” as possible eligible to claim a homestead. The law only required that a person be a United States citizen and the head of a family or at least twenty-one years old. So, while we think of many single men breaking sod, the law allowed for many others to homestead, including young married couples still in their teens and single women. The law, while requiring citizenship, also allowed for non-citizens to begin homesteading if they had filed a declaration of intention to become a citizen, as required by the naturalization laws of the United States.
Is is noteworthy that the 1862 Homestead Act required that the applicant had not “borne arms against the United States Government” or given aid or comfort to its enemies. This provision, when written in 1862, made citizens of all the Southern States (the Confederated states) ineligible for homesteading; however, their eligibility was restored after the end of the Civil War and supported by the passage of the Southern Homestead Act of 1866 that opened land in five southern states to homesteading.
Note: It is also remarkable that news of free homestead land spread quickly outside the United States, prompting people to immigrate to America sometimes only for this reason. Many accounts written by descendants of Russian, Scandinav-ian, Finnish, Italian and other Europeans describe great optimism at the promise of owning land in America followed years later with stories, not only of success, but also of hardship and disappointment.