Unlike the Hollywood version of homesteaders on the American frontier, small farmers struggled to make a living from the land.
How happy am I on my government claim,
Where I’ve nothing to lose and nothing to gain,
Nothing to eat and nothing to wear,
Nothing from nothing is honest and square.
But here I am stuck, and here I must stay,
My money’s all gone and I can’t get away;
There’s nothing will make a man hard and profane,
Like starving to death on a government claim.
But, hurrah for Lane County, the land of the free,
The land of the grasshopper, bedbug and flea,
I’ll sing loud her praises and boast of her fame,
While starving to death on my government claim.
Despite the promise of “free land”, there were substantial costs involved in setting up a farm operation. In addition to travel and moving expenses, money was required for farm equipment, seed, and livestock. Families needed provisions to last a full year before the first harvest. Farmers often learned the hard way that agricultural practices from their home states might not work on their new land. Crop failure, livestock loss, disease, debt, violence – this was everyday life on the prairie.
American children grow up with stories of the Ingalls family homestead in the “Little House” books. The real story was one of hardship and grim survival. Although Charles Ingalls eventually got a patent for his land in South Dakota, two out of three homestead applicants abandoned their claims.
Land speculators took advantage of the Homestead Act. They recruited employees to file applications and live on the land for six months before purchasing a patent for $1.25/acre. The land was then “sold” back to the speculator. Desirable tracts were taken quickly leaving only the most unproductive acreage for small farmers. In 1892, a Louisiana newspaper reporter complained about land speculators. “There is not to be found an acre of land for homesteading anywhere in Southwest Louisiana (that is worth the having) in this prairie region.” The Economic Development of Southwest Louisiana 1865-1900, Millet
Of 500 million acres dispersed by 1904, only 80 million went to homesteaders. Small farmers settled more land under the act in the 20th century than in the 19th — George Will