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.



Filed under Uncategorized

11 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

  2. Pingback: On Columbus Day, A Look At The Myth That ‘All The Real Indians Died Off’ – Jeffco Dems

  3. Pingback: On Columbus Day, A Look At The Myth That 'All The Real Indians Died Off' – Modal Media Press

  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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s