To Commute or Not Commute, the Homesteader’s Dilemma
After a long hiatus, scholars are reassessing the Homestead Act of 1862. Most scholars see the Act as a failure, partly because they believe its operation involved massive fraud, for which they blame its “commutation” clause as a chief reason. This article provides a fresh look at homesteading commutations, reframing the question to consider under what conditions an “actual settler” might benefit from commuting his or her claim. The analysis shows that commuting was profitable (rational) when the homesteader was optimistic about the future, undermining most historians’ a priori identification of commutations with fraud. Since allegedly fraudulent commutations play such an outsized role in historians’ conclusion that homesteading was infected with pervasive fraud, this analysis puts their broader verdict in jeopardy as well.
commutation, fraud, Great Plains, homestead, income, settler
The Homestead Act of 1862 and its operation have largely disappeared from historical scholarship, with the brilliant exception of the study of women homesteaders. Knowledge of what Paul W. Gates once termed “one of the most important laws which have been enacted in the history of this country” now relies [End Page 129] mostly on studies a half century old or older and accepted at face value, though they remain unrevised by modern data analysis or scholarly standards. Recently there have been hopeful signs of renewed interest in the topic.1
One deeply entrenched assertion bequeathed by past scholars and repeated today is the idea that the “commutation clause” opened the gates to massive stealing of public lands. As most know, American citizens and immigrants intending to become citizens could file a homestead claim on 160 acres of public land, and then, after satisfying certain requirements, the most important of which was residing on the land for five years, they could obtain the land free of charge.2 But there was another option: after residing on the land for six months, later extended to fourteen months, homesteaders could “commute” their claims, purchasing the land outright for the stated price, typically $1.25 per acre, or $200 for a 160-acre claim.
Between 1881 and 1931, about a fifth (20.8 percent) of successful homestead entrymen, that is, claimants who received patents, commuted their claims, some 302,976 out of a total of 1,459,970 successful homesteaders. If the average commuted claim was 160 acres, then commuters claimed a bit over 48 million acres. There were two major surges in commutations, from 1882 to 1889 and from 1903 to 1912.3
But why in the world would anyone pay for land that was soon to come to him or her free? This question bothered public lands scholars for years, and the only answer they could come up with was that the commuter intended to commit fraud.
Because commutation itself was perfectly legal, and in fact was provided for in the [End Page 130] Homestead Act itself, commutation could be considered fraudulent only under more protracted legal reasoning. It goes like this: the act specified that homesteaded land was intended for “actual settlers”; indeed, its name was “An Act to secure Homesteads to actual Settlers on the Public Domain.” Entrymen were required to sign an affidavit stating the claim “is made for my exclusive benefit, and for the purpose of actual settlement and cultivation, and not, directly or indirectly, for the use or benefit of any other person or persons.” So, the reasoning goes, if claimants obtained land under the act but did not intend to become actual settlers, even if their commutation transaction itself was legal, they nonetheless defrauded the government or were at least guilty of perjury. And since scholars could perceive no reason except fraud to pay for land which otherwise an actual settler would get free, they saw commutation as intrinsically fraudulent, an unfortunate and corrupt detraction from “real” homesteading. Moreover, they argued, the cheaters revealed their criminal intent themselves by commuting their claims almost as soon as they were eligible, soon after their fourteen months of required residency was up, thereby confirming from the outset that they had no interest in becoming “actual settlers”; they stood exposed as frauds.4
Commutations are thus seen as the black sheep of land distribution under the Homestead Act. At best, it is said, commutations leaked away valuable public land to people who never intended to settle and farm, and at [End Page 131] worst they were yet another terrible swindle perpetrated on the public, taking their rightful place alongside corrupt railroad grants and other pilfering of the public domain. Fraud was seen to happen in two main ways:
An entryman, never intending to be an actual settler, would claim a homestead, live on it for fourteen months, gain title to the land, and promptly sell it; since the market value of the land was often in excess of the $200 required to commute the claim, the claimant pocketed a nice profit. This was petty fraud, but fraud nonetheless.
More nefariously, a land speculator, cattle baron, timber company, or other big land-grabber would pay people to make claims, live on them for fourteen months, and then commute them. Once the hirelings obtained their patents, they promptly sold or otherwise transferred the land to the patron. The land-aggregator, repeating this ruse many times, could illegally accumulate vast tracts of public land. This was big-time fraud.
Whether petty or big-time, scholars argued, it was fraud, and the logic was axiomatic: commutations = fraud.
This interpretation of commutations plays an outsized role in historians’ interpretation of homesteading in general. To scholars who could see no reason other than fraud to pay for something the claimant could get for free, the implications seemed clear: the whole homesteading enterprise was infected with fraud. Fred Shannon declared that there was an “astonishing number” of homestead frauds, which, when calculated, turned out to be an estimate of between 22 and 38 percent. Robert Hine and John Mack Faragher, citing another Shannon study (which may not exist), noted approvingly that “[a]fter a detailed study, historian Fred Shannon estimated that between 1862 and 1900 half of all homestead entries were fraudulent.” And historian Louis Warren contended, “After 1862, the federal government deeded 285 million acres to homesteaders. Half their claims were fraudulent, backed by false identities, fake improvements, or worse.”5 This characterization fit comfortably with historians’ larger narrative of late nineteenth–century economy and politics, which focuses on the Gilded Age’s corrupt and excessive railroad grants, watering of railroad stocks, abusive taking of public lands by big speculators using military warrants and agricultural college scrip, growth of oppressive trusts and monopolies, brazen buying of political influence, and other widespread corrupt practices. Homesteading seemed to fit neatly into this story, deeply infected as it was said to be by commutations and other frauds.
But what if there were other reasons for a homesteader to commute besides committing fraud? What if commutations ≠ fraud?
Commutation as an Economic Decision
Suppose we reframe the question to ask: Under what circumstances would it be in the homesteader’s own interest to commute a claim? Let’s assume our homesteader is an “actual settler,” intent on using his or her claim to make a farm and hoping to stay for the long term. That is, fraud forms no part of this homesteader’s decision. Would it then ever make sense to commute?
One factor in this decision is the obvious one of why pay for land that would otherwise come to the claimant free, but there were other considerations as well. Probably the biggest was [End Page 132] that a homestead claim, prior to being proved up, could not be used as collateral for a mortgage or other loan. Section 4 of the Homestead Act read:
Sec. 4. And be it further enacted, That no lands acquired under the provisions of this act shall in any event become liable to the satisfaction of any debt or debts contracted prior to the issuing of the patent therefor.
This absolute prohibition on using a claim as collateral meant that if someone loaned money to a homesteader before he or she obtained patent and the homesteader failed to pay back the loan, the lender simply lost his money. The lender might be an Eastern mortgage company, a local investor, a family member, or occasionally a bank; regardless, the situation was the same for any lender, and it didn’t matter why the debtor failed to pay—ruined crops, spendthrift habits, botched husbandry, or injury or death—the lender could not fore-close on the land. Lenders were reluctant to loan under these conditions, so the five-year required residency period also created a five-year no-mortgage period. Anyone familiar with the large and critical role that crop loans and other credit play in agriculture can understand how crippling this restriction could be to the homesteader.6 Homesteaders might have wanted to commute their claims to make themselves eligible for a mortgage.
There were other factors to be considered as well, some which encouraged the homesteader to wait out the five years to prove up while others encouraged commuting. For example, in most cases the claimant was not liable for land tax until he or she proved up (after all, the federal government still owned the land), so that encouraged claimants not to commute and delay proving up until the latest possible date. On the other side, encouraging commutation was the fact that land could not be sold before the patent was gained; claimants who feared that in future they might need to sell—for example, homesteaders who became severely injured, could no longer work the land, and would lose all their equity unless they could sell—they might want to commute. Likewise, during the five years required residency a claimant could not leave the property for an extended period without losing the claim, so any homesteader who needed to be away—to visit a sick relative far away, or take a job in a city, for example—but intended to return might want to commute to hold on to the farm. The point is that factors like the ones discussed above—none of them fraud—would influence a homesteader’s decision about whether it was rational to commute or not.
The Homesteader’s Dilemma—An Illustration
To illustrate the decision homesteaders had to make, let us construct two scenarios for a typical entryman on a 160-acre claim. Assume there are two sisters who homestead adjacent quarter sections; both are single women who grow wheat in North Dakota. They filed their claims on January 1, 1916, and since then they have lived on and farmed their claims for fourteen months. They can look forward to four more years of crops in the remaining 46 months before they are eligible to prove up. Each has $200 in savings and spends all her income. Both sisters intend to remain on their land and continue farming, so they are “actual settlers.” Sister A decides to continue farming until she can prove up and obtain her land for free; Sister B uses her savings to commute her claim. We can now compare the results and [End Page 133] assess whether Sister A or Sister B made the better decision.
Sister A: Let’s first calculate Sister A’s total net income over the following 46 months, having decided not to commute. Here are the basic data we’ll use for both sisters:
|Yield per acre:||11 bushels|
|Average cost of producing per bushel:||$2.06|
|Selling price of wheat per bushel:||$2.51|
|Interest rate on savings and loans:||10 percent|
These data closely reflect what a new homesteader growing wheat actually faced in North Dakota circa 1920.7 Sister A plants 30 acres of wheat.8 We can then calculate her four-year net expected income as follows:
Net wheat income = Total revenues from selling wheat − Total cost of producing wheat
= (Price) (Quantity) − (Quantity) (Average Cost)
= (Quantity) (Price − Average Cost)
The variable Quantity is easily computed:
Quantity = (Number of acres) (Average yield in bushels per acre)
= (30) (11) = 330 bushels
The variable (Price − Average Cost) is the profit margin per bushel and equals:
Price − Average Cost = ($2.51 − $2.06) = $0.45 per bushel
So Sister A’s income from wheat for one year is:
Yearly net wheat income = (330 bushels) ($0.45 profit per bushel) = $148.50
She retains her $200 in savings, so she earns interest each year on that:
Interest income = ($200) (0.10) = $20.00
and her total yearly income is:
Total yearly income = $148.50 + $20.00 = $168.50
Hence Sister A’s total income over four years, having chosen not to commute, is:
Total four-year income = ($168.50) (4 crop years) = $674.00
Sister B: Sister B has chosen to commute her claim, and let’s calculate her net income over the same period. We assume that she takes her savings to pay for the commutation, which costs 160 acres at $1.25 per acre, or $200. She mortgages her farm, obtaining a $500 loan at 10 percent. The big difference between commuting or not is that because Sister B has commuted, she can use the proceeds from her mortgage to expand the size of her wheat fields: without commuting, she only farms 30 acres, whereas using her mortgage to pay for breaking more land, she now seeds 107 acres of her 160-acre claim.9 We assume her yield, average cost of producing, price of wheat, and interest rate are all the same as for Sister A.
Performing the same calculation as above, we can see that her wheat output for one year is
Quantity = (107) (11) = 1,177 bushels
The profit margin per bushel is the same as before:
Price − Average Cost = $0.45 per bushel
So her profit from wheat is:
Yearly wheat income = (1,177 bushels) ($0.45 profit per bushel) = $529.65. [End Page 134]
However, she now receives no interest from savings (her savings = zero) and instead has the additional cost of annual payments of interest on her loan:
Annual loan payment = ($500) (0.10) = $50.00
so her total yearly income is:
Total yearly income = $529.65 − $50.00 = $479.65
She also must count as a cost her one-time payment from savings of $200 to commute. Putting these elements together, Sister B’s total four-year income after commuting is:
Total Four-Year Income = ($479.65) (4 crop years) − $200.00 = $1,718.60
Comparing Outcomes: Both sisters will have four crop seasons after Sister B’s fourteen-month required residency to commute and before Sister A can prove up. During this period, [End Page 135] Sister A can expect to make $674.00 while she waits to get her land “free,” whereas Sister B earns $1,718.60 by having commuted. That is, commuting has allowed Sister B to more than double (2.55 times) Sister A’s expected income!
Sister B has also exchanged $200 in savings for $500 in debt; however, if she directs her extra income from commuting to paying off her loan, she would soon retire the mortgage completely. After commuting, Sister B receives $311.15 [i.e., $479.65 – $168.50] more income every year than Sister A. Therefore, in the first year after commutation she can pay $311.15 toward the principal, and from the second year’s crop pay the final $188.85. By the end of the fourth year, over and above her repayment of both the interest and principal of the loan, she would have an additional $844.60, which if saved would be more than four times Sister A’s $200 in savings.10 And thereafter Sister B, other things being equal, would enjoy a permanently higher income, more than three times larger than Sister A’s. She could save her extra income or reinvest it in her farm or use it to raise her standard of living. This bonus would have been a tremendous incentive for an “actual settler” to commute, with no intention nor act of fraud.
We could change and elaborate the example in various ways, using different but still plausible values for the variables, but that would not change the central point: by gaining access to credit, the homesteader opened important new opportunities for herself. We could, for example, allow Sister A to gradually increase her acreage by perhaps 10 acres per year thereafter; that would reduce the incentive to commute. On the other side, we could assume that Sister B used her loan to purchase more land, or to purchase items (such as machinery or higher-quality seed) to increase her average yield per acre, or that she secured a larger mortgage—all those changes would increase the benefit from commuting.
While earlier scholars thought the logic was so plain—free land was clearly better for an “actual settler” than paying for it, QED—our illustration, which mimics actual conditions, shows the opposite. Unfortunately, scholars were so blinded by their logic that no one stopped to calculate whether it was true. And upon that faulty logic they constructed a whole (mis)interpretation of commutation as being nothing but fraud, a crucial building block for their larger (incorrect) argument that pervasive fraud infested most of homesteading.
Further Influences on the Decision to Commute
The scenarios above suggest that there were likely many influences on homesteaders’ decisions to commute or not. The first is obvious: they had to have $200 available in free cash to commute, and clearly many homesteaders did not. Although we know little about the savings of homesteaders, much anecdotal evidence suggests that many had meager cash savings at best. Repeatedly in the homestead case files we find examples of individuals who owned virtually nothing besides their farms, farm equipment, and livestock. In the example above, Sister A’s annual income is $168.50, so the commutation fee would represent more than a full year’s income for her, a substantial amount. So, too, claimants who failed to persist through the five-year required residency—estimated at 37 to 45 percent of all initial claimants—undoubtedly contained many who suffered a bad crop or two and didn’t have the resources to continue.11 Cost was certainly a significant barrier to commutation: even when claimants saw the advantages [End Page 136] of commuting, many likely lacked the money to do so.
Another influence on the homesteader’s decision was timing: the incentive to commute was greatest as soon as the required fourteen-month residency period expired. If Sister B had waited to commute until, say, only two or one crop years were left before she would have been eligible to prove up, her benefit from commuting would have been much smaller. Spring wheat must be planted in March, April, or, at the latest, May or an entire crop season is lost. Figure 4 (using data from the illustration) shows that the payoff to commuting was greatest in months 46 to 44 before the date she could prove up; commuting, then, when she had the longest period (four crop seasons) over which to amortize the $200 commuting fee and profit from the larger planting, earned her an additional $1,044.60. If she delayed a year, that is, she commuted during months 43 to 32 and benefited from just three remaining crops, she increased her income by $733.45. Further waiting becomes costlier, even though commuting is still profitable: commuting in months 31 to 20 raises her income by $422.30, and commuting in months 19 to 8 still increases her income, but only by $111.00. Commuting in month 7 or later, however, results in her losing income; she’s better off waiting the few remaining months to prove up. If Sister B is going to commute, it pays her to commute as early as possible. Thus, those reformers and scholars who railed at commuters for commuting “as soon as they could do so,” as though that clinched their case that the commuters were cheaters intent on fraud right from the start, failed to understand the underlying economics.
Another influence on the homesteader’s decision was the size of the expected profit margin, in our illustration the term (Price − Average Cost) or the average profit per bushel of wheat produced. Commuting was the homesteader’s guess about the future. When he or she was optimistic, expecting good yields and big profit margins, it made sense to expand operations, and often the only way to do so was to commute and mortgage. By contrast, when the homesteader was pessimistic, expecting poor crops or slim or nonexistent profit margins, expanding made no sense and commutation looked less attractive. Figure 5 uses the values from the illustration to show how the benefit from commuting grows as the homesteader expects larger profits per bushel. The y-axis charts dollars of income expected during four years, and the two lines chart incomes of uncommuted and commuted homesteads. Thus the gap between the two lines measures the incentive to commute (or the difference between Sister B’s and Sister A’s expected incomes) at each level of profit per bushel, from 35 to 55 cents. As we see, the incentive rises dramatically as the expected profit margin increases.
The profit margin itself is influenced by two variables, Average Cost and Price. The expected average cost of production probably changed little from year to year, at least until later in the homesteading period when purchased inputs became more prominent. Earlier, most inputs were not purchased: labor was family labor, not hired labor, and even at threshing time, when the need for labor was greatest, neighbors pooled their labor to reduce as much as possible the need to pay cash money for help. So, too, seed was often saved from the previous year’s crop rather than purchased. Some equipment and livestock needed to be purchased, though key expensive machines and animals were often shared with relatives or neighbors, [End Page 137] reducing each family’s cost of purchased inputs. Even including these bought items, purchased inputs made up a small portion of the overall Average Cost.12 (By contrast, homesteaders purchased a significant amount of their foodstuffs and other consumables.) Price, however, was a variable that fluctuated wildly and over which the homesteader had no control. Homesteaders’ decisions to commute or not represented their judgments or guesses or hopes about how big the gap would be in coming years between Price and Average Cost.
So, too, yield per acre could vary significantly from year to year, due to variables almost entirely outside of the homesteader’s control. Yields fluctuated depending on whether the crops got sufficient moisture at the right times, whether there was damage from hail, too-late or too-early freezes, disease, wind, insects, or weeds. Expectations of high future yields encouraged commutation; worries about poor future yields discouraged commutation.
Another factor was that the real cost of commuting increased over the nineteenth century as prices—especially prices at which homesteaders sold their farm products—declined. In Figure 6, we can see that the deflation-adjusted real cost of the $200 fee was much more burdensome in 1885–1905 than it had been in 1870; the real cost of commutation (using 1870 = $200 as the base) peaked at $361 in 1895; commutations reached a minimum in that year, as we see in Figure 1. Inflation returned, so by 1900 the trend turned the other way, with the real cost in 1910 back nearly to what it had been in 1870.13
Finally, it appears that the price per acre paid by the homesteader to commute varied from place to place and in different periods. The most common by far was the government’s [End Page 138]
[End Page 139]
standard $1.25-per-acre price (or $2.50 per acre in the government-retained alternate sections of railroad grants), which persisted throughout most of the nineteenth century. But evidently pricing on the ground could be more complicated: Elizabeth Corey, who homesteaded in 1909 in Stanley County, west of Pierre, South Dakota, had also scouted nearby land for her brothers back in Iowa, so she was well aware of land regulations. She reported that the price for commuting was only 50 cents per acre in Stanley County.14 At this low price, the homesteader’s cost of commuting fell drastically—a 160-acre claim could be commuted for only $80, not the $200 that was standard—and so the incentive to commute was much greater.
Thus in deciding whether to commute or not, and assuming they had sufficient savings to do it, homesteaders had to consider all these variables when making their decisions. When, as from 1882 to 1889 and 1903 to 1912, they felt optimistic that yields would be good and prices high in relation to the cost of production, and there remained sufficient time in the five-year required residency before being eligible to prove up, they would have been more likely to commute. When, as from 1890 to 1902, they felt pessimistic, with those same variables combining to suggest a meager payoff and the real cost of commutation was high, they would have been more reluctant to commute.
A final factor influencing homesteaders’ decisions whether to commute was how “risk-averse” they were. There was a certain psychological security in taking up the government’s offer of free land: “[I]f I can survive five years here, the land is mine, and no one can take it away from me.”15 Commuting the claim and mortgaging the land removed that sense of security and put the farm at risk.
There was risk as well in not commuting: after all, roughly two out of five entrymen failed to endure and obtain their patents. While their circumstances (and reasons for failure) differed, claimants’ own narratives suggest many were related either directly or indirectly to financial failure. Unsuccessful homesteaders cited the extremely hard work, accidents and injuries, death of a spouse, austere lifestyle, anxiety when crops failed, ever-present loneliness, lack of contact with relatives or townsfolk, self-discovery that the claimant didn’t really want to be a farmer after all, and the dearth of neighborhood marriage prospects as factors in their decisions not to stay. Lack of money made most of these causes worse: more resources allowed the homesteader to hire labor, travel more, and lead a less-impoverished lifestyle. Whatever the causes, claimants who did not commute also risked failure.
Part of the noncommuters’ troubles could be traced to trying to operate too small a farm with too meager a margin for surviving adversity. It is a commonplace among historians to note that the 160-acre farm was too small to be viable, especially as the homesteading frontier moved farther west into drier areas. But this assertion is misleading on two counts. First, during the typical homesteader’s first five years, the overall size of the claim was rarely the binding constraint—the problem was not that the farm was too small but rather that the producing fields were too small. Homesteaders struggled to get ten, twenty, thirty acres broken and into production by the time of proving up; the homestead files reveal few who could get as much as half their claim planted with crops, and while some ground needed to be set aside to pasture their livestock, their cash-crop fields [End Page 140] were arguably too small for the farm to be viable, putting it at risk. Women homesteaders especially struggled to increase the acres they planted.16 Commuting and mortgaging was one means of providing the capital to expand the farm’s planted fields.
It is ironic that public-lands scholars both condemned the commutation clause and denounced the Homestead Act for failing to provide homesteaders with credit to set up their farms. Commutation was often the only means by which homesteaders could get the credit they so clearly needed. Yet Shannon, for example, while denouncing commutations for furthering the “process of monopolization” also harshly criticized the act for failing to provide credit to claimants: “The failure of the Homestead Act to . . . extend [to poor families] long credit for all the rest of their needs . . . was the first and one of the greatest defects of the measure.”17 Similarly, Ray Allen Billington condemned the commutation clause but saw no contradiction in also bemoaning that many homesteaders “had neither the entry fees to file a claim, the considerable sum necessary to move his family to the frontier, nor the money to buy expensive tools and farm equipment. . . . Possibly the Homestead Act could have served [End Page 141] as a ‘safety valve’ for laborers if the government provided free transportation and machinery as well as free land.”18 Yes, the government extending credit would have been one answer; a more feasible answer, however, was allowing homesteaders to borrow from finance companies and banks, and that required commutation.
The second way in which the “homesteads were too small” argument is misleading is that larger planted acreages required more labor than the typical family could provide, unless it could hire help. Robert Finley carefully calculated for different cropping plans in the 1870s and 1880s how much time homesteaders needed to be in their fields if they planted 90 of their 160-acre claims, and he intentionally left out the additional time that would have been needed for “miscellaneous, maintenance, and livestock labor.” Even so, he found that “an extreme labor overload [existed] in most months of the growing season. Hence, the conclusion follows that one man could not possibly have farmed the quarter-section.” This would be especially true if the homesteader also had an off-farm job to earn cash. Again, it was not the 160-acre farm that was too small, it was the farmer’s pocketbook. Later, in the 1920s and 1930s when bigger farm equipment and especially tractors entered widespread use, the labor overload would lessen, but in the meantime commuting and mortgaging could provide the cash needed to hire labor to work expanded fields.19
Many claimants had so few resources to fall back on that almost any setback, or worse, some combination of them, threatened to sink the whole enterprise. Without money to hire labor when the homesteader himself or herself was laid up, or to replace a draft horse that came up lame, the claimant might be left with no alternative but to quit. Sometimes homesteaders could sell their claims as relinquishments (illegal though not uncommon) so not everything was lost, but other times they simply abandoned claims with nothing to show for all the hopes and hard work they had invested in their places. Of course, homesteaders who had enough cash to commute their claims could then sell them outright.
So, while there were substantial risks to not commuting—the decision to homestead was itself understood as intrinsically a huge risk—the homesteader who commuted clearly took on a different kind of risk. We can see this in our illustration by making one change in our assumptions: suppose that in crop years 3 and 2 the price of wheat collapses to the point where it is less than the cost of producing wheat. Now Sister B’s larger commuted farm becomes a dead weight around her neck: it produces bigger losses than Sister A’s smaller, noncommuted farm; moreover she still is obligated to make interest payments on the mortgage, even though the crops are producing no income; and finally, Sister B’s nest egg of $200 is gone, having been used to pay for the commutation. Commutation has now turned very sour indeed.
The risk of the commuted homestead was that, when the borrower could not make the mortgage payments, he or she could lose the entire farm to foreclosure. The psychological security of noncommuting homesteaders, who would not lose their land if, even in hard times, they could just somehow hang on, was gone. When the hard times of the 1890s came along, for example, many homesteaders learned this painful lesson.
Abuse of the Commutation Clause
Not all commuters were Sister B types, of course, and critics of commutation are correct that some individuals used commutation [End Page 142] to commit fraud against the government. The question is not whether any fraud was committed but rather how much. Crooks were most attracted to public land that contained valuable resources that could be quickly stripped and sold. They plundered public timber and “stone” (minerals) lands, and in so doing they followed a well-known tradition of private pillaging of public resources, similar to the unrestrained industrial harvesting of beaver and bison furs.
Congress passed the Homestead Act and amending statutes mainly with the vision of nurturing cultivation by actual settlers, what a reform commission called “the fundamental principle of saving the public lands for the home maker.”20 But its laws applied to timber and other tracts as well as more easily cultivated grasslands. Individuals planning to settle and cultivate found little to attract them to the heavily forested regions in northern Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the western states, or to the pine forests of the South. To prepare fields, they had to clear the trees, remove the logs, burn the enormous vegetative waste material, and pull stumps from the ground; clearing land was arduous, time-consuming, and costly for the settler. By contrast, large lumber and paper companies lusted for the trees and could afford to hire big gangs of loggers, build logging roads, use massive (even if horse- or ox-powered) equipment, and profit handsomely from the timber.
In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that companies used all vulnerable legislation, including the commutation clause, to gain control of timber lands. In this, the Homestead Act was as defective as other land legislation, including the Preemption Act (1841), Timber Cultivation Act (1873), Desert Land Act (1873), the Timber and Stone Act (1878), and the Reclamation Act (1902). These laws opened the door for timber strippers, providing little protection for government assets from crooks seeking quick self-enrichment. In the General Revision Act of 1891, Congress repealed the Timber Culture and Preemption Acts and among other revisions extended the commutation period to fourteen months. As Paul Gates noted, “Never before had Congress pruned out so many obsolete and incongruous provisions of past laws that had become subject to enormous abuses and provided additional safeguards to prevent laws still on the statute books from being misused.”21
Even so, after the turn of the century it became apparent that commutation worked differently in timber and mineral regions than in agricultural ones. In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt appointed a three-person commission “to report on the condition, operation, and effect of the present land laws, and to recommend such changes as are needed to effect the largest practicable disposition of the public lands to actual settlers.” Roosevelt named to the commission W. A. Richards, former governor of Wyoming; F. H. Newell, chief engineer of the Reclamation Service; and long-time public lands reformer Gifford Pinchot, chief of the Division of Forestry and first chief of the Forest Service when it was created in 1905. The commission submitted its first report to President Roosevelt on March 7, 1904, and its second report on February 13, 1905. Its findings are frequently cited by historians as damning proof of the fraudulent stealing of public lands via the homestead commutation clause (and other land laws), so it is worth considering what the commission did and found.22
The commission focused its investigation of commutation abuses on Minnesota and North and South Dakota; in Minnesota, it divided the state into the “timber belt,” the “prospective [End Page 143] mineral belt,” and the “agricultural belt.”23 In the four years studied (July 1, 1899, to June 30, 1903), Minnesota claimants filed 7,653 final homestead entries and 1,865 commutations, so commutations represented about 24 percent of all entries, slightly more than the 20.8 percent all-state, 50-year average. However, 1,485 of the 1,865 commutations, or 80 percent of all commutations, occurred in the timber belt, only 11.0 percent in the agricultural belt. Moreover, virtually all land claimants in the timber belt (89.4 percent) and the prospective mineral belt (96.7 percent) sold their claims to new owners within a few months after receiving their patents, and very few remained on the land, that is, they did not become settled cultivators. In contrast, only 32.6 percent in the agricultural belt sold their land after receiving their patents. As the commission suspected, commutation in the timber lands resulted in fraud, in the agricultural land less or not so; the Homestead Act and commutation were simply not well designed to regulate disposal of public lands containing timber. It noted, “The timbered areas of the public lands of to-day are generally in mountainous regions, and are not susceptible to a high state of cultivation after being cleared of timber. Entries of such land are seldom made for farming purposes.” The commission concluded that “[t]here have been abuses of this law as of other land laws, but principally in connection with entries made upon timber lands.”24
In its second report the commission found some troubling signs of abuse of commutation in North and South Dakota, although here its results are harder to interpret. In one area, the Minot (ND) land district, one agent reported a large number of commutations with many of the commuters leaving the land shortly after obtaining patents. There was evidence of loan company agents, sometimes serving double duty as General Land Office registers, inducing claimants to file without intent to actually settle. Moreover, if, as Elizabeth Corey reported, the cost of commuting was only $0.50 per acre, or $80 for a 160-acre claim, many more homesteaders must have been tempted to commute. The commission was particularly bothered by one kind of claimant:
One significant fact brought out by the investigation is that a large portion of the commuters are women, who never establish a permanent residence and who are employed temporarily in the towns as school-teachers or in domestic service, or who are living with their parents. The great majority of these commuters sell immediately upon receiving title.
We now know, of course, through the innovative research of Elaine Lindgren, Barbara Handy-Marchello, Elizabeth Jameson, Sarah Carter, Carrie Young, Kathleen Harris, Dee Garceau, Deborah Fink, Karen V. Hansen, and others, that women’s participation in homesteading had far deeper meanings than the Commission’s dismissive language suggests.25
Paul Gates wryly observed that “[a] reading of the [Commission’s] reports suggests that it was created to give support to views already well crystallized in the minds of Pinchot and Newell.” Even within this limited remit, the commission’s original conclusion seems valid:
Much evidence has been submitted tending to show that in the prairie States, where it has been most used, the commutation clause of the homestead act has been of advantage to the settler without causing serious loss to the Government. . . . It is no doubt true that the great majority of commutations are made in order to get a title to [End Page 144] the land upon which money could be borrowed for its improvement.26
Homesteaders’ decisions whether to commute their claims or not was an economic decision, driven by their expectations—whether ebullient or anxious—for the future. In some circumstances it made economic sense to commute, as claimants thereby gained access to capital otherwise unavailable to them which could be used to expand planted fields, acquire more powerful equipment and additional livestock, purchase more land, or in other ways grow to a more profitable scale of farming. In other circumstances, not commuting was rational, since commuting loaded the homesteader with debt payments that in hard times proved onerous and even placed the claimant’s continued ownership of the farm at high risk. Homesteaders had to negotiate between these portentous and conflicting paths.
To say that commuting was or was not rational in a given set of circumstances doesn’t remove emotion, intuition, doggedness, disillusionment, fear of humiliation, lust for riches, and other “nonrational” elements from the homesteader’s decision process. As noted, commuting was an action based on the claimant’s expectations for the near future: would it pay off before the homesteader was eligible to prove up, or not? Homesteaders, like everyone else, could not know the future with certainty, and they most likely constructed their predictions as other people do, that is, out of some idiosyncratic blend of their recent experience and their hopes and aspirations for the future. Undoubtedly they often guessed wrong. For example, homesteaders growing wheat in 1868, thinking about how rosy their futures might be, could reasonably have assumed that future wheat prices would be around $2 a bushel, since wheat sold for $2.06 in 1866 and $2.01 in 1867. On the basis of that information and wanting to cash in on what appeared to be a promising market, they may have been induced to commute their claims, take on debt, and expand their production. Unfortunately for them, the wheat price crashed in 1868 to $1.46 per bushel, plunging further to $0.92 in 1869 and $1.04 in 1870. The next time wheat reached as high as $2 per bushel was 1917, a full fifty years later. In the face of such unknowable future developments, homesteaders had to make their decisions about commuting as best they could.
We have now, however, left far behind the lazy and unexamined assumption, which was scholarly orthodoxy for so many decades, that the only reason homesteaders would commute their claims was to carry out some fraud on the government. It turns out there were many circumstances in which paying for land that was soon to be given to them for free made clear, rational, economic sense. Undoubtedly some individuals committed frauds using commutation, but in a pattern that has been shown elsewhere for proved-up claims, scholars, lacking solid data, misread the evidence.27 They focused on the egregious and highly publicized cases, and because these fit the larger narrative to which they were already committed, they assumed they were representative, and generalized them. The blanket assumptions that most commutations reflected fraud and that commutation fraud casts its shadow over all homesteading are simply bogus.
We still do not have a persuasive study of commutations. We cannot say, for example, how many of those who commuted their claims stayed on them and continued farming. If it is [End Page 145] a high proportion, that would seem to further undercut the identification of commutations with fraud. How many of those who commuted their claims and then left the land did so because of such factors as crippling injury, death of a spouse, or financial setbacks that prevented them from continuing—reasons for leaving which we might see as legitimate rather than fraudulent? And how many left as part of a conspiracy to defraud, pure and simple? Unfortunately, the distinction between these categories is fuzzy, creating the problem of “boundary” cases. Was it fraud if homesteaders, initially intending to make new lives but after a couple of years of hard labor or having suffered a debilitating injury or become widowed, decided farming was simply not for them and commuted in order to walk away with something to show for their work? Without studies of this kind, we cannot know the real connection between commutations and fraud. What we do know is that the story about commutation that historians have told for decades has virtually no supporting scholarship, logic, or evidence.
As noted, 20.8 percent of final homestead entries were commutations. If 20 percent of those, surely a very high estimate, were fraudulent, then fraudulent commutations would add 4.2 percent to the rate of homesteader fraud perpetrated via other illegalities. In separate research, my coauthors and I have given an estimate of such fraud as between 3.5 and 8.5 percent for the period before 1900. Even if we accept the highest estimate (8.5) for other fraud and add the (high) estimate (4.2) for commutation fraud, the overall rate of fraud in homesteading would not have exceeded 12.7 percent or so—nothing like the farfetched and fanciful estimates of 22 to 35 percent or even 50 percent that have been routinely offered as historical truth.28
Richard Edwards is director of the Center for Great Plains Studies as well as professor of economics and senior vice chancellor (emeritus). Current research interests include the history of homesteading and conservation of the Great Plains natural environment. Recent books include Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History, with Jake Friefeld and Rebecca Wingo (2017); Atlas of Nebraska, with J. Clark Archer and others (2017), and Natives of a Dry Place: Stories of Dakota Before the Oil Boom (2015). He is the series editor for “Discover the Great Plains” books, published by the Center and University of Nebraska Press.
1. Richard Edwards, “The New Learning about Homesteading,” Great Plains Quarterly 28, no. 1 (Winter 2018). As an example of lack of recent research, the Journal of American History (according to searches using JSTOR and Academic Premier) has never since its founding in 1964 published an article on the Homestead Act or homesteading, based on searches conducted April 10, 2017. On modern reliance on old studies, see Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, and Rebecca S. Wingo, Homesteading the Plains: Toward a New History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017), especially chapters 1–3. Paul W. Gates, “The Homestead Law in an Incongruous Land System,” American Historical Review 41 (July 1936): 652–81.
2. Other requirements were that the entryman had to pay a $14 filing fee; build a residence on the property, usually at least 10 by 14 feet; and break and plant 10 acres for crops. After five years he or she could “prove up” the claim, demonstrating that all relevant requirements had been met, and the General Land Office would then issue a patent (title). Over the decades, the federal government altered the terms, conditions, and requirements for obtaining homesteaded land; for example, the maximum size of a homestead claim was initially set at 160 acres, but that limit was changed in the Kinkaid Act of 1904, which allowed claims of 640 acres in the specified area, and the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, which permitted claims of 320 acres in its designated regions. Initially the required period of residence was set at five years, but it was later reduced to three. Since these and other changes are not relevant to my argument, I do not attempt to catalog them here; they are treated extensively in Edwards, Friefeld, and Wingo, Homesteading. Homesteading in the lower forty-eight states mostly dried up by the 1930s, and the last homesteader, in Alaska, received his patent in 1988.
3. No data on commutations are available before 1881 because the GLO did not track them separately. Originally only six months’ residence and evidence of settlement or some improvements were required to commute; this was extended to fourteen months in 1891; see US General Land Office (GLO), Circular 1895, 203–10. Similarly, the purchase price varied over time and type of public land. Commutation data [End Page 146] calculated from US General Land Office, Annual Report of the Commissioner of General Land Office, 1881 to 1933 (accessed at https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011528317); and US Department of Interior, Department of Interior Report, 1933 to 1936 (accessed at https://archive.org/stream/annualreportofse34unit#page/n1213/mode/2up); and Gates, History, appendix A; interpolated figures for missing data for years 1915–17, 1927–28, 1956, 1959–61. As I have argued elsewhere (Richard Edwards, “Why the Homesteading Data Are So Poor (and What Can Be Done about It),” Great Plains Quarterly 28, no. 3 [Summer 2008]: 181–90), homesteading data are of poor quality and calculations may use numbers from different sources with differing standards; some sources (e.g., Historical Statistics of the United States), while authoritative, have severely rounded their numbers, while others (e.g., the BLM’s “Homesteads” brochure) report numbers with many significant digits, giving the impression of greater precision than is warranted. Hence, reported results should always be read as indicating approximate magnitudes rather than precise numbers; nonetheless, they are highly instructive.
Benjamin Hibbard complained that after 1880 commutations increased: “The explanation of the change is not far to seek. In the early years of the homestead law the settlers were genuine homesteaders. They settled on the land because they wanted farms. Twenty years later the situation had changed greatly, and from that time until recently an important proportion of homestead entries was commuted. . . . The importance of the commutation clause and its operation was, however, greater than is indicated by the statistics. It was the means whereby large land holdings were built up through a perverted use of the Homestead Act.” Benjamin Hibbard, A History of the Public Land Policies (New York: Macmillan, 1924), 386.
Fred Shannon noted that “speculators acquired great tracts of land in the period since 1862. The evidence of their activities in monopolizing the public domain is abundant” and monopolizing “was made worse by the amendment of 1891 which permitted settlers to commute their claims.” He continued, “In consequence of this monopolistic tendency [via commutation], large areas of proved-up homesteads had neither habitation nor ‘evidence of occupation’ as homes.” Fred Shannon, “The Homestead Act and the Labor Surplus,” American Historical Review 42, no. 4 (July 1936): 646–47.
Ray Allen Billington complained that speculators “took advantage of the Homestead Act’s failure to provide for cancellation of patent if the grant was sold or transferred. Dummy entrymen were used to secure quarter section after quarter section. The practice was encouraged by a ‘commutation clause.’” Ray Allen Billington, Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier (3rd ed.) (New York: Macmillan, 1967), 700.
Robert Hine and John Mack Faragher, following Shannon, note in a paragraph about “notorious strategies unscrupulous men devised to defraud the government” that “[w]orking at the bidding of speculators, hired men set up tiny prefabricated shacks on 160-acre quarter-sections to satisfy the minimum legal requirements of ‘improvement,’ then signed over the deed to their employers.” Robert Hine and John Mack Faragher, The American West: A New Interpretive History (New Haven: Yale, 2002), 335.
Gilbert Fite, as usual more judicious, noted, “Many homesteads and timber culture claims [in the Dakotas] were commuted for cash by smalltime speculators, often single women, who filed on a homestead . . . The commutation privilege in the Homestead Act did permit petty speculators to make a few dollars . . . but it did not slow down settlement in eastern Dakota nor lead to land monopoly. Individual farmers got the land, although actual settlers in these commutation cases did not get it free.” Gilbert Fite, The Farmers’ Frontier, 1865–1900 (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1966).
5. Fred Shannon, The Farmer’s Last Frontier: Agriculture, 1860–1897 (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1945; reprint, Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1989), 51–57; calculation of percentage in Edwards, Friefeld, and Wingo, Homesteading; Robert Hine and John Mack Faragher, The American West, 335–36; Louis Warren, Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show (New York: Vintage, 2006), 72. Ray Allen Billington and many others rely on Fred Shannon, Farmer’s Last Frontier, despite Shannon’s statistics being manifestly incorrect or misleading; Billington, Westward Expansion, 700–701, 882–84.
6. Farm Credit Administration, “History of FCS and FCA, ” https://www.fca.gov/about/history/historyFCA_FCS.html; Sara M Gregg, “From [End Page 147] Breadbasket to Dust Bowl: Rural Credit, the World War I Plow-Up, and the Transformation of American Agriculture,” Great Plains Quarterly 35, no. 2 (Spring 2015): 132–66. The homesteader could pledge livestock, machinery, or future crops, but usually these were less valuable and riskier for the lender.
7. For yield and cost of production values, see Rex E. Willard, Hutzel Metzger, and Emma Skee, Cost of Producing Wheat and Other Crops in North Dakota in 1920 (Fargo: Agricultural Experiment Station, North Dakota Agricultural College, 1921). 2; for wheat price, see USDA, Bureau of Agricultural Economics, “Wheat: Price Received by Farmers and Parity Price, United States, 1909–1941,” in The Wheat Situation, WS-61 (November 1941).
8. Why thirty acres? This was about the average scale of planting for noncommuted homesteads at the proving-up date. For example, in 1907 Montana homesteader Bertie Brown at proving-up time declared that in addition to her house she had twenty-five acres of wheat, oats, and barley; Sarah Carter, Montana Women Homesteaders: A Field of One’s Own (Helena: Farcountry Press, 2009), 28. The following data are from Edwards, Friefeld, and Wingo, Homesteading, table 8; we show median acres planted for the 64 successful female homesteaders in Custer and Dawes Counties (Nebraska) that we studied:
Marital status at time of initial filing
Marital status at time of proving-up
Median acres cultivated
Widow / Widow
Widow / Remarried
9. Why 107 acres? This was approximately the amount of land that could be broken for $500. Elizabeth Corey in 1909 wrote that breaking prairie sod in central South Dakota where she homesteaded cost $4.00 per acre; Elizabeth Corey, Bachelor Bess: The Homesteading Letters of Elizabeth Corey, 1909–1919, ed. Philip L. Gerber (Iowa City: University of Iowa, 1990), 24. Montana homesteader Mattie T. Cramer (circa 1920, date unclear) wrote, “Breaking costs from $4.00 to $4.50 per acre but since so many gas engines or tractors have been brought into the country, one can get the breaking done for $2.00 per acre.” In 1917 Ruth Giles Fischer noted that breaking sod in her region, Chouteau County, Montana, cost from $5.00 to $6.50; Sarah Carter, Montana Women Homesteader, 57, 29. If we use the highest of these figures, $6.50 per acre, then a $500 mortgage would pay for breaking 77 acres; with the 30 already broken, that would total 107 acres. This estimate is extremely conservative; if instead the breaking cost was $4.00 or even $2.00 per acre, then the illustration significantly underestimates the benefit from commuting. Other costs of production incurred as a result of expanded production (more seed, etc.) would already be incorporated into the figure for the average cost of production.
10. Having paid off her loan in year 2, Sister B would save the interest payment of $50 per year in each of the last two years, increasing her end-of-period savings by $100.
11. The amount needed to commute varied with the region and era in which the commutation occurred. I use $200, which was typical. For comparison, average annual per-capita income nationally in 1900 was about $253; wartime inflation raised that to an average of $706 for 1918–1922; Susan Carter, et al., eds. Historical Statistics of the United States, Millennial Edition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), table Ca12. Paul Gates’s data show a success rate over the entire homesteading period (1868 to 1967) of around 55 percent; calculated from Paul W. Gates, History of Public Land Law Development (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1968), appendix 1. For the period before 1900, see Edwards, Friefeld, and Wingo, Homesteading, chapter 2.
12. Willard, Metzger, and Skee, Cost of Producing Wheat, 4–5.
13. Between 1870 and 1900 prices of farm products declined by 36.6 percent and prices of consumer products by 35.7 percent; thus farmers were helped nearly as much by cheaper consumer goods as they were hurt by lower sales revenue from their crops. However, with the nominal price of commutation fixed at $200, commuting became more expensive. Price calculations based on Susan Carter et al., Historical Statistics, tables Cc127 and Cc1–2.
14. Elizabeth Corey was highly knowledgeable about land costs and homesteading rules and had no reason to report them falsely when writing to her [End Page 148] brother Fuller in Iowa encouraging him to join her, so she seems a highly reliable witness. She wrote, “Now you see its this way[,] you wouldn’t want to live on your quarter all your life but if you want to you can prove up in fourteen months and be through with it or not—its just as you wish and what ever you go at its nice to have a piece of land you own. I can tell you just what the expense would be or nearly so any way. It would cost you $15 to come out here, $14 to file, $50 to build your shack and if you prove up in fourteen months it will cost you .50 cents per acre or $80 and you have to break ten acres they say and at $4 per a[cre] that would be $40. and all together that would be about $200. But of course you don’t need to go at it that way. I am thinking of proving up on the five year plan. Then I won’t have to pay the $80 when I prove up.” Elizabeth Corey, Bachelor Bess, 23–24. So, too, during the debate on the bill to open up the Great Sioux Reservation, Congressman Samuel Peel noted, “This bill [will] open up a large amount of the public domain, from which settlers are now excluded, to settlement under the homestead law at 50 cents an acre.” Congressional Record, 50th Cong., 1st sess. (April 13, 1888), 2923.
15. The sarcastic version of this was, “The government bets you a quarter-section you can’t survive on the land for five years.”
16. See note 8 above. As an example, Adelia Glover filed on a 320-acre homestead near Big Sandy, Montana, in 1912, and although she subsequently married and had the help of her husband, by 1917, when she received her patent, she had only 55 acres broken. Sarah Carter, Montana Women Homesteaders, 63–64.
17. Shannon, Farmer’s Last Frontier, 55–57.
18. Billington, Westward Expansion, 698. Alan Trachtenberg similarly complains that the act “did not provide necessary credit for people without savings to take up their cherished 160 acres,” while “its clauses permitted land-grabbing by speculative companies.” The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), 22.
19. Robert M. Finley, “A Budgeting Approach to the Question of Homestead Size on the Plains,” Agricultural History 42, no. 2 (April 1968): 113. As late as the 1930s draft animals provided roughly half of farm power capacity; see Alan L. Olmstead and Paul W. Rhode, “Reshaping the Landscape: The Impact and Diffusion of the Tractor in American Agriculture, 1910–1960,” Journal of Economic History 61, no. 3 (September 2001): 663–98 and especially table 7.
20. US Congress, Report of the Public Lands Commission, Senate Document 188 (March 7, 1904), 58th Cong., 2nd Sess., and Senate Document 154 (October 22, 1905), 58th Cong., 3rd Sess., xv.
21. See Richard Edwards, “The Southern Homestead Act,” Great Plains Quarterly (forthcoming); Gates, History, 462.
22. US Congress, Report, iii. Those relying on the commission’s reports include Shannon, Farmer’s Last Frontier, 57; Gates, History, 488–94; Benjamin Hibbard, A History of Public Land Policies (New York: Macmillan, 1924), 386–87, 432–33; and many others who do not explicitly cite the commission.
23. US Congress, Report, 67 ff.
24. US Congress, Report, viii.
25. US Congress, Report, p. xviii. Shannon, too, protested: “This abuse was particularly noted in timberland, where people got quick possession and then sold out. . . . The commuters were often Canadians or other aliens who returned to their old homes after their profitable ventures. A large portion were women—schoolteachers and the like.” Shannon, “The Homestead Act,” 647. For a review of research on women homesteaders, see Edwards, “The New Learning,” xx. Elaine Lindgren, Land in Her Own Name: Women as Homesteaders in North Dakota (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991); Barbara Handy-Marcello, Women of the Northern Plains: Gender and Settlement on the Homestead Frontier, 1870–1930 (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2005); Elizabeth Jameson, Rachel Calof ’s Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains, ed. J. Sanford Rikoon (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995); Sarah Carter, Montana Women Homesteaders; Carrie Young, Nothing to Do but Stay (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991); Katherine Harris, Long Vistas: Women and Families on Colorado Homesteads (Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1993), Dee Garceau, “Single Women Homesteaders and the Meanings of Independence: Places on the Map, Places in the Mind,” Frontiers 15 (Spring 1995): 1–26; Deborah Fink, Agrarian Women: Wives and Mothers in Rural Nebraska, 1880–1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992); Karen V. Hansen, Encounter on the Great Plains: Scandinavian Settlers and the Dispossession of Dakota Indians, [End Page 149] 1890–1930 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
26. Paul Gates, History, 489; US Congress, Report, viii.
27. See Edwards, Friefeld, and Wingo, Homesteading, chapter 4. As Paul Gates observed about homesteading fraud in general, “A reason for the frequency of these misconceptions of homestead[ing] is the continued reiteration [of reports of fraud in the GLO Commissioners’ Reports]. . . . Historians have reflected this jaundiced view, relying upon these continued reiterations, and not finding much in the reports about the hundreds of thousands of people successfully making farms for themselves.” Gates, “The Homestead Act: Free Land Policy in Operation, 1862–1935,” in Land Use Policy and Problems in the United States, ed. Howard W. Ottonson (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1963), 32.
28. For example, Shannon, Farmer’s Last Frontier, 58; Hine and Faragher, American West, 335–36; and Warren, Buffalo Bill’s America, 72. Ray Allen Billington concludes, “The story of settlement under the Homestead Act was not one of downtrodden laborers rising to affluence through government beneficence, but a tale of fraud and monopoly which only ended with seven-eighths of the public domain in the hands of a favored few.” Billington, Westward Expansion, 700. [End Page 150]