Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History

Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History

Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History

Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History


Homesteading the Plains offers a bold new look at the history of homesteading, overturning what for decades has been the orthodox scholarly view. The authors begin by noting the striking disparity between the public's perception of homesteading as a cherished part of our national narrative and most scholars' harshly negative and dismissive treatment.

Homesteading the Plains reexamines old data and draws from newly available digitized records to reassess the current interpretation's four principal tenets: homesteading was a minor factor in farm formation, with most Western farmers purchasing their l∧ most homesteaders failed to prove up their claims; the homesteading process was rife with corruption and fraud; and homesteading caused Indian land dispossession. Using data instead of anecdotes and focusing mainly on the nineteenth century, Homesteading the Plains demonstrates that the first three tenets are wrong and the fourth only partially true. In short, the public's perception of homesteading is perhaps more accurate than the one scholars have constructed.

Homesteading the Plains provides the basis for an understanding of homesteading that is startlingly different from current scholarly orthodoxy.


Homesteading—free land!—in the government’s vast western expanse has become a cherished part of our national story. Ordinary people, including many who had few worldly goods, moved to remote areas and staked their claims in a gamble to fashion better futures for themselves. the public reveres homesteaders as hardy and deserving recipients of federal largesse, common folks who used their opportunity to make farms for themselves, turn the United States into a food-producing colossus, and help create the vast American middle class. Popular culture celebrates homesteading as a big deal, a wise and highly democratic opening of valuable public lands to “actual settlers.” Today probably 46 million adult Americans (20 percent of all American adults), and possibly as many as 93 million (40 percent), are estimated to be descended from homesteaders. Many families, often living in cities far removed from where their forebears staked their claims, retain a treasured story, a photograph, or a memory of their homesteading ancestors.

The 1862 Homestead Act, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, was formally “an act to secure homesteads to actual settlers on the public domain.” Under it, the federal government offered settlers free public land. There was a small processing fee to pay, you had to live on your claim for five years (later reduced to three), and then you “proved up” your claim. Homesteading was open to male citizens over twenty-one, war veterans of any age, widows and single women, married women who were heads . . .

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