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Comparing Allotment and Homesteading, 1900-1915

       Both allottment and homesteading were political expressions of ideas of 19th-century reformers. Both promised (at some point) a quarter-section of land to participants who were expected, vaguely, to be transformed through land ownership into yeoman farmers. They may be said to have differed mainly in that homesteaders were volunteers who could choose their locations, while allottees had no choice concerning participation and little or no choice concerning location.
       The concept of homesteads, which may be described as small grants of free land from the public domain for people willing to bring them under cultivation, was developed by 19th-century reformers as a cure for social problems and corrupt land speculation. Reformers argued that proper land reform would drain off urban workers and thus raise wages in the East.1
       According to historian Fred A. Shannon, "the notion of an American Utopia" based on free land

found its most profound expression in the pious hopes of the land reformers of the 1840's. George Henry Evans and his fellow agrarians, writing for the columns of the Working Man's Advocate, the True Workingman, the New York Daily Tribune, and other labor of general newspapers, harped incessantly on the issues of widespread misery, poverty, and unemployment as a consequence of capitalism and land monopolies. All this they confidently expected to be remedied by a homestead policy which would give land to all who could use it.2

       The Homestead Act was passed in 1862. Adult citizens and aliens who had filed first papers for citizenship could file a claim for 160 acres in return for a $10 fee. After living on the land or at least farming it for five years and paying a few more fees, the homesteader got title.
       A "commutation clause" added later allowed homesteaders to buy the land after living on it for six months and making some improvements. This clause seems to have allowed numerous abuses by speculators.3
       Ray Allen Billington, the dean of what may now be described as the "old western history," described the Homestead Act as a failure in terms of its reformist origins. Billington said the laborers the act was supposed to help didn't have the money to move to the frontier and buy farm equipment. In addition the law provided too little land for successful farming on the Great Plains and was frequently circumvented by speculators.4
       Despite this assessment, Billington, who was a disciple of Frederick Jackson Turner, also argued that homesteading was "a democratizing influence" and that the Homestead Act was significant because it advertised the trans-Mississippi West. In other words, it suckered would-be farmers westward to become what Billington called "effective pioneers" even when they found, in his words, "only sordid speculation at the end of their rainbow."5
       Fred A. Shannon contended that "most of the choice land in the country (land suited for general agriculture, and having sufficient rainfall the ensure crops) had been picked over before the Homestead Act was passed."6 Shannon added,

The trouble with the Homestead Act in operation, as with the Pre-emption Act, was that Congress merely adopted the law and then did absolutely nothing in the way of helping the needy persons out to the land or extending them credit and guidance in the first heartbreaking years of occupancy. Perhaps these functions were outside the scope of federal authority, at least as then conceived, but without them the Homestead Act could benefit only monopolists or persons of fairly ample means.7

       Table 8 shows the approximate success rate of homesteaders who filed original entries in 1900 through 1910. The table is arranged to compare original entries with the corresponding final entries filed five years afterward. The figures should be considered at best approximate because the fact that a homesteader filed for final entry after five years does not necessarily mean that the homesteader had been a success as a farmer.
       The table omits commuted homesteads, that is, homesteads bought before the five-year period was up.
       The table shows that about three out of five homesteaders failed to last the five years necessary to claim title. Even if we assume that every homesteader headed a family of five and no homesteader filed more than once during this period, all people involved in homestead filings in the first decade of the 20th century made up less than 6 percent of the population of the United States in 1900.

       Table 7 suggests the upper and lower limits of Indian participation in farming and stockraising after allotment. The figures used in the table were published in the 1915 report of the commissioner of Indian affairs. The reservations included in the table are those which were substantially allotted between 1900 and 1910.
       That allows a comparison of the short-term success of allotment during that period with the success of homesteading, shown in Table 8. The comparison involves the proportion of people in Indian communities who were farming five to fifteen years after allotment, and the proportion of homesteaders who received title to their land between 1905 and 1915, a process that was supposed to involve five years of occupation and thus began, for those who received titles in 1905, in 1900.
       It should be obvious that this comparison cannot be considered conclusive.
       Recipients of allotments had certain disadvantages compared with homesteaders. Homesteaders could choose from the entire public domain, while reservation allottees, if they had a choice, were limited to their own reservations. Potential homesteaders could decide for themselves whether they had the resources to attempt the project. Allottees had no choice.
       In addition, inherent differences in the data sets seem to require a higher standard of persistence of allottees than homesteaders. They are counted as successful after five years. But allottees had be working on the land five to fifteen years after allotment to be counted.
       Table 9 shows that according to Indian service reports, the number of people engaged in farming and stockraising increased between 1911 and 1915 on all but two of the reservations under consideration. The overall increase was an 11.6 percent. That suggests that allottees were, in fact, persistent in their efforts to use their allotments.
       One problem they had to overcome was poor land. As Table 10 shows, only two of the reservations were considered to have as much tillable farmland as was allotted. Overall, allotted land on those reservations was 55 percent more than land reported tillable.
       In addition to the inherent differences in the data sets already mentioned, there is another problem with the data: the agents and clerks who provided the data for the 1915 report of the commissioner of Indian affairs seem to have used different standards on different reservations. The "number of Indians farming" was shown next to a column counting "able-bodied male adults" in one table in the 1915 report, suggesting that the two figures are intended to be compared. But the number of Indians farming does not necessarily seem to be limited to able-bodied male adults. In some cases, the number of Indians farming exceeds the accompanying number of able-bodied male adults.8
       Assuming for the moment that all members of families involved in farming were counted, the proportion of Indian people farming or raising stock on reservations substantially allotted between 1900 and 1910 would be 15.5 percent. But if the numbers more nearly reflect the proportion of able-bodied men farming or raising stock, then the proportion of farmers and stock raisers would be 73.2 percent.
       If we were assume that about half the information gatherers counted only able-bodied men, while the other half counted all members of families involved, then the proportion would be 44.3 percent. Even if only about one-fourth of the information gatherers counted able-bodied men only, the proportion would be 29.9 percent.
       By comparison, about 38.9 percent of homesteaders who filed for public land between 1900 and 1910 subsequently got titles to their homesteads by meeting the requirement (in one way or another) that they spend five years in residence. (See Table 8).

By E. A. Schwartz, associate professor of history, California State University, San Marcos


       1. Ray Allen Billington, Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier, fourth edition (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1974), 323-24.
       2. Fred A. Shannon, "The Homestead Act and the Labor Surplus," in Vernon Carstensen, ed., The Public Lands: Studies in the History of the Public Domain (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968), 299.
       3. Billington, Westward Expansion, 607-609; Shannon, "Homestead Act," 306.
       In a 1905 report a federal commission on public lands recommended that "the commutation clause should be greatly modified" because of abuses.
       It noted that "the number of [land] patents furnishes no index to the number of new homes."
       The report added, "a large portion of the commuters are women, who never establish a permanent residence and who are employed temporarily in the towns as school-teachers or in domestic service, or who are living with their parents."
       A majority of these "commuters" sold out as soon as they got title, according to the report, and their transactions were usually handled by agents.
       See United States, Senate, Report of the Public Lands Commission, S. Doc. 187, 58th Cong., 3rd sess., 1905, Serial 4766, xvii-xviii.
       4. Billington, Westward Expansion, 607-609.
       5. Billington, Westward Expansion, 612.
       6. Shannon, "Homestead Act," 297-98.
       7. Shannon, "Homestead Act," 303.
       8. United States, Interior Department, Reports of the Department of the Interior for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1915 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1915), 79-82, 115-19.