Here's a quick review of 'Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History', by Richard Edwards, Jacob Friefeld, and Rebecca Wingo.
Sets the record straighter. The revisionist thread, running back maybe to the 1930s (according to me), was that the 1862 Homestead Act just made the rich, richer. At the end of the day, teach the naysayers, homesteading was a "minor factor" in farm formation, because homesteaders failed to follow through on their claims, and speculators moved in to sweep up the lands.
The public view, however, was, and is, that homesteading was a great success. Who was and is right, the scholar or the layman? It turns out it was the latter, once UNL Professor Richard Edwards and his co-writers got down to actually looking at the data.
Historian Fred Shannon turns out to be the major villain, the one who cooked the books to make it look like homesteading had been a ruse just to empower the already powerful.
Another myth ('stylized fact' Edwards et al would have it) promoted by the revisionists: Homesteading ousted Native Americans from their lands. Partially true, but mostly false, according to the authors. Well, I look at this analysis a little differently. Sure, the Homestead Act did not oust Native Americans because Indian titles were often long extinguished before 1862, or before the public lands were opened up for homesteading; but this might be semantics here, or something like that. The US government extinguished the titles so US citizens, and would-be US citizens, could move onto the land. It didn't matter that years later it was officially called homesteading, rather than preemption. Homesteading was the method for occupying land that had been intentionally 'got' by the US government to allow USers to move onto it. It's kind of like saying, we put this bandit in jail to hang him, but then we invented the electric chair and electrocuted him. Sure, the electric chair wasn't invented to execute the guy because hanging was the procedure of the day when he was arrested. But the real point is, he was going to be executed all along. Really doesn't matter what means was used in the end. Other than this minor difference in how to look at things, I must admit I suspected Edwards et al were right on the other teaching points all along. Probably because I didn't share the bad rich guy ideology (not that I think rich people are necessarily virtuous).
Even years ago, when I read the Homestead Act, I just couldn't imagine, with the way it was written, how land speculators would have been able to pull it off. In the end, Shannon and his disciples were driven, in my opinion, by ideology. Progressives began the faulty reasoning, the New Dealer generation repeated it with gusto and conviction: the little guy never gets a break, and when he seems to, the rich guy just twists the law to push him aside.
Now I've put this in stark terms, Edwards, Friefeld, and Wingo, not so much. They certainly don't use the word revisionist, and they certainly don't try to get into the mind of the historians who misrepresented the facts, but they do state that the implicated historians did their data collecting and analysis poorly, and that in certain cases they must have known they were creating misinformation.
Also included in the book is an extended portion on women's role in homesteading, which is of interest. If you are fascinated by the development of the West, and particularly how preemption and homestead law functioned, this is a must read.
Newspapers of 1857 carried some very serious stories as well as a column of jokes. Today, it's not always clear which variety amuses us more. In any case, this blog is dedicated to analyzing the pages of the Nebraska Advertiser newspaper of 1857. Chime in if you've run across some interesting stories from the time period.