History, Department of


Date of this Version



A DISSERTATION Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Major: History. Under the Supervision of Professor Margaret Jacobs.
Lincoln, Nebraska: April, 2009
Copyright (c) 2009 Tonia M. Compton


This study explores the relationship between federal land policy and women’s property rights in the nineteenth-century American West, analyzing women’s responses to expanded property rights under the 1850 Oregon Donation Act, the Homestead Act of 1862, and the 1887 General Allotment Act, and the ways in which the demands of empire building shaped legislators’ decisions to grant such rights to women. These laws addressed women’s property rights only in relation to their marital status, and solely because women figured prominently in the national project of westward expansion. Women utilized these property rights to both engage in the process of empire building, and to challenge the imperial order, primarily as it related to the re-construction of the American gender order.

As women moved westward (or experienced the impact of such movement) in the nineteenth century they encountered and contested ideas about race, gender, and citizenship that were inextricably linked to federal land policies. White women in Oregon, African American and white women homesteaders on the Kansas prairies, and Nez Perce women forced onto a reservation in Idaho shared the experience of becoming property owners. For white women, this meant new rights, granted with the implied responsibility of modeling proper gender behaviors, from marriage to childrearing and domesticity. For indigenous women, this meant assimilation to a new gender order through the restructuring of conceptions of property ownership and rights, and compliance with dominant ideas about marriage and gender roles. Because they were the most invisible female population in the imperial project, African American women slipped through the knotty discussions about women and property, their race prohibiting them from consideration as appropriate models of civilized behavior and proper gender relations.

Despite their differences, through their status as land owners, women shared the experience of being players in an imperial game that demanded them to negotiate a rocky terrain, littered with the racialized and gendered expectations which accompanied the efforts to establish a western American empire.

Advisor: Margaret Jacobs