In the debate in modern America about the treatment of the poor, there have been efforts to suggest that welfare and special efforts to aid the poor are "un-American".  Why can't today's poor "make it on their own" just like all previous Americans did.

It is a slogan that sounds good.  However, it has little connection to reality.  American whites received some of the most massive welfare subsidies of any people in the world in the nineteenth century.  How did this happen?   A miracle from Jesus?  Well.... No.  they got these subsidies by means of a brutal campaign of racial imperialism that took vast lands from native Americans.  Indeed, Hitler was tremendously inspired by America's policies of racial imperialism and planned to copy them in his plans for the conquest of European Russia.  See our report on this.

In 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed landmark legislation called The Homestead Act.  The act allowed any adult 21 years of age or older to claim a 160 acre parcel of land in the public domain upon little more than an $18 filing fee.  Applicants had to be U.S. citizens, or they had to have applied for citizenship, and they had to sign a document declaring that the land claimed was intended for personal cultivation and settlement.  Claimants had 6 months to occupy the land and begin improvements, including building structures, putting up fencing, planting crops, and/or clearing trees.  Claimed land was exempt from sale, from taxes, and collection for previous debts.  After five years, applicants were entitled to file for a deed to the land, after demonstrating that improvements had been made.  If the land had been abandoned, or the claimant had changed residence, the plot reverted back to the government.  Congress later altered some of the basic tenets of the Homestead Act by raising the size of land parcels to 640 acres and lowering the tenancy requirement to three years.

How much land was distributed under the Homestead Act?

By far and away, the Homestead Act was the most extensive federal government program for distributing wealth in U.S. history.  In practically giving away land to private farmers in the American West, the Homestead Act effectively acted as a subsidy program for individuals.  Settlers from the eastern U.S. streamed west, particularly in the decades after the end of the Civil War in 1865.  The extent of wealth generated through the distribution of agricultural land has been assessed by business scholar Trina Williams.  According to Dr. Williams, over the period from 1862 to 1938, "Three million people applied for homesteads and almost 1.5 million households were given title to 246 million acres of land," a total "close to the land area of Texas and California combined."  Further detailed investigation shows that altogether "287.5 million acres of the public domain was granted or sold to homesteaders.  This is approximately 20% of public land and is comparable to the amount of land granted to states and the acreage sold or awarded to railroads and other corporate interests."

The Southern Homestead Act

Four years after Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law, Congress turned to addressing the inequity of land distribution in the former Confederate states of the south.  The resulting Southern Homestead Act, passed on on July 21, 1866 opened up 46 million acres of public domain land in the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi.  Public domain land in these states could be claimed under the guidelines similar to those of the Homestead Act of 1862.

The driving force behind the legislation was to provide the large population of former slaves with a way to buy farmland for themselves.  Williams notes that "The primary beneficiaries for the first six months were freedmen who were in desperate need of land to till."  Yet opposition to black landownership in the south was extremely high and significant obstacles on the state level were placed in the path of potential black farmers.  Within ten years, therefore, the Southern Homestead Act was repealed by Congress in June 1876."

Who Benefited from Homesteading legislation?

Precise statistics on which groups in American society benefited most from the original Homestead Act of 1862 do not appear to be available.  It is clear from the available research that thousands of blacks and millions of poor whites saw homesteading in the American West as their path toward economic salvation.  This path had been paved by the U.S. Government, which through its largess, engaged in one of the most far-reaching wealth distribution programs in history.

Concerning blacks in particular, Quintard Taylor, in his book In Search of the Racial Frontier: African-Americans in the American West, 1528-1990 (Norton, 1998), p. 152, notes that by 1900 there were 1,782 black-owned farms in Kansas worth around $3.7 million.  Kansas, along with Oklahoma, was a primary destination for black homesteaders seeking to claim their own farmland under the Homestead Act.  However, overall statistics on the proportion of black homestead claims filers vs. white claimants do not appear to have been tabulated.

In contrast, more exact figures are available for who benefited from the Southern Homestead Act.  Again citing Trina Williams,

"Of the 67,600 homestead applications made under the Southern Homestead Act, only 27,800 at most received final patent, which equates to the transfer of 2.9 million acres, about 6% of the land originally offered.  Estimates from a sample of homestead claims in Mississippi reveal that about 23% of claimants under the Southern Homestead Act were judged to be Black.  In that sample, 35% of Black claims were successful compared to 25% of white claims.  Using these percentages, 5,440 of the 27,800 final patents may have been awarded to Black homesteaders. ... Only 4,000 Blacks even made homestead entries under the Act.  Either way, the reality is that few homesteads were granted to Black claimants."

From Williams' figures it becomes all too clear that the barriers set up by whites in the south were extremely effective in dissuading black freedmen from claiming the land to which they had a right as American citizens.


Trina Williams, "The Homestead Act: Our Earliest National Asset Policy" PDF File

Quintard Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier: African-Americans in the American West, 1528-1990 (Norton, 1998).


The Homestead Act

History of The Homestead Act

Text of The Homestead Act of 1862

Legends of America : The Homestead Act

Roy M. Robbins, "Horace Greeley: Land Reform and Unemployment, 1837-1862" 

Roy M. Robbins, Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776-1936

Fred A. Shannon, "A Post-Mortem of the Labor-Safety Valve Theory"

Henry N. Smith, "Chapter XX: The Garden as Safety Valve" from Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (1950)

The Exodusters

Exodusters: A Definition of the Term

Glen Schwendemann, "The 'Exodusters' on the Missouri

The Southern Homestead Act

The Southern Homestead Act of 1866

Lanza: The Southern Homestead Act