The Homestead Act, Early Republicans, and the Coming of the Civil War

Nearly everyone knows that the Emancipation Proclamation became effective on January 1, 1863.  This document formally established abolition of slavery as one of the Union’s goals in fighting and winning the Civil War and enabled the North to recruit African American men to fight as Union soldiers and sailors.  Before signing it, President Abraham Lincoln famously remarked, “If my name shall have a place in history, it will be for this act.”

However, the Emancipation Proclamation was not the only significant act or law to become effective 155 years ago today.  The Homestead Act, signed by Lincoln on May 20, 1862, also took effect on January 1, 1863.  While certainly not as well-known as the Emancipation Proclamation, the homestead law still had great impact on the United States and remained in effect for an incredible 123 years. 

The Homestead Act’s provisions offered qualified settlers the opportunity to select a piece of public land up to 160 acres in size (though claims in some areas were limited to 80 acres).  Once selected, the prospective homesteader paid minimal administrative costs to the government and had to take up residence on the land within six months.  At least ten acres had to be placed in cultivation, and the settler had to stay on the property for five consecutive years.  Once that time elapsed and the homesteader met all legal requirements of the law, the federal government transferred the property’s permanent title to the homesteader.  This law eventually led to the transfer of more than 270 million acres of land to settlers in 30 different states.  The Homestead Act remained active in some parts of the country until 1976 and until 1986 in Alaska.

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and the Homestead Act.  Both went into effect 155 years today-January 1, 1863.  (Photo by Alexander Gardner; public domain image.)

Questions about whether and how the federal government should distribute land to settlers had persisted since the end of the Revolutionary War.  Like so many other questions of national importance, land distribution eventually got wrapped up in the debate over slavery, and Congress was never able to agree on a bill that satisfied both northerners and southerners.  As the nation started down the road that eventually led to the Civil War, the Homestead Act became a critically important issue to the fledgling Republican Party in the late 1850s and early 1860s.  As abolitionists joined the Republicans’ ranks, more and more southerners came to oppose homesteading on principle alone—basically due to guilt by association with Republicans.  Early Republicans included abolitionists, disaffected Whigs and Democrats, former “Know-Nothings,” and the castoffs of other regional parties.  Homesteading, even more than abolition of slavery, was one issue on which most of them agreed from the beginning and was therefore an important cause for creating cohesion among the first Republicans.

As Americans clamored for some kind of homestead bill into the 1850s, the idea became more and more politicized.  Southerners that cared little about western settlement under a homestead act came to vehemently oppose it, viewing it as a northern plot to populate the western territories with free soil settlers and prevent the expansion—and, therefore, survival—of slavery.  Likewise, northerners far removed from the West who might not have given any real thought to that region’s concerns came to view homesteading as a critical measure to provide genuine opportunity to the homesteader while limiting the South’s options to expand slavery.

The Homestead Act became a central piece in a series of western bills that Republicans rammed through Congress during the Civil War while no southerners were present to object.  This represented Republicans taking full advantage of the opportunity to pass what the party viewed as a critical tool to determine the future of the West and the nation as a whole.  Republicans used homesteading, a transcontinental railroad, new taxes, land grant colleges, national banking, and other radical ideas to completely change the nation’s financial system, settlement patterns, commerce, economy, and social structure.  In fact, the Homestead Act represented a foundational piece of a legislative agenda that had as much impact as the New Deal some 70 years later.

The Jerry Shores family homesteaded in Custer County, Nebraska after the Civil War.  Shores was a former slave that took advantage of the opportunity to claim and own land under the Homestead Act’s provisions.  (Nebraska State Historical Society.)

The Homestead Act initiated significant changes to American society.  Homesteading provided new levels of opportunity to many not accustomed to it.  Women, still unable to own land in their own names in many parts of the country, were free to claim and own homesteads.  Significantly for a law that went into effect the same day as the Emancipation Proclamation, after the Civil War and the resulting Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution African Americans were also able to claim and own land as homesteaders.  Thousands traveled west for the opportunity to do so.  Immigrants from most areas of the world were welcomed and sometimes even invited to the United States to make claims.  Homesteading contributed to the United States becoming one of the world’s largest agricultural producers.

The law was not perfect by any means.  Reflecting American society’s values of the era, immigrants of Chinese origin were barred from homesteading.  The Homestead Act also had catastrophic effects on many American Indian populations and cultures.  Indian displacement and removal had been occurring for decades before the Homestead Act, but this law represented yet another in a long line of acts that served to remove natives from their ancestral homes and force them onto reservations.  Homesteading had environmental impacts that contributed to drought, soil erosion and degradation, and the onset of the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s.

The upheaval of the 1850s, rising sectional tensions, and the creation of the Republican Party were all important milestones on America’s road to the Civil War.  The “free land” idea manifested in the Homestead Act played an important role in all of these events and must be considered when assessing the actions of both the North and South in the decades before the war.  Abraham Lincoln and his Republican colleagues saw the Homestead Act as a means to provide genuine opportunity to the masses while accomplishing their political goals of keeping slavery out of the West and determining the future settlement and economic success of that region.

18 Responses to The Homestead Act, Early Republicans, and the Coming of the Civil War

  1. My maternal relatives homesteaded in Kansas and Oklahoma. Their first houses were soddys, which I have seen in very old pictures. I remember the big, white farmhouses and the dark, cavernous barns, the magnificent table set for supper in the afternoon with home-grown everything, canned, fresh, and preserved. They made it through the first Great Depression, but children didn’t want to run the marginal family farms that had provided money for their college. Eventually the farms broke up, as did the family. We are now spread from Texas to California. Still, thanks Mr. Lincoln!

  2. Todd:

    Thank you for this excellent article, which is very informative. To what extent did the Homestead Act benefit railroad and other corporate interests and was this benefit foreseen by the drafters of the law and those who enacted it? Was this benefit, whatever its dimensions, incidental to the primary purpose of the Act, or was it the primary purpose? I have heard the Act impugned on this score, but I was not favorably impressed by the argument, nor the source. Your comments please.

    1. Hi John: Thanks for your question. Much of the best land that could have been homesteaded by farmers was actually given away to railroad companies as incentives for them to build. While the Homestead Act itself was intended to benefit actual settlers, there’s no question that railroad companies actually benefited much more in some areas.

  3. I think to measure the impact of the Homestead Act, we would first have to understand how the General Land Office sold government land prior to the Act. A significant fraction was given to the states, and state policy differed on how that land was sold and distributed. Railroads and other infrastructure were also beneficiaries. I’m not sure how Homesteading plays into that, other than it would seem to place a ceiling on what railroad companies could sell their grants.

    1. Mr. Todd Arrington, although I knew what the Homestead Act was and when it was passed I had absolutely no idea what a role it played in leading up to the Civil War. I know I’ve said it often, but it cannot be said enough. This type of work, speaking of your aforementioned article is why of all the blogs that have anything to do with my interests I have parted ways with. The free education I am obtaining by being a member of this blog is priceless. Although it’s been years since I earned my bachelor’s from Michigan (91-95) at this point I feel I am finishing up my masters. It’s shameful to say but all my time in college I never read anything that explain the Homestead Act in those terms relating to slavery. I wanted to thank you for the superb article and I will be looking on Amazon to see if you have any books available, although I have little time to read now as I’ve become working on my own book as of today I am always looking for new material regarding the Civil War and the Civil War era that enlightens my mind. Have a very happy New Year my man!

      1. Thanks so much for reading and making this very kind comment! Glad you enjoyed the article.

  4. Since African Americans were not eligible to become settlers until the passage of the 14th Amendment (they were not citizens) and since the minority population of the area settled under the Homestead Act is small today, do you have any thoughts as to why the U.S. government did not encourage more African American homesteaders during the Reconstruction period?

    I appreciate your point that the Civil War was also a social revolution and that such a change had been a goal of some parties even before the conflict began.

    1. Hi Michael: Thanks for reading and for this comment. I cannot say for certain why more African Americans were not encouraged to homestead by the government (though there certainly were some individuals that tried to publicize availability of homestead lands to black settlers. In fact, several all-black towns of homesteaders popped up in several states.) It may be that there was so little interest in homesteading among African Americans that the government didn’t bother to advertise to them. I really don’t know, but a great question that demands more research! Thanks for reading.

      1. My initial thought was “instead of 40 acres and a mule, why not offer 160 acres and a team of horse.” The 160 acres were already on offer and the team would have been additional assistance in making the transition from slavery to freedom. The African Americans certainly had agricultural skills and encouraging settlement in the west would have offered an alternative to the sharecrop system. Of course, Kansas later adopted “Jim Crow” laws and I wonder if racial hostility played a role (Brown, et al. V Board of Education of Topeka).

        More research is needed indeed.

      2. When the Homestead Act was passed African Americans were not allowed to be citizens which was a requirement to be a homesteader, and it wasn’t until 1872 that they prohibited discrimination based on race when the Homestead Act was updated. Along with that take into consideration the fact that just because slavery had been outlawed doesn’t mean that black people were suddenly given access to education and opportunities that white people had. The sharecropping system was a cluster to put it mildly, and many states like Oregon actually banned black people (even though they outlawed slavery itself). It’s kind of like asking a woman who has been abused for years “why doesn’t she just leave?”

    1. Well, the article (correctly) says exactly the opposite:

      “The Homestead Act also had catastrophic effects on many American Indian populations and cultures. Indian displacement and removal had been occurring for decades before the Homestead Act, but this law represented yet another in a long line of acts that served to remove natives from their ancestral homes and force them onto reservations.

    2. Hi Robert: Thanks for reading and asking your question. The Homestead Act held no benefit for American Indians. In fact, many point to the Act as the final piece of legislation that guaranteed that natives would never be able to return to their ancestral homes. Later, when American Indians were granted U.S. citizenship, they were permitted to homestead, but this was just another swindle by the government, really. And when you consider that all of the land homesteaded was tribal land at time or another, well… the Homestead Act was definitely a negative for American Indians. No question about it. Thanks for reading!

  5. Very informative article and I’m glad you acknowledged the mass devastation that was caused by this Act which further encouraged people to think that America was theirs for the taking rather than respecting the people who already lived on the land. One thing however you didn’t mention was that the state of Oregon (where I live) actually banned black people under exclusion laws. A good overview of it is here:

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