How do historians view the 1862 Homestead Act and its results?
Some historians have focused on the percentage of homesteads that did not long remain with the original claimants as proof that the Homestead Act of 1862 (and later homestead acts) failed. This critique of homesteading is supported by many examples of fraud and speculation that occurred during the homestead period. However, this view tends to ignore that in many cases homesteading did achieve its original goals of speeding the settlement of much of the nation, and privatizing ownership of much of the country.
Homesteading can also be seen as a process where land was first privatized for farming, but later ended was used for another more successful economic purpose. By that standard, homesteading was largely successful. Enormous amounts of land that could generate wealth and prosperity for citizens (and future citizens) of the nation was transferred under homestead legislation into private ownership.
Other historians look at homesteading on the small scale and judge its effects in certain areas. They examine the opportunities that homesteading brought to specific people or types of people like women and minorities. This approach has often led to a much more nuanced and fact-informed look at homesteading where both benefits and problems are seen working together as forces causing the success or failure of a particular settlement in a specific area.
Still other historians have focused on the end of homesteading and in particular the four homestead acts passed during the Progressive Era of the early 20th century after the three-century frontier period in American history was ending. These four early 20th homestead acts were: the Kinkaid Act of 1904, the Forest Homestead Act of 1906, the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, and the Stock Raising Homestead Act of 1916. The latter two in particular have not been judged as very successful by some historians. Some have gone so far as to see them as contrived and manipulated through Congress by the “militant” West of a century ago, with the goal of exploiting the public lands. Other historians have not gone quite that far, but have noted that these early 20th century laws departed from what was one of the original goals of homesteading: to create enduring farms. The result, some have argued, is increased farm tenancy, with the laws used (if not abused) to gain larger tracts of land never intended for agricultural use.
Some historians have also commented unfavorably on another principle established early in the homestead period. On March 3, 1873, Congress passed an amendment to the 1872 Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Homestead Act (17 Stat. 49). The amendment allowed certain homestead rights for veteran soldiers and sailors to be assignable to someone else who could then claim the homestead land elsewhere. It thus created a form of script that a veteran could sell that could result in the accumulation of large bodies of land by corporations or other parties under homesteading. Some historians view this change as a significant departure in prior public land policies by creating a mechanism that could result in the acquisition of large blocks of land for speculation counter to the original intent of homestead legislation. At the extreme, some people reportedly acquired hundreds of these veterans’ rights by purchase and then filed on choice tracts of timbered lands or watering spots in semi-arid regions. In Alaska, the earliest homestead patents in 1903 used the principle established in this 1873 amendment to allow veterans to assign their homestead rights to fishing companies thus enabling them to quickly claim land for their businesses.