Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 29, No. 3, Summer 2009, pp. 179-202
The inspiring story of homesteaders claiming free land and realizing their dreams became one of the enduring narratives of American history. But scholars who have studied homesteading have often been much more ambivalent, even harshly negative, about how successful it was in practice. While the public often views our history differently from scholars, in this case the disparity appears both substantial and persistent. Perhaps it is time to revisit homesteading and reassess whether homesteading really was a good idea or not.
Certainly homesteading once powerfully fired the American imagination. The promise of free land was such a startling idea that it created a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic, much like Henry Ford's later announcement of the five-dollars-a-day wage. It offered a seemingly magical possibility, one that people wanted so strongly to believe that it proved essentially impervious to contrary evidence. This vision, this "hope of the poor man," became deeply rooted in American culture, literature, and memory-in such books as Willa Cather's O Pioneers! and O. E. Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth, in histories like Mari Sandoz's Old Jules and personal journals like Elizabeth Corey's Bachelor Bess, in Elinore Pruitt Stewart's letters to the Atlantic Monthly (later published as Letters of a Woman Homesteader and the basis for the 1978 movie Heartland). President George Bush in his 2005 inaugural address linked the Homestead Act with "a broader definition of liberty," and columnist George Will declared, "Rarely has a social program worked so well."