Well, a large portion of our country was actually developed by Americans who acquired...free real estate!
During the latter part of the 19th Century, a substantive portion of westward-moving American settlers had been able to acquire their land as a result of benefits they found within the Homestead Act. The Homestead Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862. Of note is the year the Homestead Act was signed into law - 1862.
As a precursor to the onslaught of the Civil War, southern states seceded from the Union in 1861. With the southern states’ secession from the union having already taken place in 1861, the Homestead Act was likely not able to viably have become a law in the United States prior to the secession of those southern states from the union. Furthermore, the Homestead Act likely may not have indeed become law in the United States at all, had it not been for the breakup of the union, through the southern states’ secession.
Among southern states’ political objectives in the early-to-mid-1860’s - political objectives which could be advanced through members of Congress who represented their very own southern states - had been advancing the institution of slavery in America. In relation to the planned westward expansion of the United States, and by association, in relation to homesteading, interests held by members of Congress who represented the South had been intently focused upon enabling their constituents to purchase additional land in what would soon become the western United States. At which time, if upon acquisition of land in the west by present-day slave owners, slavery as an institution would then have become a foundational pillar to the rural economy for western land acquired. Put into "institutional motion", through Congress, at the direction of, slave owners. Since that land, ideally, in the eyes of Southern delegates, would then be owned by United States citizens who would want to sustain (and thus, also advance) an American economy based upon the institution of slavery. Within their new American states.
As to what the west ultimately could, or would then in time become, there was quite a bit of disagreement in 1860's America. Disagreement, that is, which was actively being debated in Congress by very conflicted interests - slave owners, and free-staters.
Needless to say, there was quite a bit at stake, relating to an American path westward in the 1860's. Both in terms of potential land in the west that could be and would be settled, and in terms of political sway as well. This was so, because as the United States pushed westward, and as the 20th Century dawned, in excess of 10% of the total land area of the United States as a whole would come to be conveyed to what would in time become, over 1.5 million American homesteaders. This million-plus member American citizenry, who would then make up a formidable voting block. A newly-formed voting block, which would soon, and which indeed did, join the union. Able, to cast their votes. Able, to dictate individual state policy, in the new American west.
Prior to the establishment of the Homestead Act, which, signed into law by President Lincoln in 1862, and having gone into effect the following year - in 1863 - the Preemption Act of 1841 allowed American settlers to claim up to 160 acres of federal land…at a cost of $1.25 per acre. So the concept of inexpensive land acquisition, and westward expansion for that matter, was already formal American policy...some twenty years before the Homestead Act became law. The Preemption Act...
Acquisition of land in the American west - thanks to the Preemption Act - took place. According to provisions of the Act, the land acquirer was mandated to be either 21 years old, or serve as the head of a household.
As the topic of immigration often is brought into public debate today, through the Preemption Act, interestingly, an immigrant who intended to become a citizen of the United States, yet who would not have been a citizen of the United States at the time they acquired their land through the Preemption Act, was also eligible to acquire land at the cost of $1.25 per acre.
Upon acquiring land through provisions set forth by the Preemption Act, individuals who acquired land - be they United States citizens, or be they immigrants who were not yet citizens of the United States - were then required to make improvements to their homestead property. While also living on the property, for at least five years.
Progressing forward, intent written into the Homestead Act traces its thesis to a planned reduction in the cost of land in the west - at that time, available for $1.25 an acre - accompanied by the ancillary reduction in the cost of homesteading, overall. Homesteading that is, which had already been established and put into effect in America, through the Preemption Act.
Opposition to both the Preemption Act and to the Homestead Act festered in wealthy landowners, a large concentration of whom, resided in the southern states. Those being the same southern states that seceded from the westward-expanding union…in 1861.
Opponents of the Preemption Act - and of the Homestead Act, for that matter - feared that land acquired (inexpensively) in the west would come to be held by immigrants. And by farmers who possessed little economic viability. Each group, thus not being natural advocates for the advancement of the institution of slavery in the west. Immigrants, and farmers of little economic means, it had been surmised by wealthy southern land owners, would not hold the same political (nor economic) ideals as those ideals espoused by wealthy southern plantation owners. This really came down to, the institution of slavery in the west. Slavery, that is, being the bedrock on which the economy (and the political power) of the southern states comfortably and profitably lay.
Whereas the Preemption Act liberalized land ownership in America, so to speak, by making land available to non-United States citizens (and small farmers), through homesteading, the Homestead Act further opened up the gateway to land ownership in America by allowing individuals who were under the age of 21 - yet who had served at least 14 months in the United States army or navy - to acquire land, through the Act.
As the southern states did elect to secede from the union - in 1861 - the Homestead Act restricted conveyance of land in the American west, by way of the Act, for any individual who fought against the United States. Accordingly, within its very wording, citizens of the southern states - since those southern citizens resided in states which had seceded from the union (and fought against the United States) - were thus excluded from acquiring land as homesteaders, by way of the Act.
Interestingly, as owner occupancy is often one stated objective held by Land Banks in American cities today, in their conveyance of inexpensive city-owned properties to owner-occupying home buyers, land conveyed to land acquirers through the Homestead Act - i.e.: to homesteaders - was conveyed in accordance with an intent for that land to be settled, resided upon, and cultivated - i.e.: improved - by the individual acquiring the land. Owner occupancy of land, and the development of that acquired land for the benefit of the owner-occupant through homesteading, lay at the core of land conveyance policy, resulting from, the Homestead Act. As well as the Preemption Act. Similar in some ways, to property conveyances which take place today, through Land Banks.
Homesteading continued on as American policy up through the 1970’s. In 1976, as a result of the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, homesteading as a federal exercise ceased to exist. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act governs the way in which public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management is managed. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act was signed into law by President Gerald Ford. In 1976. So, is homesteading long since gone in the United States today? Not exactly…
In 1873, a budding settlement which would later go on to become Marquette, Kansas, took hold.
Marquette is a small town in McPherson County, Kansas...it's home to the Kansas Motorcycle Museum. By 1890, the population of Marquette stood at 367 people. Today, that population in Marquette is still far fewer than 1,000 residents.
Marquette is one of a handful of quaint Kansas towns that has provided modern day homesteading opportunities to those who elect to call small town Kansas - Marquette in this case - “home".
Homesteading - i.e.: free land, with conditions - has been a unique benefit made available to those who elect to relocate to Marquette. And build a house, that is, upon relocating.
In Marquette, lot sizes which have been made available to modern day homesteaders have ranged from between 11,000 square feet per lot to 25,000 square feet per lot.
Lincoln is a small Kansas town found within Lincoln County. Home to Crispins Drug Store Museum, Lincoln was founded in 1870. Ten years later, in 1880, the population of Lincoln stood at just over 400 residents. By 2020, the population of Lincoln was still fewer than 1,500 residents.
In Lincoln, Kansas, free land (with conditions), by way of homesteading, has also been made available to those who elect to relocate to this town in the Sunflower State…relocate that is, and then build a home. Residential lots in Lincoln which have been made available to “homesteaders” range from between 14,000 square feet per lot to 35,000 square feet per lot. One condition in Lincoln for land conveyances enacted in this manner has been for the acquirer of the land - i.e.: for the homesteader - to build a 1,300 square foot home on their lot, once they acquire the land.
Tracing back once again to the Homestead Act, one specific provision of the Act itself was the inclusion of a condition whereby the homesteader, once they were able to illustrate that their homestead property had been sustained for a period of at least five years, would be required to pay a $18 filing fee. Upon paying their filing fee, the homesteader would then receive their deed to the land.
One-hundred sixty acres had been available to an American homesteader through the Homestead Act. The 160 acres, that is, which would be accompanied by a commitment made by the homesteader to build a home on their homestead property. Similar to Lincoln, Kansas today. Similar to Marquette, Kansas today.
Looking back, revisiting history, if the secession of the southern states had not taken place as it did, then the future westward expansion of the United States at that time…if it went on to occur at all…might have looked quite different. And that westward expansion in America (if it even occurred) would have had quite a different set of progressions...with varying settlement timelines as well. Homesteading, existing as a necessary byproduct of American westward expansion, might not have occurred. And if homesteading in America had not occurred when it did, maybe then, westward expansion for America would not have taken place.
Had Abraham Lincoln not been president... Had members of Congress who were domiciled in the southern states not been extricated from their membership in Congress... Had the Civil War not taken place... Had the Confederate States won the Civil War... Had one or more of these aforementioned historical circumstances ended up with a different outcome, then too, homesteading in the American west might not have taken place. Then too, without such a catalyst to westward expansion - i.e.: homesteading - the United States as we know it today, accordingly, might have looked, quite a bit different.
By the end of the Civil War - in 1865 - some 15,000 American homesteaders had claims in territories that we now know to be the states of Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Montana, and Wyoming.
By 1890, nearly 80 million acres of what is now the United States had been conveyed to westward-looking American homesteaders. Millions of acres conveyed - conveyed, that is, inexpensively. Millions of conveyed and developed western American acres that went on to become the structure for, and the formation of - very much the "DNA" for - countless American towns, American cities, and American states. Those very towns, cities, and states now being well known destination points and centers of American life, in 2022. The origins, for which, owe at least a decent portion of their very existence to...late 19th Century homesteading.