The history of Western Expansion in the United States is complicated and fascinating. In O Pioneers!, Cather depicts one family's experiences during the later part of this expansion. Cather focuses on one important event in American History which played a dramatic role in western expansion - the Homestead Act. The United States acquired a massive amount of land during the early 19th century, most through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-1848. For almost seventy years the country debated over how this land would be distributed. A political party, the free-soilers, was even founded on the idea that the land should be given away for free. The debate became much more violent as the North and South of the United States began to clash over the continuation of slavery. The southern states were determined that the new states admit slavery, and the north (whether for political or moral reasons) was equally determined that they should not be. The succession of the Southern states in 1860 paved the way for Abraham Lincoln to settle the matter finally. Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law in 1862.
A Homesteader had to be the head of a household and at least 21 years old. He, or She, could claim a 160 acre parcel of land. In order to meet the requirements of the law, all one had to do was build a home, "improve" the land and farm for five years. The only charge for the land was an $18 dollar filing fee, but homesteaders paid a price in toil, sacrifice, danger, and loneliness. Many homesteaders came from groups obviously in need of such a chance: newly freed slaves, recent immigrants, and the poor. Interestingly, many of the homesteaders were also the children of successful farmers who wanted their own land. The Homestead Act was successful in that by 1900 about 600,000 farmers had "proven up" on their land.
Despite these high numbers, the law's success was mitigated by the fact that speculators and railroad companies bought up a lot of the best land, leaving only the poorer plots of land for homesteaders. The fact that in 1862 Congress also passed the Pacific Railway Act at least partially explains this phenomenon. The purpose of the Pacific Railway Act was to encourage the expansion of the railroads into the west, and its provisions aided the railroads in buying up any land they felt they needed. Though these provisions may have aided the railroads in buying up a large portion of the best land, it is important to recognize that the presence of the railroad vastly improved successful homesteaders' lives. By 1869 the first transcontinental railroad had been completed, and a dangerous journey that had once taken months could be accomplished in about a week. Of course, many dangers still existed for homesteaders: long, cold winters; large distances between homesteads and town, leading to lack of immediate help in an emergency; and total dependency on the success of just a few years of crops.
Some readers may be surprised by the lack of a Native American Presence in Cather's novel. In fact, the removal of Native American tribes began in the 1830s under President Andrew Jackson. Some Native American tribes, particularly the Sioux, resisted fiercely, and a minimal threat of violence still existed during the time period in which O Pioneers! is set; but, at this point Native Americans had for the most part been forcibly driven from their homes and there was little contact between settlers and the remaining tribes.
In O Pioneers! Cather represents the possibility of both magnificent success and tremendous failure. In life as well as fiction, the Homestead Act gave many families the chance to live the American Dream, but it tempted as many if not more into ruin and despair. Another surprising fact about the Homestead Act is that it was actually in affect in the entire U.S. until 1976 and in Alaska until 1986. But, after The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, the amount of available land substantially decreased, and most homesteading applications were unsuccessful. In total, about ten percent of the area of the US was settled through this law.
The Homestead Act (May 20, 1862) set in motion a program of public land grants to small farmers. Before the Civil War, the southern states had regularly voted against homestead legislation because they correctly foresaw that the law would hasten the settlement of western territory, ultimately adding to the number and political influence of the free states. This opposition to the homestead bill, as well as to other internal improvements that could hasten western settlement, exacerbated sectional conflicts. Indeed, the vision of independent yeomen establishing homesteads on the prairies was offered in the political rhetoric of the 1850s as a vivid contrast to the degradation of slave labor on southern plantations. A homestead bill passed the House in 1858 but was defeated by one vote in the Senate; the next year, a similar bill passed both houses but was vetoed by President James Buchanan. In 1860, the Republican platform included a plank advocating homestead legislation.
Did You Know?
The Homestead Act remained in effect for more than 100 years. The final claim, for 80 acres in southeastern Alaska, was approved in 1988.
After the southern states had seceded, homestead legislation was high on the Republican agenda. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided that any adult citizen (or person intending to become a citizen) who headed a family could qualify for a grant of 160 acres of public land by paying a small registration fee and living on the land continuously for five years. If the settler was willing to pay $1.25 an acre, he could obtain the land after only six months’ residence.
But the law did not provide the new beginning for urban slum dwellers that some had hoped; few such families had the resources to start farming, even on free land. The grants did give new opportunities to many impoverished farmers from the East and Midwest, but much of the land granted under the Homestead Act fell quickly into the hands of speculators. Also, over time, the growing mechanization of American agriculture led to the replacement of individual homesteads with a smaller number of much larger farms.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.