Charlotte McDaniel, Volunteer Coordinator at the Homestead Monument National Park (located near Beatrice, Nebraska) graciously asked me to speak to visitors during the park’s Living History Weekend, 1-3 September. The topic was Prelude to Homesteading, which meant I had to brush up on Preemption. Now Preemption was a big thing before the Civil War and many Americans out west, especially in Nebraska were Preemptors. In fact, if it hadn’t been for preemption, I doubt I’d be in Nebraska today, because my great-great-great grandfather was a preemptor. He didn’t preempt for long because he died in 1857, and Nebraska had been open to preemptors for only three years. However, he, unlike his descendant, carried around extra cash and so was able to prove up his claim, or rather his heiress, widow, would have been able to. About now some of you have guessed what preemption was, if you didn’t already know, and others are no doubt still scratching their heads.
Preemption came about because the government could not keep squatters off of public land that was not open for sale. When the Founding Fathers signed off on the Treaty of Paris in 1783, they acquired from a very generous British Empire all lands west to the Mississippi. Now the British had been generous, but rather like Napoleon with the Louisiana Purchase, and Santa Anna with Texas. Both knew they would not be able to hang on to the lands given the pressure of incoming American settlers. In any case, trying to sort out the squabbles between Indians and settlers was a headache the British preferred to pass on to young America.
The problem with lands out west, however, was how to dispense of them. Many of our founders were land speculators. George Washington to name one. And though they hoped all American citizens could live a good life with liberty and happiness, they believed that they, the leaders, should be able to cash in on the public domain as well. Therefore, because the nation needed income, they were willing to sell the land, but at a price the average yokels couldn’t afford. Sure, $1 an acre seems feasible, but when the minimum number of acres you can buy is 640, and you’re only able to put away $10 a month, it’ll take a while, unless you want to borrow money and plan on living long enough in the nineteenth century to pay it off.
There was a founder, however, who thought that land ought to be within the reach of the commoner. He believed that farming made a man virtuous, just as it had the citizens of the former Roman republic. Think about farming: You plan, you plant, you cultivate, you harvest, you store your grain…in sum, you’re a person who is duty bound, who perseveres, who has a family and who raises children with discipline (you need kids to be responsible and who have a tough work ethic). The founder who believed in this aristocracy of virtue born of yeomen farmers was Thomas Jefferson.
In 1801, Tom became president, and in 1804 we see a land act that is gentler on the frontiersman. According to this bill, though the cost was $2 per acre, a prospective farmer needed only buy 160 acres, and he could pay in installments.
By 1807 Congress passed a law forbidding squatting, ie going onto public lands that were not open for sale. The territorial governors responsible for enforcing this law found it difficult to carry out their duty since militias were gathered locally, consisting of squatters. So though the law was there the will was missing, and squatting continued on a grand scale.
How could Americans do such a thing. Well, for openers, in a day and age when the Bible influenced beliefs, thinking, and behavior, landless Americans believed that it was godly to clear land and cultivate it. The first book of the Bible backed them up, for it was written that God commanded Adam to farm and earn his bread from the sweat of his brow. In sum, there was a document that trumped the Constitution and put the Congressmen who kept men out of the frontier in a very bad light.
The manufacturers who didn’t want people to go west because he would have to pay his workers more to keep them at the bench, or the established eastern farmer who didn’t want competition, or the land speculator who wanted first dibs on the frontier, all these people tried to quiet the voice of the growing number of voting men who demanded cheap land.
What did the trick for the landless were two panic attacks that hit the US. That of 1819 and that of 1837. These were sharp downturns in the economy that forced the hand of employers into letting go their employees. Now the manufacturers and others wanted the unemployed to go west. By the 1830s, we had a series of temporary preemption laws, stating that squatters were, in essence, forgiven and could claim the land they had improved for $1.25 an acre.
The second panic, that of 1837, inspired Congress to come up with a permanent (until 1891) preemption law. This law legalized squatters coming into Nebraska. To make sure they protected their claims until the government surveyed the land and put it up for sale, the squatters formed claim clubs, and the members of such a club swore an oath to protect the others’ claim until a patent could be obtained.
There were two problems with the Preemption Law of 1841: A preemptor was still liable to pay $1.25 per acre if the government asked for it, and secondly, women who had never been married and married women could not make a claim. Only widows were eligible among the women folk, but that took some doing to qualify.
Finally, in 1862, the government fixed these problems by establishing the Homestead Act of 1862, which did not require payment per acre and allowed young, unmarried, ladies to stake individual claims.
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