What Changed When Abraham Lincoln Signed the Homestead and Pacific Railroad Acts? Everything.

The Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall | Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
The Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall | Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

In the lobby of the Claremont Public Library are two temporary displays. One is a small bookstand, holding a clutch of western potboilers from those old hands Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour; a compilation of Max Brand's provocatively titled novels (Man From Mustang; Six-Gun Country); and a couple of collections of cowboy lit, whose glossy covers and excited prose reinforce the legend of how the west was won - with a smoking Colt .45.

The second, dubbed "Railroading in Claremont," a contribution of the Santa Fe Railway Historical and Modeling Society, offers up photographs, maps, and ephemera detailing the lengthy relationship between this small college town and the iron rail, dating back to the late 19th century.

Although these two modest exhibits seem to have nothing to do with one another, and the library makes nothing of their pairing, in fact they are tightly intertwined as a result of two strokes of Abraham Lincoln's pen in 1862.

A homesteader in a dugout home in New Mexico | Photo: Russell Lee/Farm Security Administration

Return to the jumble of fiction on that first display's shelf: its texts may be replete with steel-eyed lawmen, marauding gunslingers, sly rustlers, jilted lovers, and gold-hearted prostitutes but these stock figures had much less to do with the winning of the west than the passage of a piece of congressional legislation whose sesquicentennial this exhibit celebrates -- the Homestead Act of 1862 (Public Law 37-64).

On May 20, 150 year ago, Abraham Lincoln signed the bill that had been a key campaign pledge during his 1860 run for the White House. He was convinced that opening the public lands would alleviate poverty and stimulate growth; was certain that the best way to achieve this was to encourage homesteaders to move west, thereby boosting local populations and setting the stage for territories to become states; and he had shrewdly calculated that the Democratic Party, so weakened when its southern members seceded, could not stop the bill and its support for Republican ideological commitments to Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men.

The Civil War provided the pretext for a new civil society. Alas, the Homestead Act failed to deliver on its promise.

Its intentions were genuine, offering incentives to any citizen (or anyone who intended to become a citizen) to lay claim to upwards of 160 acres of federally owned land. After making minimal improvements to the property and completing a five-year residence on this cultivated terrain, the occupant, after paying a small registration fee, would own the land free and clear.

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As historian Mark Fiege notes in his superb new book, The Republic of Nature, Lincoln used the nation's "enormous natural strength -- its land base -- for democratization and development."

This generous offer and economic enticement, however, contained a political payback: the Republic-dominated Congress did not extend its provisions to anyone who had "borne arms against the United States Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies" -- Confederates and their sympathizers need not apply.

But for those who met the requisite qualifications, and fulfilled the act's provisions, homesteading could be a boon: one of the first claimants was the aptly named Daniel Freeman, a Civil War veteran, who secured lands near Beatrice, Nebraska, where he and his family farmed and ranched; his former acreage is now the location of the Homestead National Monument, dedicated to the people whose lives the Homestead Act fundamentally altered.

There is, however, much more to this legislation than the boost it gave to stalwart pioneers. Because the Homestead Act's language was so cumbersome, and so thoroughly riddled with legal loopholes, its stated intent -- to populate the west with yeoman farm families, the original American Dream from Jefferson to Lincoln -- proved of secondary importance.

Instead, wringing the greatest benefits from Honest Abe's law were big corporations and major speculators, not the common man and woman it was intended to serve and secure.

True, appropriate safeguards had been set in the text (warning: take a deep breath before reading this run-on sentence):

Got that? Good.

Now things get complicated, as the legal caveats pile up: each depended on the vigilance, honesty, and goodwill of any number of agents involved in these transactions (breathe deep once more):

For the guileful -- and there were many of them in the war's chaotic aftermath -- this convoluted prose provided ample opportunities to swindle the nation-state out of some of its most resource-rich lands. Logging companies, ranching operations, mining concerns, and railroad conglomerates bribed federal agents to get what they wanted; or paid people to claim lands that they then handed over to the syndicates.

These scams were astonishingly effective: of the 500 million acres of public land that Department of the Interior's General Land Office gave away between 1862 and 1904, only about 80 million went to those for whom it was intended. Well-capitalized organizations and nefarious speculators snatched up the other 420 million, which they stripped for its timber, grass, or minerals before moving on to their next spoil.

Lamented Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the Forest Service, founded in 1905 to manage many of these abandoned landscapes: "the vast common heritage of land fit for and intended for American homes," had fallen into the "crooked, mercenary, and speculative hands of companies, corporations, and monopolies."

First page of the original manuscript of the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 signed by President Lincoln on July 1, 1862 | Source: U.S. National Archives
First page of the original manuscript of the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 signed by President Lincoln on July 1, 1862 | Source: U.S. National Archives

The consequences were staggering, he concluded. America's natural resources, "with whose conservation and use the whole future of the Nation was bound up, were passing under the control of men who developed and destroyed them with one and only one object in mind -- their own personal profit."

Within 40 years of its passage, the Homestead Act's democratic impulse had been perverted.

This is not to say that the legislation offered no economic benefits just that a minority took the lion's share of this newfound wealth, further skewing the inequities that already plagued the United States. The rich got very much richer.

Leading this pelf pursuit was the prime beneficiary of free public lands, the transcontinental railroads. Two months after he signed the Homestead Act, Lincoln put his signature to the Pacific Railway Act (12 Stat. 489), the purpose of which was to tie California to the Union.

This was the first of many such massive giveaways, and while it is surely true that to build the resultant systems that carried so many people and goods across the country required massive federal support, it is also fair to note that most of the millions of acres these companies received were not essential to constructing these transcontinental corridors.

Rather, they were critical to the creation of whistle-stop towns along the routes that would become home to commercial nodes and residences radiating out from the tracks. Public lands were given to private interests who sold the property back to the public, a neat and very profitable trick.

Those tidy profits were redoubled when these residents, now utterly dependent on this sole-source of transit to eastern markets, had to pay inflated prices as passengers, producers, and consumers. This is what it meant to be "railroaded."

The old Santa Fe train station in Claremont, CA, probably around 1887 | Photo: Claremont Colleges Digital Library
The old Santa Fe train station in Claremont, CA, probably around 1887 | Photo: Claremont Colleges Digital Library

One such kept town was Claremont. In the late 1880s, as the Santa Fe railroad laid down tracks between San Bernardino and Los Angeles, it emerged as one of 30 or so new town sites. Consistent with the pattern with such land schemes nationally, promoters drew up a beguiling panoramic map that laid out what the prospective community would look like, straight lines expanding out from the depot and into a prosperous future; blue-sky cartography.

For a time, land sales were brisk -- note the photo of the local Santa Fe station surrounded by horse-drawn wagons gathered there for an auction. The PR was just as inflated. Promised one pitch: Claremont was "The Leading Townsite on the Santa Fe Route."

Soon enough the bubble collapsed, and might have remained deflated but for a clever real-estate agent who offered the Claremont Hotel and a goodly amount of unsold lots to lure a recently established college away from the city of Pomona. When in 1889 Pomona College moved to its present site, the railroad had its first important customer. This small economic base expanded quickly with the planting of citrus groves throughout Southern California, whose fragrance enveloped Claremont and whose produce fueled its commercial activity for the next 60 years.

Without the Homestead and Pacific Railroad acts, this one community and countless others like it across the region would not exist. That -- and not a six-shooter or tin badge -- is how the modern West was made.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

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