Questions about the American Homesteaders

The Homestead Acts were American laws passed beginning in the mid-1800s that provided land grant to individuals who were able to meet certain requirements and prove they put the land to use. According to the National Park Service, only 40 percent of homesteaders were able to prove up on their claims and ultimately obtain a deed from the government.

What were the reasons 60 percent of homesteaders were unable to obtain land grants? I’d imagine that a good percentage of the failed claims were simply the result of individuals who were unprepared for the harsh lifestyle. But I’m sure a good proportion of abandoned claims was the result of failures obtaining viable crop from the land.

Incidental question: what modern technology would have been the most helpful to these homesteaders?

I don’t know you answer to your first question but one good single answer to this one is tractors. The difference between trying to farm or homestead with a tractor as opposed to draft animal and human muscle-power is enormous. Tractors can make short work of extremely time-consuming tasks especially plowing but also stump pulling, hauling harvested crops and even powering outside implements like grain mills through an external power take-off. Farming and homesteading still isn’t easy by any stretch even with a tractor and a full complement of implements to go along with it but it greatly expands the amount of land that a single family can cultivate. ‘40 acres and a mule’ sounds like a good offer until you find out it is just you and the mule up against 40 acres and both of you just might be able to plow an acre of good land a day if you start really early, finish late and try your hardest. Even modest tractors can plow many times that without nearly as much exertion.

I think the issue is that the bulk of the homestead claims numerically were filed after most of the good land was taken. The link says 1913 was the peak year, but by then settlement was focused around marginal land in the Great Plains and arid west and a LOT of those farms failed. The people who were homesteading during the 19th century when there was still lots of good farm land available would have had a much higher success rate.

I’d have to question how useful tractors would be during the period in question. Even if we assume fuel and spare parts existed, there wasn’t a transportation network in place to supply them to settlers. Homesteaders needed to be self-sufficient beyond the supplies they could bring in with them or could buy at a very intermittent basis.

The point is totally valid, though the machine would have been more likely steam powered.

In many cases the holdings were too large to be worked by a single family and yet too small to be able to support the family.

When starting up one crop failure, a failure in the water supply, disease or predation of the livestock, one serious injury and your venture was at dire risk of failure. Insufficient food to get you through the year, no cash to replenish seed or stock. Without a benevolent banker or neighbour you might not get a second chance.

Yeah, and also with machinery, that definitely was a big reason why a lot of the 20th century homesteaders failed. Farming west of the 100th meridian was only really feasible with modern (for the time) farm machinery, but that required an extremely risky outlay of capital. Even with the expanded 640 acre homesteads, it was a dicey proposition making enough to justify the costs of the machinery. Agricultural prices were high throughout the decade of the 1910’s but they crashed after WWI. A great many people who had homesteaded during that decade and taken loans that made sense with high crop prices wound up going bust and never gaining title to their land, or gaining title and immediately having to sell the land for pennies.

Another phenomenon during the late homestead era, especially during the 1920’s, was the “suitcase farmer” who made homestead claims without ever actually intending to take title on the land. The soil in places like western Oklahoma had stored moisture that was only really good for a season or two of farming, so the suitcase farmers would make a claim, come in with machinery, make a quick buck off a year or two of harvests, and then just abandon it. This did end up having some externalized costs, though.

Good points. I made my tractor argument predicated on the ‘modern’ part of the question that supplies parts and fuel, not what was available at the time. There are ‘antique’ tractors that still in service, easy to work on and I still believe would have greatly helped a homesteader over the alternatives.

That said, I drove through Eastern Oklahoma just last week (The Sooner State). That was one of the last mass land grabs in the Lower 48. The land grabs were announced in advance and people were waiting at the border ready to make their claim with a starter pistol in some places along the border. The ‘Sooner’ label was for people that cheated, scouted out and were ready to claim land ahead of time. After seeing it personally, those people must have been really desperate. I love Oklahoma today but it must have been a desolate wasteland back then. It is in the Southern Plains and the weather is some of the most violent in the world. Just driving through it, you can easily understand the theme of The Grapes of Wrath.

However, I am still voting for a tractor as long as I had some support for it. I wouldn’t even farm myself because that is too risky. I would just charge the highest bidders to till their fields and do other heavy work that they could’t handle themselves for less time and money. That is what the successful people do from the Gold Rush to world wars. You don’t participate in it directly. You just sell overpriced services and equipment to people that do.

How are the homesteaders going to pay you though? The Homestead Act gave away free land but nothing else. The fundamental problem with the late homesteading period was that it became capital, not land, that was the key to success as a farmer.

The homestead concept worked well enough back in the 19th century when there was good farm land to give away in Midwest and West Coast states, where the Jeffersonian ideal yeoman farmer could actually reasonably expect to feed himself and make a little extra using just his own labor and basic tools. By the turn of the 20th century though, the commodification of the agricultural market and the simple realities of what land was left to give away meant that the idea of making independent self-sustaining farmers by simply giving away land was not realistic. The problem is that the government, heavily egged on by the railroads and other boosters, continued to give out free land as if it were and the torrent of immigrants kept believing it.

While credit was available, mechanized farming requires scale and even the bigger allotments weren’t anywhere near big enough. The farmers who made it through and prospered were the ones who through luck or superior access to capital survived the first market downturns, which enabled them to buy their neighbors’ land for cheap to build farms big enough to actually farm economically. (Or some of them cheated by claiming adjoining parcels from the start.) A lot of it just reverted to ranch land, which requires even bigger acreages to support a family. These days when you explore the region, it’s pretty common to see one occupied farm house surrounded by maybe 4 or 5 early 20th century ruins in the surrounding acres.

Good responses. I’d never heard of suitcase farmers before – fascinating stuff.

Did the land grants specify the type of use a claimant had to put in to the land? It seems like a homesteader trying to make a living as a rancher out in Montana would require a much different amount of land compared to someone who was growing corn or wheat in Nebraska.

I think the answer is perhaps surprisingly simple.

Most homesteaders started from the east, where rain is plentiful and crops readily grow. Also you have many trees with which you can build a simple house to start with. You can see it with your eyes.

No one was really educated as to what the actual conditions were in these areas. Therefore hearing of free land in the west, without knowing any different, I am sure most assumed conditions there, same as where they were. The living be easy and the milk and honey would flow. Therefore they signed up.

Once the reality became apparent, then the majority left.

They were never too specific about what they meant by “make improvements.” Generally so long as you were living on the land and doing something with it you were good.

With ranching, they got the same homestead size as everyone else but of course grazing on unclaimed land was free. So often you’d have a little hay farm and corrals and such on your homestead, but your livestock would spend most of its time on land still owned by the federal government. That’s still the case in a lot of the mountain and desert west (although it’s not free anymore, no matter what Cliven Bundy says) but in the plains as the farming homesteaders encroached, they passed the Stock Raising Homestead Act (1916) that enabled ranchers to claim a whole section of land, without the normal homestead requirements. Of course a lot of the land that turned out not to be well-suited to farming ended up getting sold for near-nothing to the neighboring ranchers who’d been there for decades before the farmers turned up.

Well, firstly, if you’re talking about the 20th century period of homesteading (which was numerically the larger period) most of the settlers started WAY out east, as in they were first generation immigrants, mostly from Eastern and Central Europe.

They certainly understood they were going to be dryland farming, but there was a whole pseudoscience around the practice (epitomized by the phrase “rain follows the plow”) which was reinforced by some unusually wet years near the end of the 19th century. More generally, though, they also knew in that region subsistence farming wasn’t really practical, but the commodity crops they were focusing on provided more than enough to support a family, but only in the years when crop prices were high. What really doomed most of the homesteaders wasn’t that they were necessarily bad at dryland farming, it’s that they were at the mercy of global commodity markets.

A couple of add-ons.

There are stories of how terrible homesteading life was, on the treeless plains in sod huts. I remember one diary or letter from a farm wife who wrote eloquently of the madness of listening to the wind blow, blow, blow every minute around the corners of the house.

One usual requirement was that withing a year, they have to have a “12 by 12 house” on the property. There are stories of people building 12x12 (inch) houses and swearing to the accuracy of the statement. There was also supposedly an entrepreneur or two who had a house on wheels that could be parked on the land, so when the steader went to swear fulfillment of the terms, there was indeed a “12 x 12 house on the property.”

But yeah, incredibly hard life, hardscrabble farming, and nothing like the east/northeast. I’d bet nearly all of them simply gave up and left rather than actually making a significant effort towards fulfilling the requirements.

My maternal family is all (generationally-successful) farmers in the northern end of things, but I know only a little of how they got there. What little I know is about hardship and endless work.

In her biography of Lyndon Johnson, Doris Kearns Goodwin tells the story of how the homesteaders came to west Texas and found lush grasslands. They didn’t know that the soil had never been tilled, and that the area had received good rain for a couple of years in a row. They homesteaded the land only to see the climate return to normal and went bankrupt shortly after.

My grandparents farmed in the Ozarks. Their land always* looked *good, but the soil was thin and rocky, and not very suited to farming crops. In fact, they went broke several times until they finally concentrated on just letting cattle graze.

Several more areas people tried to homestead but failed:

Large parts of the Dakotas. The government saw all that land and envisioned it being farmed by a lot of people. Hence two Dakotas. But after failures most of it ended up as grazing land. And ranching doesn’t require much of a population density.

Western Nebraska. Thin soil over sand. But even after the first misadventures, people tried it again and the Dust Bowl hit the area hard. They are doing it again, at least until the aquifers run dry.

Hight desert of SE Oregon. Got a few crops in during longer than usual summers. Then normal early frosts started. People starved to death.

And a lot of other places.

Some areas that were failed homesteading lands are now farmed again due to new practices such as dryland (every-other-year) wheat farming, water from dams, etc. Also, it helps that farms are much bigger. 40-80 acres is nothing when you are doing dryland wheat farming.