Price of admission to the American frontier was steep – part 2

The Homestead Act, signed into law 150 years ago in May 1862, opened up the American frontier.

This was the deal:  Claim 160 acres of land, farm it for five years and then the government gave you title for no charge.

Does that mean it was free land? Not a chance.

The price of admission was extremely steep.

Farming the land was very hard work.

Here is a short version of what’s involved:

You had to get a covered wagon and outfit it. Travel a long time making sure the horses were fed and watered every day.

Dig a hole in the side of the hill. Cut sod into brick shapes to build a sod house for protection from the elements.

Break the soil, which means getting rid of all of the wild grass on the surface so you can work in the rich dirt underneath.

Plant crops.  Till and work them while they grow. Harvest. Carry the food to market.

Do all that work with your own back and two horses.

Store food so your family has enough to eat until the next harvest.

Mr. Fergus Bordewich provides rich detail on the frontier life and the Homestead Act in his Wall Street Journal article, How the West Was Really Won.

In all, four million settlers would file homestead claims to 270 million acres in 30 states, 10% of the land mass of the United States. (The size permitted for homesteads was eventually increased to 640 acres as settlers moved into drier regions.) Although the number of claims dropped off during the Great Depression, hundreds continued to be filed annually through the 1960s.

Look at the enthusiasm of the time:

Pioneers themselves could wax euphoric. Uriah Oblinger, a Union veteran who struck out on his own to Nebraska in 1873, wrote enthusiastically to his waiting wife in Indiana, “We have a soil rich as the richest river bottoms in Indiana and no clay hills. All we have to do is plow up some sod, cut it in lengths to suit, and lay up a wall & cover it and you have a house.”

Think about the opportunities available on the frontier but not anywhere else that are implied in this comment:

Among Galusha Grow’s {Speaker of the House in 1862} “soldiers of peace” were single women, who would eventually stake about 10% of all claims. So too those newly liberated from slavery.

The high price resulted in about half of the settlers giving up.  I give all of those who didn’t make it tremendous credit for giving it a try. 

Look at the really serious challenges:

Meanwhile, the productivity of the best homestead land soared. Although many gave up before the five-year period of “proving up” had elapsed, nearly two million settlers prevailed against loneliness, disease, crop failure and the elements.

The land may have been free, but everyone who got the land paid a very steep price.

The frontier was wide open.  The land was free.  But the price of admission was very steep.  Yet the opportunities were as wonderful and open-ended as you wanted to make them.

I deeply believe that is again the case today. There are open frontiers now.

Check out the full article from Mr Bordewich. It is great, even if it is too short.

One thought on “Price of admission to the American frontier was steep – part 2”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *