Date of this Version
Within five years, two separate homestead acts became law in the United States. Congress passed the first during the Civil War, which applied to public domain lands primarily in the western half of the U.S. The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed settlers to claim 160 acres of public domain and receive title after a period of residence and “improvement.” It also featured other methods to gain title, including cash purchase. Following the war, the Southern Homestead Act became law in 1866. Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi collectively held nearly 47,000,000 acres open to claim as a result, although in 80 acre parcels and without a preemption clause.
Despite the apparent similarities, scholars rarely consider the two laws in tandem. To a certain degree, this results from the wide range of interests that converge on this topic. Historians of the public domain and federal land laws; the early Republican Party; the Civil War and Reconstruction; and agriculture all publish on at least some aspects of the homestead acts. This paper argues that the South became a lumber hinterland to the expanding settlement on the Plains, amounting to a huge subsidy for that process while helping to create a permanent underclass in the South.