The Great American Land Grab
Part Six (in case you missed them, Parts 1-5 are available at the Archives)
By the turn of the century almost all the available land in America had been staked out by one interest or another, and many Populists and reformers were displeased with the result. The Great Plains states were, by and large, democratically settled, but the same could not be said for the South and West. Henry George described California as "a country not of farms but . . . of plantations and estates," and thought a single tax on land was the remedy. The social effects of maldistributed land were most readily seen in the impoverishment of tenant farmers and sharecroppers in the South, and the exploitation of Chinese and Japanese laborers in the West.
Almost providentially, however, an opportunity to correct the mistakes of the past and to open up new lands for homesteading presented itself. Thanks to modern civil engineering, the arid expanses of the West, once useful only for grazing, could be irrigated and turned into cropland. Much of the land beyond the Rockies could thereby be transformed into a kind of New Midwest, characterized by family owned and operated farms. The instrument of this transformation would be a massive federal reclamation program; the Reclamation Act of 1902 was its charter.
F. Ii. Hewell, first director of the federal Reclamation Service, explained the purpose of the Reclamation Act as "not so much to irrigate the land, as it is to make homes. . . It is not to irrigate the land which now belongs to large corporations, or even to small ones; it is not to make these men wealthy, but it is to bring about a condition whereby that land shall be put into the hands of the small owner, whereby the man with a family can get enough good land to support that family, to become a good citizen, and to have all the comforts and necessities which rightfully belong to an American citizen." Theodore Roosevelt was more succinct: "Every [reclamation] dollar is spent to build up the small man of the West and prevent the big man, East or West, coming in and monopolizing the water and land."
Federal reclamation would bring about this democratic renaissance by using both a carrot and a stick. The carrot would be subsidized water; the stick was lodged in two crucial provisions of the 1902 Act -the 16o-acre limitation, and the so-called residency requirement. The first provided that no person could receive federal water for use on more than a homestead farm of 160 acres; the second provided that water would be delivered only to "an actual bona fide resident on such land, or occupant thereof residing in the neighborhood." By attaching these twin limitations to its delivery of subsidized water, federal reclamation would, in the words of one of its sponsors, "not only prevent the monopoly of public land, but . . break up existing monopolies throughout the arid region."
It sounded confiscatory indeed, almost revolutionary - but the large Western landowners could hardly complain. They had, in the first place, acquired their empires at prices that were scandalously low and through stratagems that were at best unethical and at worst illegal. Moreover, it was not as if Congress was about to drive them into unwilling bankruptcy. The law did not require them to accept federal water; it merely provided that, if they chose to sip at the public trough, they would, in due course, have to sell their lands in excess of 16o acres. Subsequent regulations established that they could receive subsidized water for ten years before parting with their excess holdings - a time span which allowed for enough farming profit to satisfy all but the greediest.
End of Part Six.
Part Seven, the conlusion, will be published starting Thursday, October 9.
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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