To settlers, immigrants, and homesteaders, the West was empty land. To American Indians, it was home.
Conflicts between Europeans and American Indians were a problem long before the Homestead Act was passed in 1862. Treaties and laws like the Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 had pushed many American Indians to reservations in the West. Homesteading added another layer to this already tense situation.
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Land laws including the Homestead Act of 1862 impacted the lives of American Indians across the United States. The struggle to maintain cultural identity and connections to the land still resonates today.
Effects of the Homestead Act on American Indians
The Homestead Act of 1862 granted land claims in thirty states. These areas were the traditional or treaty lands of many American Indian tribes.
The Dawes Act and Homesteading
Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts argued that American Indians would prosper if they owned family farms. His 1887 Dawes Act carved Indian reservations into 160-acre allotments. This allowed the federal government to break up tribal lands further. Only those families who accepted an allotment of land could become US citizens.
"Some citizens of the United States have title to land that was given to my fathers and my people by the government. If it was given to me, what right has the United States to take it from me without first asking my consent?" - Chitto Harjo, Creek Indian
American Indian lands decreased significantly under the Dawes Act. Reservation lands went from 138 million acres in 1887 to 48 million acres in 1934! That is a loss of 65 percent, before the Dawes Act was repealed.
Interpretation of the Homesteading Story
The interpretation of this story is not static. This is a complex story that varies in every state and with every tribe. New research discusses the relationship between the Homestead Act and Indian land dispossession. In Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History (2017), the researchers found three major patterns across the western states: virtually no impact, minor impact, and direct impact.
At Homestead National Historical Park, visitors learn about many aspects of homesteading story. An exhibit titled "Opportunity and Displacement" discusses how land laws affected American Indians. Consultations with American Indians helped to create this exhibit at the Heritage Center. The park film "Land of Dreams" includes stories from indigenous peoples. The film highlights perspectives of American Indians and descendants of homesteaders.
One of the distance learning programs provided by the park addresses the issue of land dispossession. The program "Follow the Buffalo" discusses traditional uses of buffalo parts by Plains tribes. The Homestead Act and changes in American Indian life during the 19th century are focal points in the program.