Recently in a desperate effort to curb the nation's dwindling rural population, the New Homestead Economic Opportunity Act was introduced by Sens. Byron L. Dorgan, D-N.D., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. The bill would forgive student loans and provide tax credits for home purchasers in depressed rural areas and small towns.
History has provided us a model to help the communities that are hurting in the heartland, Sen. Dorgan said. But history has also shown that people who live in depressed rural America have been going only one way -- out.
In looking for such "homestead" solutions, the same mistake that was made during the nation's 19th century "industrial revolution" should not be repeated. That "revolution" impressed on farmers the fact that while they had become increasingly dependent upon urban, industrial America, their living standards and income were often inferior to those in the city. The subsequent frustration and discontent that this attitude soon bred in rural areas quickly erupted into a movement -- agrarian populism -- unlike any seen in the US since the founding of the republic.
During that turbulent period the federal government no longer saw a need to depend on land as its principal source of revenue. In its zeal to see settlers on free land it created a "homesteading" system that not only triggered decades of fraud and corruption, but laid the foundation for a narrow and self-serving philosophy regarding private property that exists in the US to the present day.
With the Homestead Act of 1862 a citizen or a person intending to become a citizen could file a claim to parcels of unappropriated public land up to 160 acres. Upon paying a ten-dollar fee and promising that the land would be settled on and cultivated, the person was granted permission to occupy the land. After a five-year period, dated from initial occupancy, this person would then receive title to that tract.
An outspoken champion of homesteading, Galusha Grow, aptly described the basic issue in opening up land for settlement: "the struggle between capital and labor is an unequal one at best. It is a struggle between the bones and sinews of men and dollars and cents; and in that struggle, it needs no prophet's ken to foretell the issue. And in that struggle it is for this government to stretch forth its arm to aid the strong against the weak."
From the outset homesteading was opposed on several fronts. It would, President Buchanan proclaimed in his 1860 veto message, "introduce the dangerous doctrine of agrarianism and the pernicious social theories which have proved so disastrous (for the landed elite) in other countries (e.g., France and Russia)."
Opposition in the Congress was both vocal and sharply divided along regional and class lines.
In 1862 the Homestead Act was finally passed, primarily because the southern plantation interests were no longer in Congress to block it and the northern capitalists had been satisfactorily assured by the General Land Office that the new land was no longer needed as a source of revenue for the federal government.
The South had viewed the Homestead Act as creating a new yeoman class of farm families, working their own land. To the plantation owner such a creation was associated not only with free labor, but with an end to slavery and the south's traditional system of agriculture. Northern industrialists feared the act, because income from the sale of such land had become a key federal revenue source, and its loss might well signal higher taxes.
By the time the Homestead Act was in place no land was available in the public domain on the humid East Coast, and available land in the semi-arid Great Plains and arid west was not particularly suited to 160-acre tracts. Later, when many of these small farms defaulted, agriculture saw the birth of the bonanza wheat farms, particularly in the Northern Plains and in California.
By utilizing the new equipment that was now rolling out of the eastern factories, these bonanza farms, with tenant managers and cheap labor, embarked on farming thousands of acres as single unit farms. The genesis of such units came from Illinois immediately after the war, but did not develop into a systematized operation until the late 1870s when land started to be exchanged for worthless railroad securities in the Red River Valley.
By 1885, when prices began to deteriorate again, the bonanza farms had an increasingly difficult time paying their taxes and were broken up and rented to tenant farmers. The environmental consequences resulting from these mega-farms soon became apparent, as soil depletion began to affect many areas of the Great Plains.
Natural barriers, in conjunction with the Homestead Act's loopholes, gross fraud and speculation, and the disinterested and corrupt administration of the act would make it a mockery of the "equal justice under law" concept of land ownership.
One government commission estimated that nearly two-fifths of these five-year homesteads were fraudulently obtained. Between 1881 and 1904, 22 million acres were assembled into large land holdings by using the act's commutation clause, which allowed homesteaders in times of sickness, crop failure or the inability to make a living to postpone meeting the requirements of the act.
The Land Office reported: "Actual inspection of hundreds of commuted homesteads shows that not one in a hundred is ever occupied as a home after commutation. They become part of some large timber holding or a parcel of a cattle or sheep ranch ... They are usually merchants, professional people, school teachers, clerks, journeymen working at trades, cow punchers, or sheep herders. Generally these lands are sold immediately after final proof."
Two examples illustrate the lengths some speculators and companies went to in their effort to possess large parcels of the land.
Children would be picked up and placed over a chalk-drawn number 21 so that later when the government agent asked if they were over 21 (a requirement of the Homestead Act) they could reply in the affirmative.
Cardboard "houses" made from boxes, only 14 by 16 inches big, were placed on the land and sworn to by their "builders" that a good board house "14 by 16" (the law assuming the dimensions to be in feet) had been built on the land as required by the act.
As geographer-author Ingolf Voegler points out, "in the end, the ineffectiveness of the Act was assured not so much by its own provisions or administration or even where it was applied, but rather by numerous simultaneous countervailing laws that were subsequently enacted."
The renowned American historian and authority on land ownership in the Western United States, Paul Wallace Gates, summarizes the consequences of the law's failings and the reaction to the act's stated purpose:
"The retention of the Preemption Law and commutation clause of the Homestead Act made it possible for timber dealers, cattle grazers, mining interests, and speculators to continue to acquire lands through the use of dummy entrymen, false swearing, and, often, the connivance of local land officers ... The Desert Land Act, the Timber Culture Act, and the Timber and Stone Act provided even greater opportunities for dummy entrymen to enter lands and assign them to hidden land engrossers.
"The palpable frauds committed and the large acres transferred under these acts and their interference with the homestead principle lead one to suspect that their enactment and retention were the results of political pressure by interested groups."
As Professor Gates reminds us, it was not just the Homestead Act of 1862 which made this land bonanza available to the land speculators and corporations, but also many other subsequent laws enacted by Congress. Since judges often interpreted these laws by whim, fancy or personal interest it was possible for a settler to take advantage of the Preemption, Homestead and Timber Culture Acts and acquire 480 acres for about 50 cents an acre.
It has been estimated that about a tenth of all public domain land went to bona-fide homesteaders and many of these people would later encounter other financial difficulties. It was also said that these farmers could succeed only if they immediately recognized their need for "a horse, a plow, a wife -- and a mortgage," which occasioned Karl Marx to observe that the latter need would only assure that the homesteader's land would undoubtedly soon be back in the hands of the banks.
Land granting laws passed after 1862 saw massive giveaways. The railroads gained over 128-million acres (an area equal to all the New England states, plus New York and Pennsylvania); wagon roads and canals got two million acres; states acquired 140-million acres (later sold to land companies, railroads and speculators), and unprotected Indian land, amounting to between 100- and 125-million acres, was sold with large tracts going to investors and the railroads and only later were small tracts made available to settlers.
Federal lands for cash sales saw 100 million acres disappear from the public domain, and the Agricultural College Act of 1862 saw eight-million acres authorized to pay for the construction of the land grant colleges.
Once ownership of this land was concentrated by methods most historians have generally agreed upon were fraudulent, illegal and sanctioned by corrupt officials, and were frequently underwritten by laws specifically designed to benefit vested interests, the question became how best to make the land more profitable at the least social, economic, and political cost.
A.V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, WA 98203; email firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ea1.com/CARP/