From our visit to the Homestead National Monument, Beatrice, Nebraska, we came away with a sense of what I call “homestead regret”-the idea that it would have better if the Great Plains never had been opened up for homesteading. The monument conveys no pride or triumph in homesteading, but rather emphasizes hardships and mistakes.
Granted, in this presentation the National Park Service is right in line with most historians of United States land policy. A recent article by the scholar Richard Edwards in the Great Plains Quarterly summarizes their opinions. The historians say that transactions under the Homestead Act were rife with fraud. They say rich capitalists manipulated the act’s provisions to gain resources for themselves, leaving out the family farmers who were supposed to benefit. And they say that homesteading was environmentally unwise because it led to plowing of the plains, which should have been left in prairie grass.
On the other hand, people on the plains take pride in homesteading ancestry. People are always coming up to me and saying, “My grandparents (or great-grandparents) homesteaded right here back in such-and-such a year,” and they say this with both pride of accomplishment and a sense of place in the world.
Likewise, many public figures, including presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton have lauded the Homestead Act as a great American accomplishment. John Kennedy quoted Carl Sandburg about the act that gave “a farm free to any man who wanted to put a plow into unbroken sod” and himself described the Homestead Act as “probably the single greatest stimulus to national development ever enacted.”
So, Richard Edwards says, and I agree, that it’s time for a reasoned reconsideration of the Homestead Act. He concludes that it was reasonably successful in meeting its stated goals of placing working farmers on the land. I think so, too.
Where I would go farther than Edwards, though, is in broadening the definition of what we take as the goals of the Homestead Act. Congress often says its intent is one thing when really, the underlying motivation is something else. Moreover, legislators often do things for mixed or even uncertain motives.
There is a clue to underlying motive in what John Kennedy said about the Homestead Act as a “stimulus to national development.” Kennedy knew his history, including the history of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party. It was a party of development, which passed, along with the Homestead Act, the Morrill Act, the Pacific Railway Act, and the Department of Agriculture Act. The Republicans were preoccupied with development.
From this point of view, it didn’t matter much if people cheated on the terms of the Homestead Act, or if unscrupulous operators took advantage of it. The idea was to get the land into the hands of people who would develop it. We can question the motives and assumptions involved with this, but if we take them into account, then we have to pronounce the Homestead Act a grand success. It did what it was supposed to do.
So, here’s another way of thinking about the legacy of the Homestead Act. Maybe it wasn’t one big success or one big failure. Maybe it was, in fact I’m sure it was, many successes and many failures. And to sort those out, we have to go to the grassroots, where the homesteaders were.