Excerpt from The American Settler's Guide: A Popular Exposition of the Public Land System of the United States of America
Published in 1892
The frontier was the wilderness beyond the borders of civilized towns, a mysterious region that offered people the opportunity to strike out on their own, to make their own successes. For European immigrants, the American frontier offered a dream never before imagined. In Europe, a serf could never think of leaving his allotted plot of land to rise from poverty; a shopkeeper's son could never hope to run his own store before his father's death. Yet in America, just outside of the newly formed towns, hardy souls could determine their own destiny in the unknown.
On the American frontier, as in few other places on earth, a man amounted to the sum of his skills and endurance. Without the established lines of ancestry and wealth that made up the social structure in Europe, the American frontier was open to anyone strong enough or courageous enough to master it and claim its riches. On the frontier, each person had the power to shape his or her own destiny. Never before had a society offered all its citizens the opportunity for success. In the American West, "all men were future 'gentlemen' and deserved this designation, all women were prospective 'ladies' and should be treated as such. 'With us,' one frontiersman stoutly maintained, 'a man's a man, whether he have a silk gown on him or not,'" writes Ray Allen Billington in Westward to the Pacific.
To encourage settlement on the frontier, the U.S. government created legislation that would give every person a chance to own land. Farming in the West was greatly encouraged by the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave settlers up to 160 acres of free land if they settled on it and made improvements over a five-year span. The Timber Culture Act of 1873 granted an additional 160 acres to farmers who agreed to plant a portion of their land with trees. Both acts served to attract many thousands of settlers to the wide-open spaces of the American West.
To help settlers understand the opportunities available to them in the West, Henry N. Copp edited The American Settler's Guide. This book explained the various implications of the Homestead Act and detailed how a settler actually secured a claim to a plot of land. As amendments were made to the Homestead Act, Copp published new editions of his guide to keep homesteaders abreast of any changes.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from The American Settler's Guide:
- During the 1850s, Congress tried to pass homestead legislation, but southerners were opposed to the idea of "free land" because they could see no benefits for their region if the bill passed.
- One homestead legislation bill was passed by Congress in 1860, only to meet the veto of President James Buchanan (1791–1868).
- When Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) was elected president in 1860, the South still controlled the Senate. But the secession of the Southern states and the absence of Southern congressmen made passage of homestead legislation possible. President Lincoln signed the bill in 1862.
- Eighteen editions of The American Settler's Guide were published by 1892.
Excerpt from The American Settler's Guide Chapter III
I. Homesteads in General.
To the people of Europe, where the high price of real estate confers distinction upon its owner, it seems almost beyond belief that the United States should give away one hundred and sixty acres of land for nothing. Yet such is the fact; a compliance with the Homestead Law, and the payment of small fees and commissions to the local officers, secure title to a quarter-section of Government land. Laborers in other countries, who find it difficult to support their families, can here acquire wealth, social privileges, and political honors, by a few years of intelligent industry and patient frugality.
All in the Atlantic States, who are discouraged with the slow, tedious methods of reaching independence, will find rich rewards awaiting settlers on the public lands, who have talent and energy, while the unfortunate in business and they who are burdened with debt, can, in the West and South, start anew in the race of life, for the Homestead Law expressly declares that "no land acquired under the provisions of this chapter (Homestead) shall in any event become liable to the satisfaction of any debt contracted prior to the issuing of the patent therefor."
Citizens and those who have declared their intention to become citizens, who own no more than one hundred and sixty acres, may claim under the homestead laws, surveyed or unsurveyed lands, not mineral in character. This is conceded to the extent of one hundred and sixty acres .
Where to Settle.
The question "where to settle" is a serious one to the emigrant. The suggestions here offered are not in favor of any particular locality or community. They are such as must present themselves to every person who will give the subject serious consideration.
The wonderful diversity of soil and climate, society and facilities for the several industries presented by the broad expanse of our country, offers to every man a congenial location and a happy home.
The advantages of migrating in companies of three to twenty families are many. An agent can be chosen to examine the region in which after full inquiry, correspondence and reading, it is decided to settle. Low rates can be obtained for outfit, traveling and other expenses, land in large quantities can be bought cheap, while the discomforts of going upon Government lands are materially lessened when friends go in colonies.
Starting with the assumption that the emigrant is industrious, sober and intelligent, the points to be aimed at are—first and foremost, health and bodily comfort; second, mental and moral growth; third, financial success in the near future.
HEALTH AND BODILY COMFORT
If the health of himself and family is good, a climate like the one he is leaving should be sought by the settler. Run no risk by going upon the low land when accustomed to the hills; to a humid atmosphere from a dry bracing one, or the reverse.
Consult the family physician, and gain all the information possible about the mean annual temperature, extremes of heat and cold, the amount of rainfall, chills and fever, etc., in the region decided upon.
On the other hand, a change of climate often restores physical vigor. Many a consumptive from bleak New England has discovered fountains of health in the south and southwest.
Political troubles prevent immigration, as they aid emigration or an exodus. No community that deprives any honest citizen of his political rights can expect to secure an intelligent class of immigrants, and may expect to lose those who are disfranchised.
The enterprising among them will find homes amidst a wiser people, and let the office-holders collect their salaries from waste land ifthey can. There is no truer axiom than that in any neighborhood each man's gain is everybody's gain and each man's loss is everybody's loss.
MENTAL AND MORAL GROWTH
Seek a State or Territory whose officials appreciate churches and schools; where taxpayers perceive the fact that every dollar spent on education and religion is a saving of two dollars on the jail and penitentiary, where newspapers are numerous and libraries have been started, and literary, temperance and other societies are encouraged by the leading citizens. In sparsely settled regions in the Territories where society is not fully organized, much cannot be expected in the matter of education and religion, but the tone and sentiments of the people may be taken as a sure index of the future.
The settler must determine the kind of business he will pursue, then seek a locality best adapted to carrying it on. Farming is the most common and safest occupation in a new country. If he would make a specialty of live stock, fruit culture, wheat raising, or aught else, let the farmer consider all that tends to success.
Railroad facilities, river and lake transportation, and nearness to markets, must be looked to; also the fence and other real estate laws, State and county debts, and the laws relative to municipal indebtedness, rates of taxation, character of officials, etc.; whether the school houses, churches and public buildings are already erected, and society fully organized. Homestead exemptions, cost of living and of building materials, nearness to stores, mills, etc., abundant water supply, Indians, droughts, grasshoppers, potato bugs, and everything else that can affect his success, should receive due attention.
Land near a railroad at $5.00 an acre, is cheaper than land at $1.25 several miles from transportation. Do not buy too much land simply because it is cheap. One hundred and sixty acres are all an ordinary man can attend to properly, and taxes on a large farm balance considerable profit.
Other things being equal, choose a settlement near mines and manufactures, or rapid streams likely to be used for manufactures; near the junction of rivers or valleys, where a valley crosses a river or ends at a lake.
Such locations always secure good markets for farm produce, and rapidly advance the price of land, becoming centers of business and sites for future cities, [sic]
The title which a settler acquires to lands in this country is in fee simple. It is not a lease for any term of years, but perpetual ownership, whether he buys of the general Government, or a State, or of a corporation. The land becomes his property, to hold during life, and transmit to his heirs, or he may sell it at will. There is no landlord, no rent to pay, nor any church rates exacted. He is himself lord of the manor, and peer of his fellow-citizens of all classes.
The General Land Office issues free of cost circulars of instruction. A letter "To the Hon. Commissioner of the General Land Office, Washington, D.C.," and requesting a copy of the general instructions under the homestead and other laws, will secure a valuable document without charge. [Copp, 28, 120–1]
What happened next . . .
Millions of people claimed land through the Homestead Act. Despite the relative ease with which settlers could gain ownership of large tracts of land, farming in the West proved to be quite difficult for some. Settlers could claim land without farming tools or any experience or special knowledge to aid their endeavor. While 160 acres was plenty of land to provide for a family in fertile regions of the country, in the desert and semiarid regions it was far too little. The expense of irrigation in the dryer regions and the cost of shipping goods to market on railroads forced many homesteaders into debt.
In addition to the difficulties of farming in the best circumstances, environmental catastrophes proved devastating to some homesteaders. Gale-force winds, hailstorms, tornadoes, and blizzards caused much damage in western regions. Droughts ruined many harvests. Prairie fires swallowed crops. From 1874 to 1877, swarms of locusts devoured farmers' crops as well as their best leather boots.
To alleviate some of these problems, amendments to the Homestead Act were incorporated over the years, including provisions for forest land and grazing land. In addition, the five-year residence requirement was changed to three years in 1912, and the maximum acreage tract (the land that the settler could acquire) was increased to 640 acres. Despite the difficulties, many homesteaders rose to the challenges of life on their land. The wooden-frame and brick houses, the windmills that harness the strong winds to pump water from the ground, and the rows and rows of crops across the western states stand as testament to the endurance and ingenuity of homesteaders.
Did you know . . .
- Democratic senator from Tennessee Andrew Johnson (1808–1875) led the fight for homestead legislation.
- The largest land claim, known as the Oklahoma land rush, occurred on April 22, 1889, when in a single day some fifty thousand settlers claimed lands that were just opened to settlement.
- European immigrants were encouraged to partake of the Homestead Act by railroad company propaganda. The railroads hoped to profit by providing transportation for farmers' goods to market.
Consider the following . . .
- How was ownership of property different in America than in Europe?
- What did a homesteader need to consider before selecting a plot of land?
For More Information
Billington, Ray Allen. Westward to the Pacific: An Overview of America's Westward Expansion. St. Louis: Jefferson National Expansion Historical Association, 1979.
Copp, Henry N. The American Settler's Guide: A Popular Exposition of the Public Land System of the United States of America. 18th edition. Washington D. C.: Henry N. Copp, 1892.
Penner, Lucille Recht. Westward Ho!: The Story of the Pioneers. New York: Random House, 1997.