On the Wing

A Higher and Enduring Interest


In 1862, as the Civil War raged, President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, a law that would have a profound effect on the development of the West and transform the nation forever. The act granted up to 160 acres of public land to individual settlers, men or women, at the cost of only a small filing fee, provided they lived on the land and cultivated it for five years.

The disposition of public lands had been hotly debated since the dawn of the republic. A homestead proposal was discussed in the U.S. Senate in the years before the Civil War, but Southern senators firmly opposed it. Plantation owners wanted instead to buy up public lands and introduce slave labor into the new territories in the West. They also believed that homesteaders in those territories would oppose slavery, since small family-owned farms would be unable to compete with large plantations that had the unfair advantage of an enslaved labor force. Several senators from the North had also been against the act, fearing that giving away free public land would depress property values.

By 1862, however, the South had seceded from the Union, and on May 6, 1862, the Senate passed the act by a vote of 33 to 7. On May 20, Lincoln signed it into law.

The homestead law and its successor statutes remained in effect for over 100 years, until 1976, with a 10-year extension for Alaska. During that time almost 300 million acres, about one-tenth of all the land in the United States, were conveyed to over 1.5 million private owners and their families.

In his 1863 annual message to Congress, Lincoln reported that 1,456,514 acres had already been distributed through the law, adding that “it has long been a cherished opinion of some of our wisest statesmen that the people of the United States had a higher and more enduring interest in the early settlement and substantial cultivation of the public lands than in the amount of direct revenue to be derived from the sale of them.” Farmers settling on and cultivating the land were a better investment for the nation than the government selling the land for cash — for example, to plantation owners from the South.

Those public lands, of course, had been wrested from indigenous communities, staining our history with blood and suffering that we’re only now coming to terms with. Settlers had been coming and staking claims to what would later become Oregon and Washington since the 1830s; their title to the claims was not recognized until the 1850s after the territory was organized and recognized by Congress. Subsequent settlers, however, took advantage of the Homestead Act and had clean title once they met the law’s residence and cultivation requirements. And they came by the thousands, some from other parts of the country but the greatest number as immigrants.

Lincoln did not sign the Homestead Act out of the kindness of his heart. Giving away public land was not a government handout intended to benefit the undeserving poor, even though most homesteaders were often destitute. There was political advantage to be gained, and giving land away also meant jumpstarting an economy; individuals and their families paid back that gift in spades.

On the Key Peninsula, homesteaders cleared land and started farms, farms turned into communities, communities were connected by the Mosquito Fleet and then by wagon roads, highways and county roads. Commerce thrived, stores were built, along with churches and schools. Families grew, and grew again, generations came and went, and then came back, land was divided up and passed on, an explosion of communities everywhere owing their birth to Lincoln’s homestead law.

The government and those governed worked together for the common good. Homesteaders who settled on public land and fulfilled their dreams of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, did not do so in a vacuum; no man is an island entire of itself, as John Donne wrote. They gave back and enriched their communities, in the literal and figurative sense.

That was an investment by all of us for all of us. We are all settlers on this land; whatever we build, we build together.

The Senate and Lincoln in 1862 could have chosen to listen to those who did not want public land to be given away, land that was the property of the U.S, however ill-gotten. I invite you to imagine what our little corner of the world might have looked like if they had, and how many of our friends and neighbors would never have made it to these shores.

A conversation about the proper relationship between government and the governed is always timely and important. And history can always help if we get lost in the thicket.

Joseph Pentheroudakis is an artist, historian and avid birder who writes from Herron Island.