A close-up of a barbed wire fence around open land in the west.
A close-up of a barbed wire fence around open land in the west.

Along with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the Homestead Act of 1862 and the Dawes Act of 1887 played pivotal roles in the settlement of the American West. Both government measures designed to promote agriculture and "civilization," the two acts moved hundreds of thousands of immigrants, Native Americans and ordinary U.S. citizens around the western plains, helping to shape the West as it exists today.

The Homestead Act

The Homestead Act promised 160 acres of essentially free land to anyone over 21 years of age who could pay a small filing fee, build a house and a road, dig a well and survive on the land for five years. Settlers who were too impatient and had the funds could purchase lands immediately for $1.25 an acre.

Initially opposed by both Northerners and Southerners during the sectional tensions leading up to the Civil War, the Republican party made The Homestead Act, along with the construction of a transcontinental railroad, an integral part of its 1860 presidential platform. In 1862, President Lincoln signed the bill into law while the nation was in the throes of war.

Some 400,000 families took advantage of the Homestead Act between 1862 and 1900, while countless others used other means to build a life out west, such as buying land from railroad companies or simply illegally laying a claim.

Life Under the Homestead Act

Building a life in the West was not easy. Lacking adequate supplies, many families built homes out of sod, the roots and dirt under the tough prairie grasses. Once they managed to establish homes, people found life on the desolate lands lonely and difficult. Harsh winters brought terrible blizzards and harsh summer drought and insect infestations could destroy crops. Of the hundreds of thousands who moved west using the Homestead Act, about one-third failed and abandoned their plots. Still, for those who survived, the West provided them with new opportunities and a chance at success.

The Dawes Act

By the 1880s, much of the western "frontier" had been settled, but thousands of people were still interested in migrating west for new opportunities. At the same time, Native American reservations, which dominated Oklahoma and much of the northern Rocky Mountain west, were viewed as corrupt, unsanitary and untenable disasters. Congress devised a solution to both the "Indian problem" and settlers' continued desire for land through the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887.

The Dawes Act, which fit into the larger government goal of assimilating Native Americans into mainstream society, divided existing reservations into individual allotments of 40 to 160 acres of land. Native American male heads of household were assigned these allotments in trust. If they farmed their land successfully, they would gain complete ownership and U.S. citizenship after 25 years. Land that went unassigned was sold to land-hungry whites.

Life Under the Dawes Act

The lands allotted to Native American men were typically unsuitable for farming, arid and too small for raising livestock, especially for people unaccustomed to independent agriculture. Thus, Native people struggled to build successful lives on their new allotments. By 1891, the law was amended to allow Native Americans to lease their lands, and by 1907 they could sell them -- which many frustrated or cash-strapped Native Americans did. Moreover, in 1909, the U.S. government passed additional legislation that required government agents to determine Native American "competency" before turning over the 25-year trust -- often, agents simply reclaimed the land. All of these factors coalesced to strip Native people of their lands: While Native American held 155 million acres in 1881, they held just 77 million in 1900, and a mere 48 million by 1934.