How Settlers Settled It, Claimed It and Fought Over It
An essay by Christine Jeffords
From an early date the "squatter"--a settler with no legal title to the land he lived on--was a feature of the American frontier. It was often he who edged onto Indian land before treaties had extinguished the red man's right to it, and therefore excited the ire of the tribes and took the brunt of their resentment. If he survived, he was likely to become something of a gypsy, hanging on until more organized settlement began to filter into his region, then allowing himself to be bought off for some ridiculously low price (a horse or two, a keg of whiskey) and moving on to the next "new land." But not until the trans-Mississippi West, and most particularly the Plains States (from what is now North Dakota south into Oklahoma and Texas and west from there), began to attract white people in numbers did such informal title come to be recognized as part of the fabric of society.
In the beginning, the Plains were seen chiefly as a highway, an obstacle to be crossed in order to reach the rich valleys of Oregon, the goldfields of California, or (from 1821 on) the markets of Santa Fe. Indeed, early explorers described them as a "Great American Desert"--a name not entirely inaccurate, as I will later explain. Yet by 1850 there were not only settlers on them in sufficient number as to warrant a demand for hired help, but people were actually beginning to head west with the view in mind of stopping short of the Coast. Not until the Kansas and Nebraska territories were organized in '54 was it possible for them to get legal title, but under the Distribution-Preemption Act of 1841 "squatters' rights" were officially recognized: its provisions allowed a man to file a claim upon any 160 acres (a quarter-section) of land not yet opened for sale by the Federal Government and still have the first chance at the tract he claimed when surveys were made. Thereafter, if he had lived on it for six months, he could purchase the land directly from the Government at $1.25 an acre ($200 for a quarter-section), 25% of the total payment being due during the first year of residence, the rest to be paid any time before it was surveyed or offered at public auction by presidential proclamation; a down payment of ten per cent would hold the title. To many people, particularly those without large amounts of money to spare, this was still out of reach, which was why the Republican Party, organized in the early '50's, supported the concept of a law that would make homestead tracts free for the claiming. But, in the meantime, the law came along just in time to make the plains attractive.
Military land-bounty warrants were also used to acquire land, in part because they allowed the holder to get title immediately and without residence requirement; these had been distributed to veterans of every war since the old French conflicts of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries right up through the Mexican, and although they didn't become legally "assignable" till a Congressional act of 1852, enterprising speculators and big land companies, helped by the fact that many of the "old soldiers" weren't interested in uprooting themselves and resettling somewhere new, began buying them up in wholesale lots from the 1770's, usually at about fifty cents to the acre, acquiring huge areas of the public domain which they later sold as settlement filtered further west. (Indeed several of the Founding Fathers made considerable fortunes in this manner, while the later speculators, in the great westward rush following the War, were able to sell their holdings at $2-$10 an acre.) These warrants were generally awarded on a graded basis, with higher ranks getting more: in the Revolutionary era the bounties typically ran from 200 to 1000 acres for privates, five to ten thousand for officers, although systems varied from state to state: under one typical act of 1782, a North Carolinian private in the Patriot forces was awarded 640 acres, a brigadier general 12,000; in some instances a man got more if he brought his own gun, and still more if he had a horse. For most trading this "scrip," as it was often called, was valued at the same price as the land, $1.25 an acre ($800 to that North Carolina private, for example; which, if he sold it to a speculator, would net him about $400), but varied from eighty cents to $1.50, and it was sometimes even taken for gambling debts at a heavy discount. Other such scrip was distributed to Indian tribes like the Sioux and Chippewa or to some halfbreeds, or obtained by the states as a result of Federal swampland acts. Frequently it changed hands two or three times before the land was actually claimed, but even so it was likely to be cheaper than the going government price. In Nebraska alone, seven times as much land was bought with warrants as with cash--from 700,000 to over 1,250,000 acres, depending on the source you read. The Pre-Emption Act also included a provision granting 500,000 acres to each state for internal improvements (wagon roads, canals, railroads, common schools)--land which, of course, had to be sold, whether by the state itself or the company to which the state assigned it, in order to pay for them. The Graduation Act of 1854 regulated the price of land based on its quality, with some parcels selling for as little as 12½c. an acre. One way and another, then, the early settlers acquired holdings that ranged from a mere quarter-section to 1800 acres.
Since the pre-War laws favored the settler with money to spare, and it takes more of both land and capital to raise cattle than to farm, stock-raising became an early feature of the Plains and beyond. Many early settlers of Kansas and Nebraska were disappointed California gold seekers or Pike's Peak '59ers who turned back and established ranches; others, themselves bound for the treasure strikes, were met by such seekers and persuaded to stop and squat in a favorable location. Some, compelled to tarry by the long sickness of a member of the family, learned the value of the country and decided to stay; or, having buried a child on the "lone prairie," couldn't bring themselves to leave the little one there alone, and decided to remain and make their home nearby. Some of these settlers confined themselves to small-scale farming, but many set up trading posts, which came to be called "road ranches," and of these in turn a goodly number sold hay, grub, and liquor to freighters and immigrants (for whose convenience they usually abutted on creekside campsites) or went into the very profitable business of exchanging sound for worn-out cattle, mules, and horses, on the basis of one road-ready beast for two footsore ones; they also picked up stock wandering loose on the range after stampedes (which, in the spectacular thunderstorms of the prairie, were not infrequent, Eastern animals not being accustomed to the violence of the elements there), or bought it from the Indians (who, as a general rule, far preferred buffalo to beef and were happy to dispose of the latter in exchange for more desireable trade goods, ranging from beads to gunpowder and lead). In this way they presently found themselves stockmen of some consequence, and for convenience's sake began to fence in the patches of wild hay and river-bottom grass adjacent to their stations. Meanwhile, the natural horsemen among them quickly realized that it would be profitable to capture and break wild horses, and that the Eastern market could easily absorb such an output. Later they commenced to procure domesticated Eastern cattle and turn them loose on the plains, with the view in mind of selling them for beef rather than work. Their claims were generally located in pleasant spots along streams, where the softer, less equipped emigrants began to drop off too, with an animal dead, overdriven, sweenied, lamed, or stolen, a woman sickened in body or heart, a man very ill or crippled--or sometimes dead: though the Oregon land laws provided that a widow could claim a homestead, and she was encouraged by public opinion to soldier on and make a new home for her children, many found that they lacked the heart to face the mountains and desert, preferring the level prairie and plains. By 1850 there were also those who set out, from the beginning, with no real intention of going all the way, seeking only the first likely quarter-section of public land; sometimes several of these came together. They kept close to the trails for "protection," even if it was just an occasional detachment of troops passing by, and found ready markets in gold camps and frontier forts, both of which required a steady supply of foodstuffs. With mustanging, the shipment of barrels of frozen ducks and grouse and of roasted, salted, or pickled passenger pigeons to jobbers in Omaha, Kansas City, and Chicago, and the sale of small furs, buffalo robes, and dressed deerskins, apart from the food a family could raise for itself or obtain from the land, it was possible to make a very decent living. These settlers sometimes accumulated large herds of a mixture of cattle--mostly shorthorns from Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Illinois, but a considerable number of Texas longhorns trailed north to Independence and Westport, often as work oxen; those of the latter that were fertile (surprisingly many, for until well after the Civil War all trail herds were "mixed," with steers, bulls, and she-stuff indiscriminately thrown into the gather) willingly crossed with the larger, beefier Eastern animals, and their hardiness and self-sufficiency produced a get of tough, sturdy, good-sized cattle ideally suited to free-ranging life, as settlers in Oregon had likewise discovered. This traffic was given impetus around 1852, when one Seth E. Ward, a Fort Laramie freighter, being prevented by unusually early fall storms from driving his oxen back to the Missouri River for wintering, was forced to turn them out in the Laramie Valley, hoping at least some would survive. Much to his amazement, when he went searching for them in the spring, he found that all were not only still alive, but in better shape than they'd been the winter before. Once word of this fact reached the East, the practise became widespread among all freighting concerns, owing in part to its economy: Russell, Majors & Waddell, who hauled Indian annuity goods and supplied frontier Army posts and mining camps, alone wintered 15,000 head over the winter of '57-8. Many of the early settlers were Mormons, who cannily realized that as emigrants got further West they would be in the market for food and supplies; noted for their use of irrigation and efficient crop rotation, by the '50's their farms were highly prosperous, raising hogs, cattle, chickens, corn, wheat, and all kinds of garden truck, peddling their produce not only to passersby but to Army posts and the Nevada and Colorado mining communities. After stagecoaches began to ply the plains, Mormon and Gentile settlers alike were very naturally approached by the line owners to furnish relay stations, since that spared the companies the expense of building such facilities a-purpose, and many "road ranches" also became stage stops, which brought in a much-needed injection of cash money every month. (This practise continued throughout the pioneer period, since even after the completion of the transcontinental railroad and its four great imitators, there were vast tracts of the West which were served only by coach lines.)
Settlement thus became fairly widespread even before the War. Cattlemen stocked the ranges of Kansas and Nebraska beginning in the 1840's, and by late in the following decade, both boasted a thick fringe of white population reaching out about a hundred miles from the Missouri, as far as the valleys of the Big and Little Blue; there were even some men ranging cattle far out in the region of later Dodge City, under private treaty-lease arrangements with the Indians, and white people began to settle permanently in the Smoky Hill Valley about 1856. North of the South Platte a cattle-ranching business dated from the late '40's, concentrating chiefly on hay sales, grazing-for-pay on well-watered meadows, and the exchange of fresh for worn-out stock; these ranchers were former soldiers, freighters, mountain men, and the like, who also gathered up strays and mavericks by fair means and foul. Every frontier Army post--and there were many of these from an early date--quickly attracted a community of civilians, beginning with the inevitable contractors who supplied hay, grain, and wood, and this nucleus usually served as a point around which other newcomers could hive. Anglos also began establishing ranches in what is now New Mexico (and to a lesser extent, owing to the greater intransigence of the Apaches there, in Arizona) immediately following the Mexican War; indeed some, who had first entered that country in the Santa Fe trade, settled there even while Mexico still owned the region, became Mexican citizens, and often took Mexican wives, and since numbers of their neighbors were already prospering as cattlemen, used the money they had made as freighters to copy their example. (These gringos eventually found Army contracts for beef a lucrative business, and by the end of the War several substantial fortunes had been founded upon them; William Bent, of the Indian-trading Bent Brothers, wintered Mexican steers on the Arkansas, hoping to sell them to the Army in the Mexican War--a classic example of the enemy paying, if at one remove, for its own demise.) In Nevada alone, by the time of the Comstock strikes in 1858-9, several thousand farmers, ranchers, and trading-station personnel had located along the emigrant trails, notwithstanding the general inhospitability of Great Basin terrain.
Further north, by the mid-'50's the rapidly-growing herds of the Willamette region turned the eyes of cattle-growers toward the grassy high-plateau region of eastern Oregon and Washington--and beyond; it was at this time that one Richard "Johnnie" Grant, who had built up a herd at Fort Hall from stock obtained from westering emigrants, drove some 600 head northward into Montana. Within a decade new ranches were springing up all the way from the Cascade crest to Fort Hall and north to British Columbia. From there, in 1858-65, cattle were trailed to the mining camps of the Caribou and Fraser River country, the Fort Colville region of Washington, the Virginia City (Mont.) area, and the goldfields of central Idaho; some of these early trail bosses, being already experienced in spotting good land, doubtless returned later to settle in attractive places they had passed. 300 head of breeders, for example, went to the Flatheads of Montana in 1860. Additionally, when the Mormons had their brief but noisy argument with the Federal government in 1857, many of the more westerly cattle-traders and road-ranchers, wanting to avoid trouble, picked up and moved their herds north into the Beaverhead, Ruby, and Deer Lodge valleys of western Montana and beyond into northeast Idaho. The cattle they took were generally larger and better than those of California and Texas, being Midwesterners by good English bulls. By the time of the gold strikes a cattle industry already existed in the region which quickly became the focus of national attention, and it developed rapidly thereafter, the pioneers prospering by supplying beef to the miners, but when the rush ended they found (like the Texans of the same era) supply outstripping demand, and began trailing their stock south to the Union Pacific, where it could be either sold to feed the rail workers and the communities springing up along the line, or shipped east for sale by cattle car. On the northern ranges, mountain men caught by the collapse of the beaver boom, reasoning that where buffalo could prosper cattle could also live, converted to small-scale cow-ranching. Thus when post-War survey teams entered the present-day Mountain States--Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona--they found there an already flourishing frontier society of ranchers, Indian traders, hunters, and miners. By the winter of 1867-8 there were apparently a good number of ranchers in the Yellowstone Valley region, as the Blackfeet killed several, and by '71 thousands of white settlers dwelt on ranches and farms, in mining camps, and in several flourishing towns on the western-Montana plains south of the Teton River; eastern Montana began to obtain stock with Nelson Story's 600 head of longhorns in 1866, and within a decade other herds had joined them. Mountain ranchers found that fencepoles were in ample supply, and they quickly enclosed their acres; one such enclosure was measured at 30 square miles (19,200 acres).
Moreover, Americans--even those who hadn't joined the emigration to Texas, where Anglo settlers soon copied Mexican methods--were by this time by no means without experience in the business of large-scale cow-raising. The woodland "cowboys" of early Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Ohio grazed their cattle in the forest along the creeping edge of the frontier, rounded them up on horseback, branded and earmarked the calves, and drove their stock to market. Before there was a West, America's most important source of beef was the South--particularly the Carolinas and Georgia--where men raised cattle on the "balds" of the back country, gathered them in specially constructed "cowpens" such as those which gave their name to one famous Revolutionary battle, and walked them to Charleston, Norfolk, Baltimore, and even as far north as Philadelphia. As sectional controversy heated up, many of these men, who neither owned nor wanted slaves, were pushed out by the big planters or moved north of their own free will, and in the early nineteenth century the Ohio valley, especially Ohio and northern Kentucky, became the big cattle-raising area, whence stock was driven east across the mountains to market: already by the 1830's New Yorkers were expecting, and receiving, their regular diet of beefsteak, coming from bluegrass-and-corn-fed cattle raised in that region. Indeed, until the wholesale post-War introduction of reapers and other farm machinery caused most farmers to change to a wheat- and corn-based economy, the Midwest was a great beef-raising region, with a score or more of prairie cattle kings, each with herds of one or two thousand head grazing in fenced pastures of thousands of acres. These men not only bred cattle but brought in feeder steers from southern Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, and even Texas as early as 1854 (possibly 1842), and fattened and shipped to New York an average of three to five thousand head a year apiece. A thousand head of native cattle, costing from $80 to $140 per head, wasn't an unusual week's shipment from the largest such businesses, and at any given time during the entire season there were usually three such shipments on the road.
Even under the Pre-Emption provisions, land couldn't be legally purchased until it had been surveyed, and this took time. (Though Nebraska, to take one example, was organized as a Territory in 1854, the western portion wasn't surveyed for three years thereafter or put on sale until 1859.) So, as they had further east, early settlers tended to squat--but they did it in a unique way. In the West, water was the key to prosperity. The plains are, if left to themselves, a very dry country (the technical term for them is "semiarid" or "subhumid"), with an annual average rainfall much nearer the arid desert level of ten inches or less than the satisfactory level of 30 or more that prevails in good farming areas. And the natural water-storage conditions aren't good: often when the rains do come, they come in cloudbursts, the water runs off so quickly that not enough is retained, and rivers, streams, and springs dry up. But in places where sufficient water is available, or can be had through well-digging, irrigation, or other means, an area can flourish and grow. This is why the West has seen so many scraps, lawsuits, battles, and wars over the control of water supply, the diversion or damming of streams, and other liquid issues. If you controlled the water at which your stock drank, you controlled, in essence, all the land it grazed on, even without owning a foot of it; only a farmer felt driven to acquire legal title to his entire parcel, in part because he hoped that doing so would give him the right to fence out wandering range stock that might otherwise eat his crops in the field--or sue their owners if he couldn't fend them off.
A would-be stockman's first care, then, was to find a live stream with an ample (he hoped) supply of water; this done, he would establish a headquarters camp at a desireable adjacent spot, most preferably one with trees. He then secured by one means or another a narrow strip of stream frontage, which enabled him to claim all the land facing the stream, on one side or both as he preferred, for as far as he dared--sometimes fifteen or twenty miles--and as far back from it as a cow would walk for a drink (usually reckoned as five to ten miles), plus another five to fifteen miles for elbow room, commonly to the ridge that formed the "water divide," beyond which lay another stream and the land of another rancher. (The land not within cow-walk of the stream could still be used for grazing if it had natural springs, tanks, or waterholes, was crossed by subsidiary streamlets, or if the stockman installed windmills on his range.) Thus for each quarter-section he actually owned, he controlled a minimum of another 1600 acres--two and a half square miles--of pasture. If no stream was available, he could homestead on a waterhole, and with the backing of Federal land laws control all the surrounding ranges as effectively as if they'd been fenced. (Most of the big cattlemen did this anyway with any open waterhole or spring they happened to find on their range, in hopes of preventing farmers from edging in; often they would pay their cowboys to file, let them prove up and get their patents, then buy the claims from them (almost certainly at rather less than the government price, since to a cowboy even $100 was as much as most thrifty ones could manage to put by in a year).) Control of water gave control of land: a cowman's range could cover a million acres (1562.5 square miles, or 39.5 a side) even though the owner only held title to a quarter-section on a stream or near a waterhole, where his buildings were. While land was plentiful and the range open, it was common courtesy not to establish yourself too close to a ranch already in operation; 14 miles was considered a comfortable distance, since cattle couldn't walk more than seven to water and back to the limit of the grazing area in a day, but the headquarters of a big outfit might not have another building within 20, or even 50 if the country was dry. The small ranches were likely to be much closer together, say a couple of miles.
The rancher looked first for water, but he gave almost as much consideration to the land's capacity for yielding winter shelter to his stock. Ground interlaced with hollows, brush-filled draws, and hills with steep-cut south-facing banks offered both screens from bitter winds and patches of grass devoid of snow. But if he couldn't find such land coupled with a supply of water, he was often forced to content himself with well-watered and -grassed land that lacked defensive contours: winter's storms were dangerous in open country, but not as dangerous as summer's droughts on arid ranges. Whether or not, and large or small, he generally placed a notice in a newspaper, listing his brand (and earmarks if any) and fixing the extent of his claim by naming its various boundary landmarks, as well as recording both in the state or territory brand books. Thereafter he maintained control of his claim under a "customary range" law, which provided for fines and jail sentences for anyone who drove stock off its customary range without the owner's leave. Because the quantity and quality of grass, as well as of water, in a given section determined the number of cattle it could support, and unstinted water might cause the stock of several ranchers to intermingle on it, the man whose stock first drank at a water source (or his heirs after him) had prior right to that source thereafter; he didn't have to share it unless he wanted to, and even if he did, he could fence it off at any time. The second comer had second right, and so on. No latecomer might graze his animals on a tract unless all animals belonging to earlier comers were assured of ample fodder.
By and large, early settlers in any district tended to locate along rivers "in full flow"--downstream some distance from the source--in part because the land is always better at the heart of a valley than at the head or the foot. Later comers laid claim, if possible, to lands upstream, which put them in possession of more remote, less desireable country, but in a position to cut off, use up, or divert the water to which the downstreamers felt they had a prior right. The latter were protected by a basic law loosely expressed as "First in time--first in right," which translated roughly as first come first claim. These early comers tended to be chiefly cattlemen--sometimes big ones, sometimes not--because of the difficulty and expense of gaining full legal title to farmland prior to the passage of the Homestead Act.
This famous law went into effect on January 1, 1863, and provided that any person (male or female) 21 years of age or over, or the head of a family, and a U.S. citizen or an immigrant in the process of obtaining citizenship, who had never borne arms against the U.S. Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies (which, of course, barred ex-Confederates and Confederate sympathizers, at least in theory, but probably did nothing to prevent many of them from claiming they'd been Unionists all along), could stake out and file a claim on any open 160 acres of Government land in the West. (Although Indians were not legally citizens until the 1930's, a halfbreed had a right to a homestead if he chose to exercise it.) To do this, the would-be landowner went to the nearest land office, filed an application for the quarter-section he wanted, and received to confirm this application a temporary deed made out in his full name and containing a description of the land, the conditions he was agreeing to fulfill to become its proprietor, and the date. He paid a $10 filing fee and $4 register charge, and within six months thereafter he had to be living on the land and making improvements--that is, building a dwelling and cultivating part of the land; only 10 acres had to be broken in order to comply with the provisions of the act. After he had lived there at least six months per year for five consecutive years, he published notice for final proof in four consecutive issues of any local newspaper (forms could be had at the office), after which the publisher signed an affidavit for him to submit to the Registrar of the land office (along with a final $4 fee) to complete his claim for title. This official passed the affivdavit and papers to the Land Office in Washington, and the settler had his parcel. (Until he did all this, the land wasn't taxable, but it also couldn't be sold, and if he quit the country his temporary deed was void, though the parcel wasn't open to filing again until the original claimant's term was up.) He must also erect a 12x14' house on his tract--except that the law (through some oversight) failed to specify feet, and many miniature houses were used. If he was in a hurry, he could buy the land outright for $1.25/acre after only six months if certain improvements had been made. Later the law was repeatedly modified. After 1872, a Union veteran who had served at least nine months in uniform could apply that time to the five-year requirement. The Timber Culture Act of 1873 granted the homesteader, in addition to his original quarter-section, an additional one if he would plant 40 acres of trees on it and care for them for 10 years, under the theory (fallacious, as we now know) that if enough trees were planted on the Plains, rainfall there would increase. (The law didn't specify what kind of trees, and many settlers planted, or more accurately transplanted, native ones like cottonwood and box elder as well as fruit trees such as wild plum, chokecherry, and gooseberry. Five years later the requirement was lowered to 10 acres for eight years.) In 1877 the Desert Land Act gave the homesteader yet another 640 acres at $160 down (25c. per) on condition that he irrigate the whole section within three years, whereupon he could buy it for another $640; or he could claim it for 25c./acre/year for three years ($480). (A common practise was to pay this fee and use the land for grazing for the full allowable term but never make the improvements that would give title.) But both these acts were far removed from reality, particularly the second: no homesteader would pay good money for land he could get free (or nearly so) under the previous provisions, and in any case large-scale irrigation was far too expensive for the typical homesteader. Also, the loose term "irrigate" was an invitation to fraud--one that was willingly accepted by stockmen who simply doused a cup of water on 640 acres and called it irrigated. Indeed, from 1862-90 only 372,650 Americans took advantage of the Homestead Act, and most of those did it during the depression years of the 1870's and '80's, when people fled the crowded East in droves. As the "Federal West"--the lands west of the Missouri-Iowa-Minnesota line and excluding Texas and the Indian Territory--equalled approximately 241,824,998 acres, even if each of these claimants took out 320, the total came to only 119,248,000, or less than half what was available, and many of them were probably cattlemen's devices or eventual failures. (Usually only a quarter of original entrymen lasted long enough to patent their claims; in the more difficult regions and in hard times and panics (what we call depressions), the figure slipped to 10%. In 1865-1900 in Nebraska alone, homestead filings totalled about 125,000, for almost 20,000,000 acres of land, but less than half of these entries lasted the requisite five years. Drought, grasshopper plagues, loneliness, and sheer economic reality--in the wooded and watered East, 160 acres could support a family farm, but on the Plains about four times that much was needed for safety's sake--forced many a 'steader out.) Large grants of land to the railroads, failure to enact a realistic land program, speculation, and cattlemen's frauds kept the Act from attaining any real success. More land was sold by the Union Pacific at $5 an acre than was conveyed free under the Government's public land program. To this day, grazing--either seasonal or year-long--dominates most of Nevada, Utah, Wyoming (only 7-8% of which is under plow), and New Mexico, fully three-quarters of California, Idaho, Montana, and Arizona, the eastern two-thirds of Oregon, and about half of Washington, Nebraska, and South Dakota; where farming infringes upon the land at all, it's chiefly as scattered irrigation along major river valleys, or wheat and small grains in limited areas of the middle elevations. As late as 1945 there remained nearly 1000 ranches of more than 20,000 acres apiece; 262 of these, mostly in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, claimed upward of 100,000 (the 6666 in Texas operated on a spread of 400,000, or 625 sq. mi.), and if by that time they were fenced, that didn't detract from their size. 30 years later, Nebraska Sandhills ranches still typically comprised as many as 60,000 ac., and medium-large ones ran 10-20,000, with herds of 1200-1500 head.
In actual fact, land laws and customs tended to weight the scales in favor of the stockman, who had, or could accumulate over time, more capital than the small farmer would ever hope to see. Under the land laws previous to 1862, there was no limit to the amount of land that could be acquired, and no requirement that purchasers should actually settle on what they had bought. Though a Federal law of 1878 stated that Federal land could only be acquired in parcels or multiples of 160 acres regardless of intended purpose, it wasn't retroactive, it didn't affect leaseholds or the transfer of previously claimed lands, and it didn't specify how many such parcels could be claimed: it was completely legal for the same person (whether a farmer or not) to take up a homestead and a pre-emption claim (the latter remained available until 1891, the year after the "frontier" officially closed), 320 acres total (in the case of the latter he had to be able to cough up $200, where the former cost him only a total fee of $18, but that still averaged only 68.125c./ac. for the entire parcel), and later another quarter-section under the Timber Culture Act and a full section under the Desert Land Act. (480-acre claims under the first three provisions were especially common, averaging out to only 45c./ac.; if a working man could put that much aside every week, in a little over nine years--at the age of twenty-five or less, provided he began his savings program with his working life--he'd have enough to pay for his land even if he kept the money in his mattress rather than an interest-bearing account, while a thrifty cowboy could amass the required sum in just over two.) It was also not an uncommon practise for a man and woman, united by clergy or common law, to erect twin "claims shacks" with a common wall on the boundary of adjoining tracts, and each file for a homestead, thereby getting twice as much land. (Brothers and sisters or parents and adult children doubtless did the same thing.) In addition "soldier scrip" continued to circulate freely throughout the pioneer period and was routinely used to augment existing holdings or stake out new ones. The Agricultural College Endowment Act of 1863 (commonly known as the Morrill Act) gave each Union state 30,000 acres of Federal land for each Senator and Representative it had, for the purpose of founding agricultural colleges; like other internal-improvement lands, this was quickly sold by its assignees (sometimes for as little as 50-75c. per acre) in order to raise money for the project in hand.
Under the Pre-Emption Act (and probably the Homestead Act as well), the claimant had to swear that he had never obtained a pre-emption grant previously, that he did not own over 320 acres in any state or Territory, that his intention was not to sell the land, and that he had no commitment to transfer it to anyone else. But in an era when record-keeping was spotty at best and Social Security numbers, computers, and other privacy-busters didn't exist, there was no practicable means of checking up on any of this, so abuses were common, and the vast distances separating many claims from any Government land office made it highly inconvenient for officials to verify that a dwelling had been constructed and that the claimant was actually living on the land. Speculators hired dozens of rascals to pre-empt the land and later deed it back to them; portable houses on wheels which could be used by several claimants in succession, and even miniature foot-square houses that allowed the claimant to swear to the existence of a "twelve by twelve" dwelling, were commonly used. Fraud was endemic: in the early twentieth century, and probably before, cattlemen and others just used names for filing--names of live people, dead people, and people who'd never lived at all. Too, many homesteaders proved up as quickly as possible, then sold out to the highest bidder, or they mortgaged their parcel for the biggest sum they could secure, never intending to redeem the pledge; after several such efforts, a man could find himself in possession of a tidy stake. And while Federal land (despite the enthusiastic lobbying of ranchers) couldn't be leased till after 1900, many cattlemen worked out localized lease arrangements with whatever Indian tribe happened to have a reservation in their region. The Indians were willing enough to grant such leases, and so were the agents, since for many years the Government beef issues were notoriously inefficient: the treaties had been made at a time when the tribesmen could eke out the ration very considerably by hunting buffalo, but they weren't adjusted after the buffalo disappeared (some were even reduced due to lack of funds), and the Indians were often hungry and consequently restive and ripe for trouble. Leases were usually for five to ten years, at 1¼-2c. an acre payable semiannually in advance, and, most important, the Indians could take all or any part of the payment in cattle, thus making up the beef deficiency. (Cattle sold more cheaply to the Government than they generally did at the railroad, owing in part to the lesser expense involved in getting them there--usually five to ten dollars per head, no questions asked--which figured out to one cow per 400-500 acres per year.) If the rancher insisted upon gaining legal title, he could often get it for as little as 25c./acre, the land being cheap because it was classed only as grazing. Or he could buy or lease it from his state, if he lived in one. (The latter was cheaper: only 50c./ac. as opposed to $1.25 for land in Territories.)
In Texas the situation was different. From its earliest history, its land laws made the cattle business both attractive and easily entered. When in the early 1820's Moses Austin and the Baron deBastrop persuaded the officials of the new Republic of Mexico to encourage Americans to settle in Texas (the idea being that they would prove better equal to coping with the Indian menace than the widely scattered Hispanics had been able to do), the terms granted to Austin provided for one labor, or 177 acres, to each family engaged in farming; 25 labores (one sitio, or square league), or 4428 acres (as distinct from a liga, which was a linear league, a distance measure that equalled about three miles), to each planning to raise stock (most of Austin's planter farmers, not being stupid, adopted this classification); one third of a sitio, or 1376 acres, to each single rancher, although two or three bachelors could join up to create a family and satisfy the letter of the law, thereby receiving a full sitio, and once a man married he could fill out his claim to full size, while if he married a Mexican woman he could claim even more. Other so-called empresarios--men, and even one woman, who agreed to bring in settlers, more than a dozen of them from first to last--were granted the same terms, in addition receiving for themselves from five leagues of grazing land and five labores of farming land (23,625 ac.) for every 100 families they imported up to as much as 67,000 acres per 200. Substantial men were given extra acres for improvements they planned to build, or for the importation of slaves: one Georgian who brought in 90 of the latter got in all 10 sitios (it was against Mexican law to import them, but that was easily circumvented by calling them "indentured servants" and making out work contracts for them). The original price for land was 12½c. an acre (only $553.50 for a sitio), paid to the empresario, who passed part of it to the Mexican government; later most of this figure was remitted. Payment could be made over a term of six years, during which time all taxes were remitted, being halved for the second six. All colonists were to be exempted from customs duties for seven years and from general taxation for 10, as well as from church tithes and military service. They must take an oath of allegiance to Mexico and nominally accept the Catholic faith by being baptized in it, but the latter, especially, proved a light burden: except around the older towns like San Antonio, the priesthood was chronically understaffed and haphazard; a priest came around to each Anglo settlement at intervals ranging from six months to four years, sanctified the unions of fact and baptized and legitimized their issue, and then disappeared again. He charged $25 for this service, which the father of the bride was sometimes obliged to raise among his neighbors but at least the latter had some time to do it. In practise the couple would generally go to the alcalde's office and have him draw up a bond to avail themselves of the priest's services when he arrived; they signed it and went their way as man and wife, and if they changed their minds before the priest appeared, they went back, demanded their bond, tore it up, and were free as if divorced. Sometimes they had a sizeable family by the time their union was legalized.
After the War of Independence, the Texas Legislature wisely provided that all lands claimed under Mexican law were to remain in the hands of their claimants; such lands naturally descended to the owners' heirs over time. Since the young Republic had no money, it paid its overdue soldiers in land scrip (even a common soldier received a full section), and because its leaders were eager to attract more American settlement, in December of 1836 they enacted a law granting 1280 acres of land to all newcomers with families and 640 to single men, with the right to pre empt additional lands at 50c. an acre. Early veterans of the Rangers were likewise compensated with land title (at least one of them got 1280 acres for two years' service). Even at the prevailing in-state price of about $12 a head, a rancher needed only dispose of half a dozen cattle each month--less than 75 a year--in order to give himself a decent income. At an early date most Texan pioneers were devoting themselves to a diversified agriculture based upon "the Three C's," cotton, corn, and cattle, and were in fact not dissimilar to the "stock farmers" described below, if often on a somewhat larger scale. Later, perhaps as compensation for agreeing to give up what is now the portion of New Mexico between the Texas border and the Rio Grande, which at the time was considered a part of the Lone Star Republic, the terms under which it entered the Union provided that all public lands within the borders of the State belonged to the State, not to the nation, and could be disposed of as the Legislature saw fit. Texas lawmakers were far more liberal in their land policies than was Congress, and it was comparitively easy to lease for long terms or secure title in fee to large parcels of Texas land; as a result ranches could be, and often were, both very large and comparitively stable. Land away from water sold generally for 25c./ac., while the choicest and best-watered parcels cost about 53½c. But even state land belonged to the man whose cow ate the grass off it. Like other states and the nation as a whole, Texas also made large grants of its public domain to railroads, issuing "railroad scrip" as an inducement to the lines to build within its borders--16 sections to the mile. The railroads then turned around and sold it--liberally, copying the example of the state solons: it generally went in 640-acre chunks at a cost of $60 per (9.375c. each). The buyer got the papers on it immediately and had a year to get it surveyed. School lands were likewise sold for the support of public education. And during the Civil War the state sold scrip by the wagonload as a financing measure; unlike Confederate money, it was never repudiated, and as late as 1874 much of it was still knocking around and could be cheaply had, though much had been used to tie up land by map landmarks as a speculation. Goodnight and Adair gained title to some 600,000 acres in Palo Duro Canyon at 50c. per in 1875.
Once a rancher, wherever and by whatever means, had gained control of the water, any farmers who did edge in would find poor pickings: those that had located in the creek bottoms soon found themselves pinched in as he began gaining control of the land around them, having to stop running their own little herds, being left with only enough ground to farm and raise a milk cow and some chickens, and forced to either starve to death or sell out at his price; those who filtered onto his claimed, but unowned, benchland were cut off from the water they had to have, and were forced to move. Often (lurid reports in dime novels and Eastern newspapers to the contrary) he didn't even have to hire gunmen to drive the "nesters" off; he just had to be patient. Most of those who went West to claim railroad lands were emigrants from Eastern slums and hardy European peasants--Germans, Scandinavians, English, Welsh, Scotch, and especially Russian Mennonites--drawn by the widespread, multilingual, and by-no-means-always-accurate advertising campaigns of the roads; given the cost of railroad land as opposed to that of Government parcels, it seems likely that the same was true of most homesteaders. Where the early emigrant had often been a farmer before, and had either lost his land due to a panic, came out of some region such as New England where farming simply didn't pay, or felt crowded in by neighbors (in either of which latter cases he could at least sell out and thereby get a stake), these later hopefuls were poor and ignorant, often gulled by some booster back East or in Europe; they were grossly undercapitalized, with no resources to fall back on in bad years, most had no experience in cultivating semiarid lands, and thousands, who had never owned a bit of property in their lives, were easily deluded into believing that mere title to such a vast tract as 160 acres would automatically give the owner a handsome living. They would come in and keep planting and hoping, and each year the crop would come up just fine--fine enough for feed--and then dry up. After a few years of this they would be hit with a dry spring, or perhaps a plague of grasshoppers, and then they would be glad to sell for enough to get home on, or anywhere else they could get to. Unfortunately while they stuck they sometimes resorted to petty thievery--blankets, food, a rifle--from the cow camps, shot horses or cattle just for spite, or, if they killed for food, left half the animal in its skin to rot; where the cowman, though he had no objection to hungry people taking the occasional beef (and often said so quite plainly in his newspaper advertisements), would prefer that they kept the hide to show him, as a tally.
The settler's fantasies to the contrary, prairie farming particularly wasn't cheap. Purchasing railroad land he would need $800-$1000 (though not all at once, since the roads were eager to promote settlement and get people shipping freight on them, and therefore offered generous terms) to get started on his 80-160 acres, besides a wagon team, plow, milk cow (better yet two: one to "freshen," or bear her calf, in spring, and one in fall, so the family could be assured of milk the year round, since they had to stop using the milk four to six weeks before the calf was due to make its appearance, and devote the entire yield to the young for another two to four afterward), and ordinary household truck. On virgin prairie the sod was so tough that, before the introduction of cast-steel Deere and Oliver plows, huge, ungainly breaking plows as long as 12' and requiring up to six yoke of oxen and two or three men (one to guide the team, one to hold the plow, and sometimes a third to sit on the beam) had to be used. Most pioneers couldn't afford these, and they either pitched in to buy one co-operatively with their neighbors, hired out to help the owner of one at haying and harvest time with the understanding that every week's work would be compensated with two acres broken next spring, or hired the ground broken by custom crews, who did 2½-3 ac. a day and charged $2-$4 per. (A man trying to cultivate his full quarter-section, then, would need almost two months to get it plowed initially, and a minimum of $320 to pay for the job; in practise most probably broke 10-20 ac. a year.) Later, a steel sodbusting plow would cost $15-$30, a harrow $10, a seven-pronged cultivator $60, a mowing machine $125 and a McCormick reaper $275. A two-horse wagon team (which could double for all kinds of farm work) would run $20-$150, plus $30 for their harness; a milk cow, $15-$40; pigs and chickens, which every farm had, added still more expense, though comparitively less. Many homesteaders didn't even have the money to buy a team and wagon: they went as far as they could by boat or train and then got a freighter to haul them out to their land--furniture, lumber, food supplies and all--figuring on buying a wagon next spring, when they'd have (they thought) more money and a better idea of what they needed.
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