O Pioneers

Settling the American Frontier: The Homestead Act

Buy Study Guide

The history of Western Expansion in the United States is complicated and fascinating. In O Pioneers!, Cather depicts one family's experiences during the later part of this expansion. Cather focuses on one important event in American History which played a dramatic role in western expansion - the Homestead Act. The United States acquired a massive amount of land during the early 19th century, most through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-1848. For almost seventy years the country debated over how this land would be distributed. A political party, the free-soilers, was even founded on the idea that the land should be given away for free. The debate became much more violent as the North and South of the United States began to clash over the continuation of slavery. The southern states were determined that the new states admit slavery, and the north (whether for political or moral reasons) was equally determined that they should not be. The succession of the Southern states in 1860 paved the way for Abraham Lincoln to settle the matter finally. Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law in 1862.

A Homesteader had to be the head of a household and at least 21 years old. He, or She, could claim a 160 acre parcel of land. In order to meet the requirements of the law, all one had to do was build a home, "improve" the land and farm for five years. The only charge for the land was an $18 dollar filing fee, but homesteaders paid a price in toil, sacrifice, danger, and loneliness. Many homesteaders came from groups obviously in need of such a chance: newly freed slaves, recent immigrants, and the poor. Interestingly, many of the homesteaders were also the children of successful farmers who wanted their own land. The Homestead Act was successful in that by 1900 about 600,000 farmers had "proven up" on their land.

Despite these high numbers, the law's success was mitigated by the fact that speculators and railroad companies bought up a lot of the best land, leaving only the poorer plots of land for homesteaders. The fact that in 1862 Congress also passed the Pacific Railway Act at least partially explains this phenomenon. The purpose of the Pacific Railway Act was to encourage the expansion of the railroads into the west, and its provisions aided the railroads in buying up any land they felt they needed. Though these provisions may have aided the railroads in buying up a large portion of the best land, it is important to recognize that the presence of the railroad vastly improved successful homesteaders' lives. By 1869 the first transcontinental railroad had been completed, and a dangerous journey that had once taken months could be accomplished in about a week. Of course, many dangers still existed for homesteaders: long, cold winters; large distances between homesteads and town, leading to lack of immediate help in an emergency; and total dependency on the success of just a few years of crops.

Some readers may be surprised by the lack of a Native American Presence in Cather's novel. In fact, the removal of Native American tribes began in the 1830s under President Andrew Jackson. Some Native American tribes, particularly the Sioux, resisted fiercely, and a minimal threat of violence still existed during the time period in which O Pioneers! is set; but, at this point Native Americans had for the most part been forcibly driven from their homes and there was little contact between settlers and the remaining tribes.

In O Pioneers! Cather represents the possibility of both magnificent success and tremendous failure. In life as well as fiction, the Homestead Act gave many families the chance to live the American Dream, but it tempted as many if not more into ruin and despair. Another surprising fact about the Homestead Act is that it was actually in affect in the entire U.S. until 1976 and in Alaska until 1986. But, after The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, the amount of available land substantially decreased, and most homesteading applications were unsuccessful. In total, about ten percent of the area of the US was settled through this law.