The Effect of the Homestead Act on Native Americans

lincoln homestead actToday is Thursday, November 14, 2013.

The early Puritans had defined Native Americans as savages, somehow inhuman and undeserving of the rights accorded white men. Nineteenth century whites often observed that maltreatment at the hands of whites only made the Indians’ condition worse. One argued that “It is apparent to all acquainted with Indians that they are incompetent to manage their own business or to protect their rights in their intercourse with the white race.”  Many whites thus clothed their baser instincts in reform garb by arguing that Indians should be removed from their lands in order to get them away from the harmful effects of white society.

Lincoln’s belief that Indians should forsake their familiar ways of life and take up farming proved problematic, however.  When he signed the Homestead Bill into law in 1862, the president effectively opened the entire West, which housed numerous Indian reservations, to white settlements…

In the years following the Civil War Native Americans of the Far West fought the last and bloodiest of America’s Indian Wars in a vain attempt to protect their tribal lands from white settlement. Their effort reached its high-water mark on June 25, 1876 in the Battle of Little Bighorn, at which a combined force of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho eradicated Col. George A. Custer’s Seventh U.S. Cavalry regiment.

But the western tribes’ success proved short-lived, and they soon found themselves under the control of the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs and subject to a coordinated campaign to Americanize Indian children in a series of white-run schools.

–Drew E. VandeCreek, Ph.D.    (You can read the entire article here.) 


The Homestead Acts are a group of federal laws that gave ownership of land, called a “homestead,” at little or no cost, to people who applied for it. The original Homestead Act of 1862 was signed by President Abraham Lincoln.  Applicants had to be the head of a household or at least 21 years old.  They had to live on the land, build a home, make “improvements” on the land, and farm it for a minimum of five years.  The intent was to grant land for agriculture, but the law was abused, and much land fell into the hands of land speculators.  Still, the Homestead Acts have always been thought of as a good thing by mainstream Americans.  A lot of people in my generation grew up watching Westerns on  TV, where the trials and tribulations of the white settlers were highly romanticized.

The Homestead Acts were in force from 1862 to 1976 in the lower 48 states, and 1986 in  Alaska.  In that time, four million claims were made, although not all were “proved.”  It is estimated that the number of descendants of homesteaders alive today equals about 93 million people.  In all, about 10% of the total land area of the United States was parceled out to homesteaders.

The other day I did some research on the Homestead Acts, and was taken aback by the fact that their effect on Native Americans is not mentioned at all in most articles.  In one article, there was only one sentence that said Native Americans were displaced.  That’s it.  One sentence. Nice and tidy.

You have to understand that when the Europeans came to the New World, this land was far from empty.  It is estimated that in all of North America, there were some 40-50 million Natives.  That’s 40,000,000 to 50,000,000.  Around 15 million of them were in what is now the United States.  That’s a lot of people.  The land was far, far from empty.   Where did all these people go?

As of 2012, the population of the United States is estimated at just under 314 million.  This means that the original population of Natives was about 5% of the current U.S. population.  When we talk about the establishment of the colonies in the New World and the westward expansion of the European population, the plight of all those Natives is given very short shrift.  Yeah, sure, we made some “treaties” with various tribes, and “bought” land from them by, essentially, giving them goofy trinkets or promising them land further west, which we ended up taking away from them.

When the Europeans arrived, they might have thought the land was uninhabited because the local Natives were smart enough not to show their faces right away.  But when they found out that there were already people here, why did they just barge in, anyway?  It was because they thought they were actually superior beings.  When we take an honest look at the Natives as they lived at the time, we see that they had highly developed civilizations, with complex languages and social organizations, highly developed spirituality, and advanced knowledge of natural medicines, farming and hunting.   They kept the land in pristine condition.  In no way were they inferior to the Europeans.  Unfortunately, the Europeans had closed minds and superior weapons, plus they had diseases that did much of the work of “ethnic cleansing” for them.   Whole populations were wiped out by smallpox and other diseases.

Native Americans had three choices, all forced on them at one time or another.  They could assimilate with the encroaching European population – which didn’t work very well.  More on that below.  Or they could be relocated.  More on that below, as well. The third option was genocide – and when you consider that the original population of Natives in the area now known as the United States was about 15 million, and that at its lowest, the population of Native Americans was only about 250,000 in 1900, you have to admit that most of the Natives were killed by genocide.  Either they died of diseases such as smallpox and cholera, were massacred in wars, or they died of starvation, alcoholism or illness endemic to the harsh life on the reservations.  Many died in the forced relocations mandated by the Homestead Acts.

Why did the Natives enter into all those land treaties that essentially gave their land to the Europeans, anyway?  Well, you have to understand, first of all, that the Native cultures in North America did not have the concept of private ownership of land.  Land was something to be shared by all.  Land was to be protected and given respect, and humans were seen as having a symbiotic relationship with the land.  The land provided sustenance to the people, who took care of the land.

Richard Greener wrote, “It was common for one tribe to grant permission to another to hunt and fish nearby themselves on a regular basis. Fences, real and imagined, were not a part of their culture. Naturally, it was polite to ask before setting up operations too close to where others lived, but refusal in matters of this sort was considered rude. As a sign of gratitude, small trinkets were usually offered by the tribe seeking temporary admission and cheerfully accepted by those already there. It was clearly understood to be a sort of short-term rental arrangement.”  It’s easy to see, when you look at history this way, why the Natives were so angry when they found out that they were no longer welcome in the lands settled by the Europeans. Still, the Natives are, as a whole, honorable people, and they believed the Europeans when they were promised lands further west.  Their descendants are still wondering why the United States government could not manage to honor and keep the original treaties.

Indian Removal as a policy got its start long before Abe Lincoln was president.  President Andrew Jackson, who took office in 1829, effectively ended the U.S. policy of treating with separate tribes of Natives.  Instead, his focus was to move all Natives to lands west of the Mississippi River.   The Homestead Acts opened up land west of the Mississippi, which meant that land which had been promised to the Natives as an incentive for relocating west of the river was now “unpromised.”  Reservation land was vastly reduced, and the tribes that had to move once again were given the most inhospitable land.


Many depictions of Natives on the Trail of Tears show Natives having to walk in the snow. This illustration comes from The Black and Red Journal.

The forced westward migration of Natives is now known as the “Trail of Tears,” a term that was first used by a Choctaw chief, thought to be Thomas Harkins, also known as Nitikechi.   Of the 19,554 Choctaw, 12,500 were forced to relocate.  Of these, up to 4,000 died of cholera.

There were about 21,500 Cherokee, of which 20,000 were “removed.”  Up to 8,000 of these died of illnesses and harsh conditions.

About 2,800 Seminole out of 5,000 were removed, and around 700 of these died in the Second Seminole War, trying to fight for their lands.

There were 22,700 Muscogee/Creek, of which 19,600 were removed.  At least 3,500 died of disease and the harsh conditions during removal, plus an unknown number died fighting in the Second Creek War.

There were nearly 5,000 Chickasaw, of which 4,000 were removed.  Up to 800 of these people died.

Shawnee, Ottawa (Odawa), Sauk (Sac), and Meskwaki (Fox) tribes were removed in piecemeal fashion, as well.  I have no numbers, but you can bet many of them died during removal.   The Shawnees ended up having to become part of the Cherokee nation.  In the 1980s, efforts were begun by the Shawnee to formally separate from the Cherokee Nation, and this was finally accomplished in the year 2000.  The Ottawa (Odawa) people joined three other tribes: the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Wynadot.  The Potawatomi were removed from their lands in Michigan and Wisconsin to Nebraska, but many found ways to remain on their original land, or fled to Canada to join relatives there.

The Sauk (Sac) tribe originally lived along the St. Lawrence River, but were forced by other tribes to move to lands in what is now Michigan.  They were moved to lands in Iowa, Kansas and Missouri, then west to Oklahoma.  In Oklahoma, the Sac tribe merged with the Meskwaki (Fox) tribe, now known as the Sac and Fox Nation.   The Fox tribe, for their part, were forced out of their original lands near the Great Lakes and moved to Michigan, then to Iowa, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska.

Meanwhile, out in California, there were numerous tribes, totaling about 300,000 people.  The missionaries enslaved the Natives and killed those who rebelled.  So many Natives were infected by diseases carried by Europeans that by 1900, there were only 16,000 Natives left in California.

Once the Natives had been “removed” out west, they were put on reservations, where life was very harsh.  They were no longer able to roam at will to hunt for food, because the bison population was decimated, and because the lands they  were given were incredibly inhospitable to cultivation, the Natives had little to eat, and they became dependent on “commodities,” which were never meant to be their entire diet, but which became staples of their diet, anyway.  The genocide continued in terms of the diseases of alcoholism, diabetes, and lung ailments that are rampant among Native populations.

There was a separate Homestead act for Native Americans (the Indian Homestead Act, or Dawes Act), but it failed because the allotments for Natives were always chosen by the government, and they were generally of inferior quality, making it hard for Native to farm the land.  Frustrated, many homesteaders sold their land to white settlers.  Secondly, those to whom land was granted had to choose a European name.  The act ended up fragmenting tribes and accelerating cultural erosion.

Child handcuffs actually used in an Indian boarding school.

Child handcuffs actually used in an Indian boarding school.

Between 1880 and 1902, 25 off-reservation Indian boarding schools were built.  Many kids traveled over a thousand miles to attend these schools.  For example, 60 boys and 24 girls were taken from the Lakota people in the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations to a school located in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, over 1,500 miles away.  The intent of these schools was to “kill the Indian and save the man.”   Kids were forced to speak English and were punished for speaking their native languages.  Some kids were even put into handcuffs as punishment.  The kids were forced also to cut their hair and wear European-style clothing.  They learned to read, write and speak English and they learned about European culture, but they had no chance to learn about their own culture in a normal way from their parents and grandparents.  Many people now view these schools as a form of cultural genocide.  In all, up to 30,000 Native kids were educated in boarding schools, roughly 10% of the entire population in 1900, and some kids died there in loneliness and misery.  Many schools, thankfully, were closed in the 1940s, but not all.

"Indian Country" is anywhere Native Americans live.  Population over 7 million and growing.

“Indian Country” is anywhere Native Americans live. Population over 7 million and growing.

One more misguided effort, an urban relocation program begun in 1952.  In the first five years, about 30,000 people migrated to the cities, and it is estimated that another 30,000 moved on their own in the 1950s.  By the 1980s, 1.5 million Native Americans lived in cities.  They met the fate of others who had been forced into the cities to look for work– they remained poor because they were not educated enough to get more than entry-level work at minimum wage.

Today, the population of Native Americans is rebounding, and the 2000 census says there are approximately 7.9 million Native Americans, about 2.8% of the total American population,.  Natives are the fastest-growing minority group in America.



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21 responses to “The Effect of the Homestead Act on Native Americans

  1. Pingback: On Columbus Day, A Look At The Myth That 'All The Real Indians Died Off' – YourNuz

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  4. Paige Henderson

    Very enlightening article. I am sad to see another side to Abraham Lincoln, although I know he was a man not entirely free from cultural influence. I wish teachers loved their subject enough to teach history in its entirety and with heart. Thank you for your work.

  5. Pingback: Sea-“steading” Semantics and a Socratic Dialogue on Seceding from Spain | Let A Thousand Nations Bloom

  6. Thank you so much for this research. I’m creating artwork on the homestead act and wondered how the land was given affected tribes. Worse than I realized…

  7. Yes, Ginny, it is worse than a lot of us realized. I hope your artwork will help tell this story to the world. Thank you for your comment.

  8. Pingback: BIBLIOGRAPHY | Paul Stein, Ph.D., LMSW, BA / Soulful Guidance of Dream Analysis / Jung’s Holistic Approach / “Therapy of Culture”/ Mythic-body Geopoliticized Shadow / Inculcated One-sided Ignorance / Cultural Birthright / Archetypal Co-Creative Numi

  9. D. S.

    I have so much to say here, but I’m going to try to keep it as short as possible. I’d like to first address the misconception that as Indian people, we historically had no concept of private land ownership. This is not true, we fought constant battles with whole tribes in order to secure our right to our historical land base, which contained vital resources. That is what much of our warfare, was based on, keeping others off our land. Obviously, we didn’t have any written documents setting this out, but everyone knew what tribe, controlled what territory. As Plains ndns we were nomadic, but within a certain specific area. There were winter camping areas, & other areas within our land base that we lived on according to the specific season. Furthermore, within many tribes certain family or other kinship groups owned specific areas within the tribes land base. These could be areas of berry, root, or game collection. These lands were passed down to the next generation, & were often traded for other assets. Even today, a family may have the right to camp or gather resources in a certain area that was inherited from previous generations. Before European encroachment, the requirements for land ownership were recognized by individual Tribes, individual tribal members, & other Tribes who were familiar with the land base in question. Even early Europeans & the early american government recognized that individual tribes were Sovereign nations, with requisite territorial boundaries, otherwise treaties would’ve been unnecessary & unlawful. The idea & statuary requirements of land ownership differed from Ndns & whites in that most tribes, other than those that farmed, didn’t see any need to improve the land (as improvement defined in non Ndn terms was farming or ranching) as the land provided well for us without need for major altercation.
    I would also like to address what the Dawes act really was & how it had such a major impact on Ndn land & people, but I wont do that unless someone replies here that they are interested. But…. under the Dawes act

    “The amount of land in native hands rapidly depleted from some 150 million acres (610,000 km2) to a small 78 million acres (320,000 km2) by 1900. The remainder of the land once allotted to appointed natives was declared surplus and sold to non-native settlers as well as railroad and other large corporations; other sections were converted into federal parks and military compounds.[30] The concern shifted from encouraging private native landownership to satisfying the white settlers’ demand for larger portions of land.”

    • Yes, exactly, so Natives did not have the concept of ownership of land in the European sense, and I still maintain that they did not so much “own” the land as they “took care of” a certain portion of it. Their “ownership” of land was based on a history with the land, not on a paper title or money having been exchanged. When you think of it that way, it made no sense for the Europeans to “own” the land because they had no history with it. So yes, when the Natives say, “This is our land,” there is some point of ownership – just not a legal or fiduciary concept. Thank you for your comments.

      • Robin

        There’s so many things wrong with this article, all of which is summed up as it being an oversimplification. For one thing, Native peoples very much did NOT keep the land in “pristine” condition. This stems from the Noble Savage myth of Indians as the ultimate environmentalists. In actual fact, Native peoples had significant impact on the lands upon which they lived.

        The Dawes Act of 1887 was NEVER referred to as the Indian Homestead Act. Presumably you are referring to the Homestead Act of 1862, when it was extended to Native Americans in 1875, but it is factually inaccurate to conflate this with the Dawes Act as they are not the same thing at all.

        “When the Europeans arrived, they might have thought the land was uninhabited because the local Natives were smart enough not to show their faces right away.” This is a patently ridiculous statement and completely unsupported by even a cursory examination of the evidence. Europeans interacted a great deal with the indigenous people of North America from the very beginning, and for the most part during their early interaction, both groups were on equal ground, or the Native groups had the advantage. Native people welcomed European contact for the economic benefits of trade and in gaining advantages over the local Native groups with whom they competed for resources. The very idea that native people would have hidden themselves because that was “the smart thing to do” doesn’t even make sense.

        “It is estimated that in all of North America, there were some 40-50 million Natives. That’s 40,000,000 to 50,000,000.” According to whom? Estimation of the indigenous population of North America varies WIDELY and all of them are controversial for one reason or another. To simply declare one estimate as if it reflects scholarly consensus only shows that you did very little research on this matter.

        “and when you consider that the original population of Natives in the area now known as the United States was about 15 million” – Again, this is a highly contested number and your writing should reflect this controversy rather than presenting one proposed estimate as an undisputed fact.

        There’s so much more wrong with your essay. You romanticize Native people instead of reflecting their humanity and deny the agency they used in their dealings with Euro-Americans. You also argue with people correcting you instead of acknowledging where you are simply wrong. As a _Native_ person explained to you above, indigenous Americans very much DID have a concept of private property. It was fundamentally different from the European concept, though, and it served European interests to perpetuate this myth. You are perpetuating it right now by choosing to argue with a Native person by moving the goalposts about what you really meant in order to avoid having to simply admit you are incorrect. Which you are – Native people absolutely understood themselves has having ownership of the lands they used. No amount of backpedaling on your part in order to avoid admitting you were wrong will change this.

      • Hi, Robin.

        Thank you for your corrections on the Dawes Act. Yes, it appears I got some facts wrong. It was not intentional on my part. I will correct the information shortly.

        You have not included your full name or what your qualifications are, but if you are an expert in the subject, I would challenge you to write a much more complete and factually correct article. For me, this was the FIRST time that I had ever even looked into the ramifications of the Homestead Act from the Native perspective. (And yes, I am not Native.) I suspect that for many non-Natives, this article or ones like it may also be their first glimpse into the ways that the Homestead Acts affected Natives. As such, it was not meant to be exhaustive. (This is a blog, after all, not a textbook.)

        When you have written your article, please include a link to it here. I invite anyone who has read your blistering commentary to click on your link and be fully educated.

  10. Pingback: (3) BIBLIOGRAPHY | Paul Stein, BA, MSW, Ph.D. / Individual Analysis of "Transference Phenomena" / Jung’s Archetypal Holistic Approach / "What is a "Psyche"? "What is a Dream"? "Do you have one"? (646) 709-863

  11. Chris Lyke

    I am researching an historical novel set in western Michigan in 1870-71 and I would like to have an Ottawa character working to acquire land (by building and operating a small sawmill on it) rather than emigrating from the area with the rest of his family/tribe. Can you tell me whether there is some way he could have used the Homestead Act for that purpose? An historian I spoke with in that region thought that perhaps he could if he had “become a U.S. citizen” by some means such as accepting Christianity or (my thought?) volunteering in the civil war? Thanks in advance for any help you can provide.

    • Before the Civil War, citizenship for Natives was only granted to those with “one half or less of Indian blood,” according to It does not appear that Natives gained citizenship merely by professing a belief in Christianity.

      After the Civil War, certain progressives advocated for citizenship for “friendly” tribes. That would, I assume, have been tribes that had been friendly to the Union during the war. The Ottawa had a complicated political history. They aligned with the French against the British. Then during the American Revolution, the Ottawa fought for the British against the Americans. When the British surrendered to the Americans, the British turned their backs on their American Indian allies, but the Ottawas continued to fight the Americans.

      According to “In 1804, the Ottawa — along with the Chippewa, Wyandot, and Potawatomi — were involved in the signing of the Treaty of Detroit, which gave up large swathes of American Indian territory in Southeastern Michigan and Northwestern Ohio to the U.S. Government. In 1833, the United States forced the Ottawa to give up their few remaining lands in Ohio. The United States government sent them to a reservation in Kansas.” tells us that in 1888, “most Native American women married to U.S. citizens were conferred with citizenship, and in 1919 Native American veterans of World War I were offered citizenship.”

      It does not appear that any Ottawa had homesteads, but Santee Sioux located around Flandreau, SD did. The Act of Congress of 1875 extended the Homestead Act of 1862 to Indians provided they give up their tribal affiliation. In 1878 there were 94 homesteads owned by the Santee. It was the only settlement of this kind in the country. (This information is according to

      Some Natives of other tribes established “homesteads” but failed to formally apply for the homesteads and were defrauded of the land that they had cultivated.

      So if your character were a member of the Santee tribe, he might have had a homestead in South Dakota – but he would have had to give up his tribal affiliation to do so.

      It wasn’t until 1924 that the Indian Citizenship Act granted U.S. citizenship to Natives born in the United States.

      • Chris Lyke

        Wow, thanks! I’m trying to think, then, of another way he could try to acquire rights to that particular land. Do you know if, as a full-blooded Ottawa he could own land if he purchased it from someone else? Thanks again. (PS: he will ultimately have to abandon the land due to other plot developments but I’d like him to be working toward ownership of it originally.)

  12. I’m not sure why your time period is set in stone as 1870-71. Coudn’t you advance the time setting to the late 1880s? If your Ottawa character is born in the United States and reaches the age at which he could apply for a homestead after the year 1888, you’d be all set. The only other option would be for your friend to perhaps hear about someone from the Santee tribe starting a homestead, and perhaps working on that homestead with dreams of starting his own. Even that would have to be set in or after 1875.

    • Chris Lyke

      Well, anything can ultimately be changed but I like the earlier and less settled days in that region for my setting (less civilization), plus I’d like everything to culminate just before the great Chicago fire (Oct 8 1871) for dramatic reasons. Here’s something interesting I found on
      [pertaining to the 1860 census] “Indians not taxed are not to be enumerated. The families of Indians who have renounced tribal rule, and who under state or territory laws exercise the rights of citizens, are to be enumerated.2”
      This makes me wonder if Native Americans could simply choose to identify and exercise the rights of American citizens by renouncing tribal affiliation and living like a White person. (no offense intended by my use of “White Person”, but I hope you know what I mean. For that matter, I’m pretty positive, having read it somewhere, that the homestead act applied to African Americans, who were emancipated by then, so I wonder why Native Americans couldn’t be treated the same way. I’m not saying they could, but it’s interesting to wonder about the rationale if they couldn’t). If their parents were living on non-reservation land and they were born there wouldn’t that make them US citizens? I’m just brainstorming as I obviously don’t know much about this history or laws.

      • The land was granted to blacks and whites alike, by law, BUT – and this is a big but – you had to improve the land within five years. That meant some kind of capital outlay, which is why almost all the land that was eventually granted to homesteaders went to white folks, and that’s also why most blacks became sharecroppers rather than homesteaders. Wikipedia has this to say: “By the early 1930s, there were 5.5 million white tenants, sharecroppers, and mixed cropping/laborers in the United States; and 3 million blacks. In Tennessee, whites made up two thirds or more of the sharecroppers.[26] In Mississippi, by 1900, 36% of all white farmers were tenants or sharecroppers, while 85% of black farmers were.” (Notice that NOTHING is said about Natives. Basically, they were not “enumerated,” as it were.) There was actually a separate Southern Homestead Act in 1866 to award land exclusively to blacks, but by the following year, landless whites were applying, so I am assuming that not enough blacks applied.

        You know, even now when blacks and Natives technically the same rights as other citizens, they are still discriminated against and in many ways they are not “enumerated,” and that is especially true in the area of voting rights. It seems to me that in the 1800s the vast majority of Natives preferred to live with their own tribes whenever possible, and I imagine that having to renounce one’s tribe was not a very appealing option for all but a very few individuals. As well, I would imagine that most Natives would have had the same problem as the black people – lack of capital to buy seed and farm equipment, and to build a permanent home on the land.

      • Chris Lyke

        Ahh, I found this, in case you’re interested: “Native Americans were allowed to homestead only if they renounced their tribal affiliations.” from

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