Fred A. Shannon, "The Homestead Act and the Labor Surplus," American Historical Review, XLI, No. 4 (July, 1936): 637-651.


Fred A. Shannon
Kansas State College

Every American historian and all students of Western history are well acquainted with the declaration of the Superintendent of the Eleventh Census of the United States that by 1890 "the unsettled area [of the United States] has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line".2 The reader of these words need not become prematurely alarmed -- it is not the purpose of this paper either to amplify or attack the Turner hypothesis. Only some of the later perversions of the frontier philosophy will be considered. The Superintendent of the Census was very cautious in the phraseology of his statement, and Professor Turner, in his original essay, did not attempt to read more into the sentence than its literal meaning conveyed. But long repetition, without frequent reference to the original text, plays tricks with the memory. Within a few years students were being told that by 1890 the frontier was gone, next that by 1890 the West was filled up with settlers, and finally that by 1890 all the free land in the West had been homesteaded. Since 1920 a fair proportion of the college textbooks in American history have contained such exaggerated statements as these in one form or another. Three out of five picked off the same shelf repeated the dogma in varying style. The pronouncements are so readily found that there is no need to make any embarrassing commitments concerning the authors or titles of the bookS examined.

Easy as it is to record such misinformation, culminating in the absurdity that the Homestead Act of 1862 wrought this miracle in the West, a half hour spent with the Land Office reports or the Public Lands Commission report of 1905 will reveal the error. By June 30, 1890, only 372,659 homestead entries had been perfected, granting 48,225,736 acres to supposed settlers -- an area less than that of the state of Nebraska and equal only to three and one half per cent of the total territory west of the Mississippi River.3 By that date more than four times as much land had been given to the railroad companies. Furthermore, four times as many acres of homestead land have been deeded by the Federal government since 1890 as before that date. For that matter, more has been taken up since 1910 than in all the earlier forty-eight years.4 To the contention that only inferior lands were left for free distribution after 1890 the answer is that most of the choice land in the country (land suited for general agriculture, and having sufficient rainfall to ensure crops) had been picked over before the Homestead Act was passed; and that, in the semiarid regions where most of the free land was to be found, the first comers were far from always being the best choosers.

A more valid objection is that the number of homesteads was only a minor fraction of the total number of farms in the homestead states. But even this does not demonstrate that the West was filled up by 1890, or that the opportunity to go West and grow up with the country was past. A little comparison will illustrate this point better than a mass of figures. In 1890 little Delaware, with, as John J. Ingalls said, three counties at low tide and two at high, had half again as many farms as Idaho or Montana, three times as many as Wyoming, seven times as many as Arizona, or eight times as many as Nevada. Maryland had more farms than any of the eleven Far Western states or territories except California, and was not far behind her. Mississippi had as many farms as the whole eleven combined, though the latter contained two fifths of the land area of the nation, and Ohio had nearly twice as many. But perhaps Western farms were larger than Eastern. Very well -- Ohio had about half as many acres in farms as the entire Far West, and a larger percentage of Ohio's land was improved. Delaware equaled the average of Arizona, Idaho, New Mexico, and Utah, and was only a little under Wyoming, Montana, or Nevada.5

No further demonstration is necessary to show that the filling up of the West had merely begun by 1890. There is an old saying that figures do not lie, but liars will figure. This is no more true than that armchair philosophers still continue to spin hypotheses out of thin air. Oftentimes their formulas, evolved sheerly by guesswork, become more firmly established in the student's mind than any solidly grounded historical fact. A writer, proceeding from the old assumption that free land was gone by 1890, next conjures up the fiction that as long as abundant free land remained it furnished relief from economic pressure in the industrial centers; that it drained off the dissatisfied and restless elements from the Eastern cities; that it gave to the underdog, wherever located in the country, the opportunity to start life on a new and higher level in the West; that free or cheap land had always been a safety valve for economic and social discontent.6 It would almost seem, from such logic, that if there was any social discontent, any underdog, any labor trouble or unemployment before 1890 it was due purely to the shiftlessness of a portion of the population which would not even accept the heaven-sent boon of fertile farms when it was offered them. The next conclusion is that all the labor troubles since 1890 were the consequence of the drying up of the national fount of every blessing in the West. The hypotheses and conclusions here mentioned were gleaned from books which college students by the thousands have been required to read within the last decade. The writers selected were from the foremost and best in their field, in order to show the more clearly how strong a hold the idea of limitless opportunity, furnished by a boundless frontier, has had on the popular mind. Certain facts, not difficult to demonstrate, call for a re-examination of this thesis, but the argument must be more prolonged than that of the preceding paragraphs.

The notion of an American Utopia, to be procured through free land in limited quantities to actual settlers, dates back a century or more, but found its most profound expression in the pious hopes of the land reformers of the 1840's. George Henry Evans and his fellow agrarians, writing for the columns of the Working Mans Advocate, the True Workingman, the New York Daily Tribune, and other labor or general newspapers, harped incessantly on the issues of widespread misery, poverty, and unemployment as a consequence of capitalism and land monopolies. All this they confidently expected to be remedied by a homestead policy which would give land to all who could use it. Eighty thousand persons in the city of New York alone, or a fifth of its population in 1845, it was asserted, were "receiving pauper relief or charity".7 Newly arrived immigrants were adding to the congested Eastern slums because, all the land within easy reach being monopolized, they were left with no prospect of relief except to "move off into the desert, and trust . . . [themselves] to the mercy of the wild Indian far beyond the aid of civilized man". The laborer, when he had a job at all, was pictured dragging out his weary existence and leaving to his family the heritage of poverty -- the privilege of continued exploitation at the hands of capitalists and land monopolists. Break down the "hoary iniquities of Norman land pirates" and "Capital could no longer grasp the largest share of the laborer's earnings, as a reward for not doing him all the injury the laws of feudal aristocracy authorize . . .". Give the people their right to the soil and "tens of thousands, who are now languishing in hopeless poverty, will find a certain and speedy independence. The labor market will thus be eased of the present distressing competition; and those who remain, as well as those who emigrate, will have the opportunity of realizing a comfortable living."8

These agrarians were not timid about accusing the abolitionists of callous disregard concerning the fate of Northern wage slaves, both white and black, whose plight, they said, made that of the Southern slave seem idyllic by comparison. Gerrit Smith was accused of condemning 50,000 laborers to "a worse state of ignorance, degradation,, misery, and vice, than any fifty thousand you could pick out in a Southern State", because of his withholding from them his vast New York estates -- an indictment which helped induce him to give away about 200,000 acres to the poor of both races.9 Further arguments contained the prophecy that the steam engine, existing power machinery on the farm, and machines yet to come in all lines of industry would virtually replace human labor everywhere.10 All this debate, and much more to the same point, took place after the adoption of the general Pre-emption Act -- when all the oppressed laborer had to do was to move out to the public domain, start farming, and accumulate the minimum price of $100 for eighty acres before the surveyor and land office moved in. But where was this semipauper to secure the cost of transportation for the journey of several hundred miles; who would buy him a team and farming equipment when he arrived, who extend him credit during the two- or three-years' grubbing of stumps before a decent living could be secured? Who would take the trouble even to teach him the elements of frontier farming? Having once been caught in the toils of poverty and hired labor, free will was at an end. Farmers might sell their Eastern acres and move West, and so they did in order to provide farms for each of their sons, but the promise of cheap Western land to the common laborer was as futile as a signboard pointing to the end of a rainbow. But possibly these agrarian agitators imagined most of the poverty and unemployment of the 1840's. If you think so, then read the debates in Congress over the Homestead bill of 1852. Representatives from the South and Northwest alike demanded that the homeless, destitute, and downtrodden, whether in Eastern cities or on tenant farms in the South, be given the opportunity to start life anew on the public domain. Andrew Johnson of Tennessee pleaded for the poverty-stricken people of the South, while Representative Fayette McMullin of Virginia gloated over the prospect of the landed proprietors of his state being compelled to "go to work themselves" should the poor tenants be drawn away to the West. The latter denounced the Eastern manufacturing interests who were blocking the Homestead bill, declaring that they "fear that the laborers . . . will leave the manufacturing districts and go to the West, and that, in consequence of the diminution of laborers, the wages of labor will advance among them". Representative Albert G. Brown of Mississippi deplored the fate of thousands of homeless people who "look out upon your vast domains, and see them tenanted only by wild beasts . . . ". These persons, he said, "will ask, is my poverty so great a crime that my Government prefers these beasts to me? Am I to be kept in penury and in want, and leave to my children no inheritance but poverty, whilst my Government guards . . . this mighty wilderness, which God in his providence has created for man, and not for beasts?" He realized that the prospective free territories would get the first advantage of settlement, but, having been a squatter himself in his early days, he felt that the release of human misery in the South was worth the political advantage of the North. Representative William R. Smith of Alabama affirmed it to be "the duty of Congress to help the cities to disgorge their cellars and their garrets of a starving, haggard, and useless population". But he cherished the vain hope that capitalists would advance the money to enable poor men to move to the free land. They would be glad to get rid of undesirable neighbors. Without this safety valve, the "rapid increase of labor-saving machinery", which was gradually driving the mechanic from the workshop, would create intolerable conditions.11

The statements thus far are all from Southerners -- those persons who are supposed to have been most bitter against homestead legislation. If an aside is permissible, it is worth the effort to state that it was a division of votes between the Atlantic Coast states and the West, rather than between the slave and free states, which defeated the Homestead bills of 1852-1853. In the House vote of May 12, 1852, 36 slave state representatives (31 being from the West) voted for the bill as compared with 33 against (28 of them from the Atlantic states). Seventeen of the 23 negative votes of the North were from the Atlantic states, five from Ohio which industrially was becoming an Eastern state, and one from Michigan.12 Had the 36 homestead advocates of the South reversed their position and joined with the 22 opposition votes from the industrial states, the bill would not even have passed the House of Representatives, despite the large Northern majority in that body. The decisive vote did not come in the Senate till February 21, 1853, when a motion to take up the bill was made with the express intention of showing who was for it and who against. This motion was defeated by a vote of 23 to 33.13 An analysis of the vote shows that eight of the 23 favoring the measure were from the Lower South, but only four were from the North Atlantic division. As to party support, 19 were Democrats and four were Whigs. Of the 33 opponents, 20 were from the slave states and 11 from the North Atlantic region. The party division showed 15 Democrats and 18 Whigs. But consider the vote again as an issue between the Atlantic Coast states and the West -- leaving North and South, slavery and freedom out of the question -- and what is the result? The East gave five yeas and 24 nays; the West 18 yeas and nine nays. Most clearly, the issue in 1852-1853 was drawn between Western Democratic homestead advocates and Eastern Whig capitalists. These were the days when Hannibal Hamlin, the later running mate of Abraham Lincoln, and Gerrit Smith, the abolitionist, free-soil capitalist, were voting to restrain the Westward migration of wage slaves,14 while a good proportion of earnest Southerners were ready to give the North an advantage in Western colonization in order to relieve poverty in both sections. It was only when the Republican party became militant over the free-soil question that the South consolidated its ranks against the homestead policy.15

If it be supposed that the Southern arguments of 1852 were merely to save the face of slavery men, by depicting conditions in the North, then read the declarations of free-state men of the same period. Representative Charles Skelton of New Jersey said that the Homestead bill "relieves the older States of the redundancy of labor which contributes to depress and paralyze the arm of industry in those States". The plight of landless and jobless free Negroes in the North is depicted in the words of Representative Samuel W. Parker of Indiana. "Go into the streets of our cities", he said, "through the lanes and highways, the filthy hovels, damp cellars, and dirty sculleries of our own free land, and we will find that poor, forlorn, outcast, downtrodden, disfranchised people still enslaved, and in a desperate thraldom, that would freeze our pure Christian blood, I fear, could we only extract some of the motes from our eyes".16

Through nearly all these orations and prophecies there runs the confident expectation that free land in the West would of itself alone furnish release from the oppression of poor laborers, tenants, and the unemployed. This is the theme, later blindly accepted as an accomplished fact, that is found in so many of the accounts of the consequences of the Homestead Act of 1862. A more reasonable point of view is reflected in the speech of Representative Orlando B. Ficklin of Illinois, April 1852. Though he favored the Homestead bill, he argued that there would be no sudden or excessive rush to the public lands. Those persons able to buy would prefer to remain closer to the old home and the greater conveniences of a developed country. Another class, he said "are too poor to find means to pay the expense of emigrating from the older to the new States, and of settling on these lands; therefore these persons can not go". The actual settlers "will be generally of the middle or rather not of the very poorest class, and . . . the number will not be so large by a great deal as is anticipated by some gentlemen".17 His is the sanest prophecy of the whole crop of the 1840's and 1850's.

The trouble with the Homestead Act in operation, as with the Pre-emption Act, was that Congress merely adopted the law and then did absolutely nothing in the way of helping the needy persons out to the land or extending them credit and guidance in the first heartbreaking years of occupancy. Perhaps these functions were outside the scope of Federal authority, at least as then conceived, but without them the Homestead Act could benefit only monopolists or persons of fairly ample means.18 The Graduation Act of 1854, disposing of hitherto unsalable land in the older states at prices as low as twelve and one half cents per acre, had helped nobody but neighboring farmers and speculators. Now that free land was provided, the results were not widely different If the families of all persons making good on homesteads before 1890 had averaged five each, a population of considerably less than 2,000,0 would have been provided for. But so many families spread out over several homesteads that it would be injudicious to assume so large an average family for each farm. A population increase of 30,000,000 for thirty years failed to be benefited in any way by free land.

The bulk of these persons was added to the urban population, to be absorbed by industry or swell the ranks of the unemployed and destitute. Most of them were not even within yearning distance of the public domain. Of the twenty-nine states ultimately to exist in the regions where the public land lay in 1862, only eight were east of the Mississippi River, and three of these (Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois) were able to provide only 208 farms in forty-two years. Three others were Gulf states, which did not attract settlers from the industrial centers.20 Michigan and Wisconsin were, therefore, the only states east of the Mississippi which could entice farmers and laborers from the congested regions. Before the industrial worker could even consider applying for a homestead he had to figure where, if possible, he was to raise the money to transport himself, and probably a family, from 500 to 1000 miles to the new Canaan. This in itself might be the equivalent of six months' wages; and many times as much more was necessary if he made a success of his venture as a frontier farmer. Even the landowner who sold out in the East and transplanted himself on a homestead was more likely than not to find himself wandering forty years in the wilderness before reaching Canaan. Hardly more than a third of the homesteaders in the years before 1890 remained long enough to perfect their claims.21 It was hard enough for an experienced farmer to make a success of the venture. To the industrial laborer of the second generation it was virtually an impossibility.

Down to 1860, even when the illegal squatter dominated the frontier, it was the unusual thing, rather than the customary, for the pioneer to make his ultimate home farther than one state removed from that of his birth. Even the California gold rush, the Oregon Trail, and the mining stampedes of the late 1850's do not invalidate this statement. "In thirty States out of thirty-four", said the Superintendent of the Census in 1860, "it will be perceived that the native emigrants have chiefly preferred to locate in a State immediately adjacent to that of their birth; and in the four cases of exception, the persons removing have proceeded from Maine to Massachusetts, from Maryland to Ohio, from Mississippi to Texas, and from Missouri to California. The second preference, in a majority of cases, has been to another adjoining State." The population of Kansas, with all due deference to the Emigrant Aid societies, came chiefly from Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa.22 The trend was not greatly different during the next twenty years. Half of the final homestead entries to 1890 were in Minnesota, Kansas, and Nebraska. Wisconsin, Michigan, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, California, and Dakota Territory accounted for three fourths of the rest.23 Again, it was the territory closest to the older states which received the emigrants. And from what regions and walks of life did the pioneers come? According to the United States Industrial Commission, investigating the situation at the close of the century, they were generally native Americans from the Eastern and Southern states, "who have sold their small farms in order to buy large ones in a new section", so that the parents could "leave a farm to each child".24 The movement was from the farm to the farm, or, as will be shown later, from the farm to the city. Rarely was it from the city to the farm -- from the laborer's hut to the homestead.

Professor Gates shows in the companion article how easily speculators acquired great tracts of land in the period since 1862.25 The evidence of their activities in monopolizing the public domain is abundant. The Public Land Commission reported that "The land laws, decisions, and practices have become so complicated that the settler is at a marked disadvantage in comparison with the shrewd business man who aims to acquire large properties". A premium was put on perjury. "... In very many localities, and perhaps in general, a larger proportion of the public land is passing into the hands of speculators and corporations than into those of actual settlers who are making homes". And again comes the statement: "Nearly everywhere the large landowner has succeeded in monopolizing the best tracts, whether of timber or agricultural land." Some objections were being raised, but there was no general outcry. The influential persons whose complaints might have been heard were among the beneficiaries. The result was that a tenant or hired labor system was taking the place of freehold farmers.26 The usual practice in North Dakota, said the Industrial Commission, was for settlers to mortgage their farms to the limit and then let the loan companies take them. This may be regarded as typical of the West in general. The speculators formed syndicates to induce Easterners to take up Western land. But the alien element of the urban centers was avoided. "The surplus population of Eastern cities is considered to be lazy and generally not fit for colonization purposes after they have once had a taste of city life."27

This practice was made worse by the amendment of 1891 which permitted settlers to commute their claims by a money payment after fourteen months of nominal or eight months of actual residence.28 Between 1882 and 1904 nearly 139,000 settlers commuted homesteads comprising 20,000,000 acres. In some years nearly two thirds of the deeds were secured by commutation, and one third of all the final entries from 1882 to 1890 were completed by this method.29 This abuse was particularly noted in timberland, where people got quick possession and then sold out. In some counties nine tenths of the tracts were disposed of within three months after the titles were secured. Meanwhile, the settlers had made a living and some profit by selling timber. The commuters were often Canadians or other aliens who returned to their old homes after their profitable ventures. A large proportion were women -- school teachers and the like -- who used this method of supplementing their salaries during the vacation months. In consequence of this monopolistic tendency, large areas of proved-up homesteads had neither habitation nor "evidence of genuine occupation" as homes.30

Oftentimes the speculation took the form of bonanza farming. Many thousands of acres would be amassed by hook or by crook, and the whole would be operated on a basis somewhat of a mixture between a feudal barony and a modern factory. Tenants and wage laborers worked with laborsaving machines of the latest design and highest efficiency. An investigator in the early 1880's traveled westward and south westward from St. Paul and found numerous farms of from 20,000 to 40,000 acres. He also mentioned holdings in Kansas of from 10,000 to 100,000 acres, and some in Texas of from 50,000 to 350,000 acres. In the latter case he probably confused some cattle-range rights with actual ownership. In the twenty years following 1860 the number of United States farms of from 500 to 1000 acres had increased from 20,000 to 76,000, while the number above 1000 acres had grown from less than 6000 to nearly 29,000.31

Abuses in application of the Timber Culture Act of 1873, the Desert Land Act of 1877, and the Timber and Stone Act of 1878 were comparable to those under the Homestead Act, when not worse. Little advantage was taken of the Timber Culture Act. Till 1890 only about 9000 entries were proved up,32 and the measure was repealed in the following year.33 But persons having filed claims were allowed to continue under their contracts, and by 1904 over 65,000 entries had been perfected. By that date the annual number of final entries had dwindled to small proportions.34 The Desert Land Act likewise failed to attract settlers, but it also was flagrantly abused. Of 37,000 original filings only 11,000 claims were proved up in the twenty-three years to 1900.35 Most of these tracts had been absorbed by the big cattlemen and speculators. Two or three persons would get a half section each, and then form a corporation which was entitled to another 320 acres. Then they would form another corporation for the same purpose, and so on indefinitely. The speculator would buy stock in an irrigation ditch which connected with no reservoir, or would put up a pump where there was no water, and claim that he had qualified under the law for final title.36

Equally as certain as that railroad companies, private speculators, and loan companies profited most from the government's land policy, is the fact that the labor surplus became a constantly increasing factor in the national life after 1864. Between 1860 and 1890, while the total population of the country was doubling, the number of persons engaged in manufactures was multiplied by 3¼%. In the two decades following 1870, as the population increased 63½% per cent, manufacturing labor more than doubled in number while the total engaged in agriculture grew by only 45 per cent.37 The same years undoubtedly showed a growth in mining, transportation, clerical, and commercial labor commensurate with that of the manufacturing industries. But to the ranks of wage laborers there ought to be added also the hired workmen on the land and, as far as independence is concerned, the tenant farmers as well. The Industrial Commission accounted for 8,395,634 persons engaged in agriculture in 1890, of whom 3,004,061 were hired laborers. In addition, there were no less than 1,500,000 tenant workmen.38 This leaves less than 4,000,000 persons tilling land of their own, including all the mortgaged farms. Only three eighths of the families of the United States were cultivating the soil "as owners, tenants, or laborers", and the ratio was declining constantly.39 Over half of these were on an economic basis scarcely if any better than that of the city laborer.40

Even though farm help was scarce before 1900, the agricultural depression and low wages prevented recruiting from the unemployed in the cities. In fact, the scarcity was said to be "greatest in the vicinity of manufacturing establishments . . . and in sections where railroads or other public works are being constructed". Farmers in Vermont were making use of the immigration offices, and in California the Chinese labor bureaus were patronized. Not only was the workingman unable to take advantage of free land in the West, he could see no prospect of gain in changing from factory to farm employment even in the East. Farm population increased "faster than its opportunities for rural employment";41 then the surplus moved to the towns or cities, and, once caught in the industrial toils, seldom returned. The farm added its toll to the unemployed of the industrial centers, but the city, like a devouring Moloch, failed to give back its victims. The years of agricultural distress in the 1870's and 1880's were accompanied by an ever-increasing roll of unemployed in the cities. Even the pioneers on the homesteads, baffled by fortune and beaten by nature, edged their way back, more often than not, to the ancestral farms and from there to the factory and, too frequently, to the bread line.

Henry George, writing a full fifteen years before "Coin" Harvey achieved fame, spoke of the "harder times, the lower wages, the increasing poverty perceptible in the United States". From every civilized country he heard "complaints of industrial depression; of labor con- demned to involuntary idleness; of capital massed and wasting; ot pecuniary distress among business men; of want and suffering and anxiety among the working classes". His rallying tocsin was that "amid the greatest accumulations of wealth, men die of starvation, and puny infants suckle dry breasts . . . ",42 Ah yes! but why listen to Henry George? He was just a single tax "crank". Or why hearken to the vaporings of that Utopian dreamer Edward Bellamy? Perhaps also Henry Demarest Lloyd should be waved aside as being possessed of a single-track mind, or, better yet, for having a mind at all. But still other witnesses raise their heads -- men who gained the ear of the respectable classes who would listen neither to radicals nor "high brows". One of these was Godwin Moody, who published testimonials from David Davis, George W. Curtis, and George F. Hoar as to the soundness of his thinking. Davis accepted without question the statement that a third of the whole population of the country was "prostrated by want of employment and of reasonable reward for their toil". Hoar assumed as part of his own thinking that laborers must get higher wages and fewer hours as "their share of the increased production caused by the invention and perfection of machinery". Moody himself saw, as the principal changes of a half century before 1880, the rise of bonanza and tenant farming side by side, the growth of congested slums, the development of armies of compulsorily unemployed -- half of the people overworked and the other half idle.43

But Moody was inclined to exaggerate. Of 17,000,000 belonging to the productive classes he could find that 7,000,000 were idle or working so little of the time as to be dependent. Also, after all, he must have been a radical, for he proposed a six-hour day at increased wages as the only solution for unemployment.44 The historian, therefore, must return to the established authorities. No person has denied that there were a million men unemployed in the North alone in 1865, and none has demonstrated that the number ever became perceptibly or permanently smaller. Most textbooks will recount the wage-cutting orgies of the 1870's and the suppression of labor revolt by armies of hired retainers or by military force. They will tell also of the railroad, steel, and mining strikes in the great upheaval of the 1880's, when the coldest of official and judicial brutality toward the hunger-driven jobless could be hailed as the sublimation of social justice. Where then was the siren call of the free lands? Carroll D. Wright, and he is a conservative enough authority, after the most careful of deductions, listed the number of unemployed in all fields except those of professional and personal service in 1885 at 998,839. But he admits that, taking all kinds of unemployment, the number was above 1,300,000,45 However, he is best in his last report as labor commissioner in Massachusetts. Of 816,470 total employable persons in that state in 1884-1885 he accounted for 241,589, or 29.59 per cent of the total, idle or employed only a few months in the year.46

Before the establishment of the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor, in 1869, there were hardly any reliable calculations of unemployment. But a fairly trustworthy source listed 20,000 idle in the city of New York in 1868.47 Some reports credited Massachusetts with as many as 300,000 unemployed mechanics during the dismal years following 1873, but Wright would cut the number to a tenth as many. On this basis he would also reduce the estimated 3,000,000 for the United States in the same proportion.48 But his own liberal estimate for 1885 might tend to show that he was unduly conservative in his earlier calculations. The difference between mechanics and all employable persons is a wide one, and it is difficult to believe that the depression of the middle eighties was so much worse than the Panic of 1873.

But, whatever the basis of calculation, it cannot be denied that unemployment was a major economic ailment in every decade from 1865 to the close of the century, and it is equally certain that free land did not solve the problem. No doubt there was once a time in American history when underpaid, unemployed, or dissatisfied laborers could take their choice between continuing as intermittent wage employees or becoming freehold farmers; that wages of industrial labor were higher for that undefined period than they otherwise would have been; and that industrial strife, in consequence, was kept at a minimum. A more certain fact is that such conditions have not existed since the coming of the factory system. In other words, the much vaunted cheap or free public lands of the country, whatever may have been their effect in other regards, since the rise of a class-conscious labor group have not been of measurable consequence as an alleviator of labor conditions.


1 This paper was first read at a meeting of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association at Cincinnati, on Apr. 26, 1935. Since then Professor Carter Goodrich and Mr. Sol Davison have published two articles on "The Wage-Earner in the Westward Movement", in the Political Science Quarterly, L (June, 1935), 161-185; LI (Mar., 1936), 61-116, in which substantially the same conclusions were reached as are set forth here. These studies -- theirs and my own -- having been made independently, but based upon different evidence and following different procedures, tend rather to corroborate than to duplicate each other. Another article entitled "A Critical Analysis of the Safety Valve Idea in American History with Particular Reference to the Period Centering around the Depression of 1837", written by Murray Kane and as yet unpublished, shows the weakness of the theory at a very early period of American industrialism.

2 This statement, as repeated by Frederick Jackson Turner, has been printed in various places, but can most conveniently be found in his Frontier in American History (New York, 1920), p. 1.

3 "Report of the Public Lands Commission", 1905, Senate Document, 58 Cong., 3 sess., no. 189, p. 175. Proved up homesteads equaled 75,353 square miles as compared with 2,145,313 in the trans-Mississippi West or 77,520 in Nebraska.

4 To 1910 inclusive 118,922,354 acres had been deeded to settlers. By 1933 the figure had grown to 237,099,586, and, though the rate was falling off, nearly a million acres were patented in the latter year. The largest number of acres patented in any one year was 10,009,285 in 1912-1913. Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1934, no. 56, p. 126.

5 Eleventh Census, 1890, "Statistics of Agriculture", pp. 84, 92, 100.

6 There is more than a suspicion of this sort of reasoning in some of Turner's own later writings. In 1903, ten years after his original essay, he wrote: "Men would not accept inferior wages and a permanent position of social subordination when this promised land of freedom and equality was theirs for the taking. . . . In a word, then, free lands meant free opportunities", op. cit., pp. 259-260. Again, in 1910, while discussing the subject of class stratification, he asserted that "the sanative influences of the free spaces of the West were destined to ameliorate labor's condition . . . and to postpone the problem", ibid., p. 275.

7 John R. Commons and others, editors, Documentary History of American Industrial Society (11 vols., Cleveland, 1910-1911), VIII, 32 ff.

8 Ibid., VII, 299, 301, 302, 306-307.

9 Ibid., p. 354. See also pp. 352-362, passim, and VIII, 24. For Smith's land donations, see Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Gerrit Smith (New York, 1878), pp. 102-112.

10 Commons, VII, 302-304.

11 Cong. Globe, 32 Cong., 1 sess., app., pp. 511, 512, 514-516 (italics in original), 519, 530.

12 Ibid., pt. 2, p. 1351, for the House vote. The total was 107 yeas and 56 nays. Fifty of the negative votes were from the Atlantic Coast states and industrial Ohio. The affirmative vote of the North showed 37 from the East and 34 from the West (Ohio's rural vote included).

13 Ibid., 32 Cong., 2 sess., pp. 739-747. Vote on p. 747.

14 For Hamlin's vote in 1853, see ibid., p. 747. His thorough denunciation of the Homestead bill is in the Appendix, 33 Cong., 1 sess., p. 1103. For Gerrit Smith's vote in 1854, see ibid., pt. 1, p. 549.

15 Some of the later significant votes on homestead bills may be found in the Cong. Globe, 33 Cong., 1 sess., pt. 1, p. 549, for House vote of Mar. 6, 1854 (see p. 2 for state and party affiliations of members); ibid., pt. 3, p. 1844, for Senate vote to substitute the Graduation bill for the Homestead bill; ibid., 35 Cong., 1 sess., pt. 3, p. 2426, for Senate vote on May 27, 1858, to postpone action on a homestead bill (Andrew Johnson voting "yea" in order to secure reconsideration; see also ibid., 35 Cong., 2 sess., pt. 2, p. 1074, for explanation of the significance of this vote); ibid., pp. 1075, 1076, for Senate votes of Feb. 17, 1859. The legislative history of the bill in 1860-1862 is common knowledge.

16 Cong. Globe, 32 Cong., 1 sess., app., pp. 380, 509.

17 Ibid., p. 523; also in pt. 2, p. 1183.

18 See Robert Tudor Hill, The Public Domain and Democracy (Columbia Univers Studies in History, Economics and Public Law, vol. XXXVIII, no. 1, New York, 1911 pp. 45 ff.

19 See [U. S.] General Land Office Report, 1860, pp. 32, 48; Thomas Donaldson, The Public Domain (Washington, 1884), p. 291.

20 These were Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. General Land Office Report, 1860, p. 9; Sen. Doc., 58 Cong., 3 sess., no. 189, p. 175. The small portions of Louisiana and Minnesota lying east of the Mississippi River are scarcely enough to include those states in the list.

21 By 1880 there were 162,237 final entries as compared with 469,782 original filings, Donaldson, p. 355. The figures for 1883 are given as 213,486 and 608,677 in Frederic L. Paxson, History of the American Frontier (Boston, 1924), p. 549.

22 Eighth Census, "Population", pp. xxxiv, xxxv. The italics arc in the original.

23 Donaldson, p. 355.

24 Report, XIX, 120.

25 Various other related matters which are merely alluded to or ignored entirely here are discussed in detail by Professor Gates. No attempt has been made to eliminate the occasional small items of duplication of subject matter.

26 Sen. Doc., 58 Cong., 3 sess., no. 189, pp. xxiii-xxiv.

27 Industrial Commission Report, X, 789; XIX, 109, 110.

28 Sen. Doc., 58 Cong., 3 sess., no. 189, pp. 65-66. Commutation had been allowed by the act of 1862, U. S. Revised Stat., sec. 2301.

29 Compare ibid., pp. 175 and 180.

30 Ibid., pp. viii, xvii-xviii, 69-78.

31 Wm. Godwin Moody, Land and Labor (New York, 1883), pp. 33-61; 75.

32 Sen. Doc., 58 Cong., 3 sess., no. 189, p. 183.

33 26 U. S. Stat., 1095-1103. The repeal act of Mar. 3, 1891, is also mentioned in Public Land Statutes of the United States, Daniel M. Greene, compiler (Washington, 1931), p. 711. This volume, besides listing the acts in force at date of publication, also serves as an excellent index for land acts in general. The heading to paragraph 5116 in U. S. Compiled Statutes, 1918, John A. Mallory, compiler (St. Paul, 1918), lists the dates of the various amendments to the Timber Culture Act prior to its final repeal.

34 Sen. Doc., 58 Cong., 3 sess., no. 189, p. 183. Persons inclined to jeer at the idea of successful forestry projects on the Western Plains might well travel through Nebraska and the Dakotas and view for themselves the flourishing results of experiments started half a century ago under the "Tree Claim" Act.

35 Industrial Commission Report, XIX, 113.

36 Sen. Doc., 58 Cong., 3 sess., no. 189, pp. xix-xx.

37 Statistical Abstract, 1913, no. 36, pp. 660, 666. This number was used instead of an older one merely because it was the earliest easily available and as good as any for the purpose. Agricultural labor for 1870 is listed at 5,922,471 and in 1890 at 8,565,926 (the latter figure is slightly more than the one given by the Industrial Commission, see text and next note). For the corresponding dates manufacturing labor stood at 2,053,996 and 4,251,535.

38 Industrial Commission Report, XI, 77; the Statistical Abstract, 1931, no. 53, p. 647, shows 1,294,913 tenants in 1890, but, counting the work of the families, the number of laborers must have been considerably more.

39 George K. Holmes, "The Supply of Farm Labor", American Academy of Political and Social Science, Annals, XXXIII (Jan.-June, 1909), 362.

40 The average wages of farm labor from 1879 to 1899 ranged from $10.43 to $14.07 a month, with board, Industrial Commission Report, XI, 139.

41 Ibid., X, xix; XIX, 121.

42 Henry George, Progress and Poverty (New York, 1879), PP. 5, 8, 354.

43 Moody, see testimonials in back: pp. 286-288.

44 Ibid., pp. 252-275, 310.

45 [U. S.] Commissioner of Labor, First Annual Report: Industrial Depressions (1886), p. 65.

46 Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor, Eighteenth Annual Report (Boston, 1887), p. 277.

47 Cited in John R. Commons and others, History of Labour in the United States (New York, 1918), II, 123.

48 [U. S.] Commissioner of Labor, First Annual Report: Industrial Depressions, p. 64.