Before homesteading was urban, it was the mechanism used to manifest a rural landscape from the ‘virgin land’ of an open west. The conversion of ‘frontier wilderness’ into ‘productive land’ was initialized by granting federal territory to entrepreneurial farmers in return for ‘making use’ of the richness of the continent, starting in 160-acre plots. “Free Soil” was the property of the free farmer, the American Farmer, who independently wrests from the land the bounty of a growing nation. According to the American Government, the national frontier belonged to those willing to work it.
Driven by a national destiny, Homesteading policy marched settlers westward with little respect or understanding that this ‘unused space’ was in fact already inhabited land. The steady erosion of First Nation lands and their people amounted to displacement and genocide, while a zealous attitude concerned with ‘making use’ of the earth lead to ecological devastation that would culminate in the dust bowl of the 1920s and 30s, when enormous tracks of once prairie land turned into desert due to over farming.
The political history of Homesteading has never been simple. The first Homestead Act was signed in 1862 by then President Abraham Lincoln, after the south had seceded from the Union, and southern Democrats could no longer block legislation designed to proliferate independent, “free” farmers at the expense of wealthy slave-owning planters. The west would be won; this was understood before any official homesteading began. Before the Civil War it was only unclear who would be the winners.
Northern politicians promoted the Jeffersonian ideal of the Yeoman Farmer throughout the 19th century, and by the time of the 1862 Homestead Act, which allowed anyone who had not “taken up arms” against the United States to homestead, they had a particular population in mind –the act included the participation of freed slaves. Homesteading, it seemed, was an answer for freed slaves and poor European immigrants, including single women, to participate in the democratic project of independent land ownership when they otherwise would have been unable.
The process was straightforward: apply, work the land into productivity over five years, and earn the deed. Scrutiny on behalf of the Government was minimal, Homesteading was often abused, and its intended users were not always the ones homesteading. The policy would be amended and expanded to encourage ranching in the mountain west, the planting of forests, and subsistence farming during the New Deal, but few of these intentions ever materialized.
Making use of what is unused, the freedom of ownership earned with hard work, and the opportunity that homesteading offers to the disenfranchised, were rhetorical legacies that continue into the contemporary era. Direct links to this history helped develop the program of Urban Homesteading, and similar problems of intention and reality linger through the decades.