Transcontinental Railroad, Homestead Act and Women's Suffrage

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  • 0:04 U.S. in Mid- to…
  • 0:36 The Homestead Act
  • 3:36 Transcontinental Railroad
  • 6:24 Women's Suffrage
  • 8:17 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.

In light of slavery and the issues related to it, several consequential events are often overlooked in the mid- to late-1800s: the Homestead Act, completion of the the transcontinental railroad and the push for women's suffrage.

U.S. in Mid- to Late-19th Century

If I asked a really good student of U.S. History to tell me what issues were most important in the mid- to late-19th century, he or she would probably mention slavery and related issues like the Civil War, Reconstruction and maybe even Manifest Destiny. These issues were so important that they often overshadow other developments in U.S. History in the same time frame. So, let's go back and look at a few of them: the Homestead Act, the transcontinental railroad and the growing women's suffrage movement.

The Homestead Act

Map of major cattle trails in the western U.S.
Cattle Trails Map

For a whole decade, some legislators had been interested in passing a Homestead Act to encourage settlement in newly acquired Western lands. But Southern lawmakers had generally opposed that, thinking that poor farmers would not support the expansion of slavery into their territory. But then the South seceded, and Southern Congressmen were out of the way.

Beginning on New Year's Day 1863, any American who had never borne arms against the government could apply for a 160-acre homestead west of the Mississippi River. The land was free, but the owner had to build a 12-by-14-foot home and grow crops for five years in order to get the deed to the land. Even farther west, in the lands of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming, the land was grazed communally by ranchers on the 'open range,' without property lines or fences. Cowboys drove mature cattle thousands of miles to the nearest markets. This lifestyle was especially attractive to young, adventurous former slaves who were drawn to the freedom that the open range afforded. There were also many poor white farmers, disillusioned urban dwellers and new immigrants among the settlers.

American folklore paints an image of the mythic West, with wide open spaces, little girls skipping across the big prairie and cowboys playing harmonica around a fire. But this ideal was far from reality. Those who even completed the arduous journey often faced crushing disappointment. Many homesteaders didn't have enough money to buy the equipment and animals necessary to run a farm. Those who had the implements realized quickly that even 160 acres can't feed livestock or sustain crops without irrigation. Yet, sources of water were often snapped up by fraudulent speculators who used it for personal gain. There were blizzards in the winter, tornadoes in the summer and hurricane-force winds in the spring, and drought, grassfires and insects. There was very little wood for building homes or for fuel. What's worse, these farmers were totally isolated with no neighbors or community for support. And though they had few friends, they weren't alone; violent conflict with Native Americans was common in some areas. In the end, about 60% of homesteaders abandoned their lands.

Despite these difficulties, millions of Americans applied for homesteads throughout the life of the bill. As Reconstruction policies failed in the former Confederacy, many African Americans left the South in hopes of finding greater equality in the West. About 40,000 of these so-called 'Exodusters' headed for Kansas where they founded all-black towns, some of which still exist today. When the railroad came through, life on the Great Plains got easier as the population increased, towns emerged, schools opened and services and opportunities generally increased.

Transcontinental Railroad

The presence of railroads had been transforming Eastern cities since the 1830s. Even though the California Gold Rush increased pressure for tracks to reach the West Coast, the project was stalled by expense, logistics and political wrangling. The 1854 Gadsden Purchase at the southern border of the New Mexico Territory was originally supposed to provide a path to the West Coast, but with the start of the Civil War, a Southern route was clearly not going to work. Then, a California man identified a pass through the Sierra Nevadas and headed to Washington to present an ingenious idea. Since the U.S. was busy fighting a war, all the federal government needed to do was authorize two corporations to get the job done - one in the East and one in the West - and provide free land. The railroad companies would use the land for right of way and then sell the remaining parcels to finance the project.

President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act into law in 1862. The Central Pacific Railroad Company began laying track in Sacramento, California and the Union Pacific Railroad Company started in Omaha, Nebraska. The two companies would race towards each other until they met, completing the first transcontinental railroad.

Map of the first transcontinental railroad route
Transcontinental Railroad Map

Both corporations struggled for seven years to complete their tasks. Blasting tunnels through rugged mountain terrain was difficult and dangerous, and the Central Pacific had trouble finding enough willing workers. Eventually, they hired Chinese immigrants to do the work. The Union Pacific had a much easier stretch of land to start with and plenty of Irish immigrants (and later, Civil War veterans) to hire. But they were harassed by Native Americans who resisted the encroachment of the United States into their land.

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