The Great American Land Grab
Part Five (in case you missed them, Parts 1-4 are available at the Archives)
Meanwhile, the Civil War had led to the abolition of slavery, but not to the end of the plantation system. Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Radical Republicans, proposed dividing the large Southern estates and giving to freed Negroes and landless whites forty acres and some cash. "Homesteads to them [Negroes]," he argued, "are far more valuable than the immediate rights of suffrage, though both are their due." This was too venturesome a proposal, however, even for the Radicals, and it did not get far in Congress. As a result, Negroes and poor whites in the South remained landless, and a century later a large Southern grower would tell a CBS newsman making a documentary on farm workers, "We no longer own our slaves, we rent them."
In other parts of the country Congress continued to squander the national patrimony with abandon. The railroads were granted 134 million acres, plus another 49 million by the states. Often the railroads would allow settlers to stay and improve the land, then evict them later and sell the upgraded property at a considerable profit. Congress did nothing to remedy such abuses. It was busy enacting - in addition to the Swamp Lands Act and Desert Land Act - such giveaways as the General Mining Law of 1872 and the Timber and Stone Act of 1878. Under the latter, lumbermen and quarry operators acquired millions of acres at $2.50 an acre, largely by using the same "dummy entryman" technique that Haggin and Tevis had so advantageously employed. Under the former, landgrabbers were able to acquire large tracts of public land for purposes that had nothing to do with mining or even settlement.
Congress was not entirely blind to what was happening, and it did strike some blows for agrarian democracy, but these were to a considerable extent diluted or subverted by subsequent legislation and administrative betrayals. Under pressure from landless frontiersmen, Congress passed the Preemption Act of 1841, allowing families to settle on 160 acres of unsurveyed public land, with first right to purchase when the land was ultimately placed on sale. This was as far as Congress was willing to go at the time, since the South feared homesteading would undermine slavery.
In 1862, however, with no Southerners sitting, Congress adopted the Homestead Act, partially as a reward for Union soldiers. The law stands as a milestone in the history of American land policy. For the first time, full title to public land was to be granted free of charge to actual settlers. A family could acquire up to 160 acres - one quarter of a square mile - if it occupied and improved the land for five years. It was a fine law in theory, but by the time it was enacted a substantial portion of the best land in America was already accounted for.
Congress made things worse as historian Paul Wallace Gates has noted, by removing additional valuable acreage from homestead settlement usually by giving it to the railroads, or, as under the Morrill Land Grant Act, to the states, who in turn sold it to speculators. Shoddy administration by the Land Office did not help matters either. Cattlemen and speculators, both large and small, made widespread use of the "dummy entryman" trick and other ruses to acquire holdings far in excess of 160 acres, and the Land Office lacked either the will or the ability to stop them.
End of Part Five.
Part Six will be published starting Thursday, October 2.
This essay is part of a series written by Peter Barnes for The New Republic magazine in 1971-72. We think you'll be pleased -- and perhaps shocked -- to see how timely and insightful the essays are for today. Each essay will be republished, in installments, by The Progress Report.
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