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Westward Expansion: The Homestead Act of 1862 & the Frontier Thesis

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  • 0:05 Miners Open the West
  • 1:15 The Homestead Act
  • 3:55 Changes in Western Life
  • 6:16 The Frontier Thesis
  • 8:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Between the mid-1800s and the turn of the 20th century, the American frontier opened and closed abruptly. What factors influenced this land rush, and how did it help shape American history?

Miners Open the West

In the mid 19th century, the American frontier effectively stopped at the western edge of states that bordered the Mississippi River. Between there and California was a void, largely filled with Native Americans and scattered pioneers. But by 1890, the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the frontier had been all but erased. First, let's look at how western expansion happened so quickly, and then we'll talk about what one historian believes were the most lasting effects of the American frontier.

The first people to 'open' the West were miners, hoping to strike it rich, first in California, then the Rocky Mountains, and finally the Black Hills and Yukon. In each place, the earliest prospectors stripped the surface metals quickly, and underground mining was then carried out by corporations. But even though most of the miners struck out, they left a tremendous legacy in the trails they blazed. The onslaught of people created roads, towns, and awareness of the West, so even though few prospectors actually struck it rich, they laid the foundations for permanent communities throughout the continent.

The Homestead Act

Another spike in westward migration came with the Homestead Act of 1862 and similar bills in the 1870s. Beginning on New Year's Day, 1863, individuals could apply for a 160-acre homestead west of the Mississippi River. The land was free, but in order to get the deed, the owner had to build a 12x14' home and grow crops for five years. The Homestead Act attracted people from many walks of life to the Great Plains, especially poor or landless farmers, disillusioned urban dwellers, freed slaves, and new immigrants.

Where the prairie ended, beyond the reach of the Homestead Act, the wide open foothills of the Rocky Mountains served as home to scattered ranchers who grazed their cattle freely on the 'open range' where no homesteads or fences or property lines existed. Brands served to identify ownership of a herd. When the cattle were ready for sale, cowboys took them on what was called the long drive, walking sometimes thousands of miles to the nearest markets.

For better or worse, this period in history also coincides with the Romantic era, in which many aspects of life were recorded more as ideals than reality. Farming and ranching in the West was incredibly difficult, if not impossible. Homesteaders might have land, but they couldn't afford the steel plow needed to break it or an animal to pull it. Even if they had the equipment and animals, they often didn't have enough water to irrigate the crops or water the animals. They didn't have trees to build houses or burn fires or light stoves. They faced all the same extreme weather conditions that modern Americans face - drought, wildfires, tornadoes, blizzards - but without any modern assistance. Many homesteaders lived in terror of murderous raids by Native Americans, and ranchers feared cattle rustlers. And they did almost all of this completely alone, isolated on their free 160 acres or trapped by the wide open space around them. Every three out of five homesteaders abandoned his land.

It might have been difficult, but throughout the life of the bill, millions of Americans believed that they would be the next success story on the prairie. The Homestead Act saw another flurry of applications in the years following the collapse of Reconstruction, as African Americans fled the South, looking for a place to start over. As many as 40,000 of these so-called 'Exodusters' settled all-black towns in Kansas where they found more opportunity and equality.

Changes in Western Farm Life

The railroad eased life for many homesteaders, bringing more people, services, and opportunities. Farm goods could be sold and shipped much more easily to the East, and manufactured goods could be purchased and sent west to the eager farmers and their families. However, the railroad also brought in corporations that often managed to wrestle control of the best land, sources of water, and emerging local governments.

Like homesteading, ranching on the open range peaked just after Reconstruction, but it came to a screeching halt in the 1880s. The invention of barbed wire effectively closed the open range. A series of terrible blizzards mid-decade also convinced many cattlemen to pack it in for good. Finally, the expansion of the railroad ended the need for the long drives, and suddenly, the cowboy life ended just as suddenly as it had begun.

The enormous farms of the West would not have been possible without the aid of new technology. For example, a farmer in 1800 could harvest about a fifth of a hectare of wheat a day; using Cyrus McCormick's mechanical reaper, that same farmer could now harvest two and a half hectares a day. Many innovations made farming more efficient, and combined with the availability of land in the West, the total area of American farmland in production more than doubled between 1860 and 1910. Though cotton accounted for a large percentage of agricultural exports, American farmers also grew record surpluses of wheat and corn.

The government also assisted farmers through the 1862 Morrill Land Grant College Act, which established colleges dedicated to research in scientific farming. One such researcher cured cholera in pig herds; another developed new strains of fruit to plant in California. Several federally-funded scientists traveled the world, looking for new crops and ideas, bringing back important breeds of wheat, corn, and alfalfa. Though the dramatic increase in productivity was good news for American city-dwellers, it meant that prices fell dramatically, which hurt farmers. The late 1800s was a desperate time for many of them, and a wave of agrarian discontent set off important political movements like the Grange.

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