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The passage of the homestead act of 1862 and the pacific railway act demonstrated that the federal government

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Americans hold a certain image of the West and Great Plains: a vague concoction of pioneers in covered wagons, hardworking, honest farmers, and, of course, Little House on the Prairie. The Homestead Act (1862) garnered widespread interest in settling the U.S. West; it created the impression that anyone willing to work hard could eke out a living on their own property. Self-fashioned pioneers streamed over the prairie’s overland trails in an attempt to forge their own success on the frontier.Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862 during the Civil War, the Homestead Act was the most comprehensive land distribution bill passed in the nineteenth century. Prior to the act, the U.S. government auctioned or sold public land in large lots that ordinary citizens could not afford to buy or manage. The Homestead Act ambitiously shifted land ownership and development towards average American citizens.During the Civil War Abraham Lincoln and his Republican majority passed a series of bills intended to develop the United States West, taking advantage of the fact that there was little competition after the South left Congress. These laws had been stymied during the Antebellum sectional crisis due to the issue of slavery in Western territories.The Homestead Act of 1862 stated that any current or future citizen, with a mere ten dollars, could claim a homestead of up to 160 acres of government land, and “improve” the land by putting it to use as a family plot. This meant erecting a dwelling and farming the soil for a period of five years. If the claimant did so for the allotted period, they could then gain ownership of their land free of charge. The act did not define what it meant to be the “head of a family,” save for an age restriction of twenty-one years if a single individual sought land, which made the Act egalitarian; it allowed African Americans, persecuted and famine-struck immigrants, and even women a chance to find freedom and success in the West. Although many of these settlers were not successful (due in part to expanding industrialization and the harsh climate of the Plains), the Homestead Act endured as the driving force for many Americans and immigrants seeking the “American dream,” as well as in exacerbating the strained relationship between the individual farmer and railroad companies who owned the majority of Western territory. 1Railroad Development:Abraham Lincoln praised the work of the common farmer’s labor above industry, proclaiming, “Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” 4 The Homestead Act appeared to be in favor of traditional yeoman farmer sentiments. However, impending industrialization and the growing significance of railroads in the transport of goods skewed land distribution to the benefit of railroad companies. In the ten years preceding the passage of the Homestead Act, almost 128 million acres of land were granted to railroads, which often included the most agriculturally viable land. The arduous planning and construction of railroads, as well as the uncertainty of where planned routes would actually be built, led to large tracts of land becoming unavailable for homestead claiming. When land along railroad lines were opened up to the public, the land was often snapped up by land speculators and later resold at high prices. 5Little Town on the PrairieWith the expansion of railroads and a steady surge of homesteaders into land previously viewed as “unused,” Western territories quickly developed into full-fledged states. As farmers moved in, towns, churches, and stores were built to address settlers’ needs, and communities flourished (albeit sometimes only briefly). 6 The homesteaders, though coming to improve their individual lives, had inadvertently set off an economic chain reaction of steady growth for the entire community and region. Maggie Davis, a homesteader who had arrived in Carter, Montana in 1910, remarked in a letter two months later that “Carter is getting to be quite a place…They have two stores now and a graveyard started…when I came, when we wanted to go to town we went towards the highest mountains…Now we can’t cut across country. We have to follow the road for it is nearly all fenced up.” 7 Two years later, Maggie’s town had grown to include three stores, a hotel, a restaurant, barbershop, post office, schoolhouse and a pool hall providing for both the bare necessities and for the entertainment of settlers.Below is a photograph of Kalispell, Montana, ca. 1900. Note the development of non-farming commerce and a burgeoning social community in the decades after the Homestead Act.

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