In recent years, governments around the world have attempted to give citizens a small amount of money each month to help the poorest and most vulnerable. This idea is called Universal Basic Income and has been tested in rural villages in Africa and India, cities in Finland and Canada, and cities in South Korea and the Netherlands. The pandemic has further normalized the practice, with countries sending stimulus checks to their citizens en masse. But long before there was a movement to give everyone a guaranteed government allowance, there was another kind of universal benefit. In 1862, the US government decided to give some of its public lands to anyone who was willing and able to develop them by passing the Homestead Act.
The Homestead Act was originally designed as a way to punish descent. President Lincoln signed the bill into law in the midst of the Civil War so that Southern states, which had left the Union and sparked the conflict, could not participate in the largest land giveaway in history. Additionally, some of the Native American tribes that had been resettled in what was then known as “Indian Territory” had sided with the Confederacy and, therefore, in Union eyes, were to be (still ) punished.
The idea was that anyone could own land if they filed a claim, paid a fee and built a house on it. It was meant to help settle America in its vast and rugged interior and provide subsistence farmland for those struggling to settle in the newly divided country. But as well-intentioned (if not a little vindictive) as the bill was, it had some significant negative consequences.
The Homestead Act was yet another way for the US government to cede Native American lands. This was especially easy because most native tribes had no concept of land ownership, but instead shared land as a commons. Now Westerners (the law applied to immigrants as well as US citizens) could claim native land for themselves with the full support of the US government and its military. Even land designated as Indian reservations at the time was available to settlers, which made the already unjust treatment of natives at the time even more oppressive.
Another terrible consequence of the Homestead Act was the way it left out those most deserving of government assistance, the slaves. Southern states were unable to participate in homesteading and even slaves freed by the Emancipation Proclamation were too late or unable to enjoy this free land. The federal government attempted to remedy this by creating a Southern Property Act in 1868 that granted 80 acres to African Americans in the South. But, just like the rest of southern Jim Crow, there was a big gap between what freed slaves were allowed to do legally and what they could do practically. Local governments have done little to educate African Americans about this benefit. To make matters worse, much of the land that was ceded was of little use, either too forested or too swampy to cultivate. In the end, only a few thousand plots of land were given to black families before the repeal of the law.
The Homestead Act also left a lasting impact on the way the country was organized. Since there was not much planning in the distribution of land, the new population had to determine its geography and political organization. Nowhere is this better exemplified than Oklahoma City. In what has been called “the worst way to plan a city,” the entire area we now know as Oklahoma City was doled out in one day in what is known as the 1889 land rush. At noon on April 22, the army opened the approximately 100,000 people who all rushed to stake out concessions.
Chaos ensued unsurprisingly. Carts broke down, horses died of exhaustion and deadly fights broke out. An organized group even cheated, hiding wherever they could in order to gain first access to the best plots. These people were called “Sooners”, a nickname that is still used to describe Oklahomans to this day. Shortly after the dust settled from the rush, settlers quickly realized that participatory planning had obvious downsides. There was little or no space left for important municipal services like roads, schools and hospitals. Even after the formation of an informal government, the cheater group refused to participate. This caused the messy urban grid that uses jogs to connect incongruous streets that Oklahoma City still uses to this day.
The Homestead Act was a unique part of world history, one that probably won’t be repeated (for good reason). It left scars on our country that we are still trying to rectify and is seen as another unjust policy being pushed by the US government at the time. Even though the Homesteading Act was repealed in 1972, homesteading is still a thing. Many US states still cede remote plots of land to those who wish to improve them. As much as I’m a fan of the idea of a universal basic income, the failures of our country’s experiment with free land allocation show that any policy like this needs to be well thought out or it risks to do more harm than good.