The American West

Overview

In 1862, while fully enmeshed in the unfolding conflict of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln would forever change the future of the West. The Homestead Act would turn the Great American Desert into utopian ideal for some and the nightmare of being attached to an unforgiving land for others, along with every variation between. Join Active Minds as we seek to understand this watershed moment in the history of the West and the United States.

Key Lecture Points

  • As we celebrate the sesquicentennial of the passage of the Homestead Act, we enjoy a perspective that time provides to see how this legislation affected, and continues to affect, the American West and the nation. Despite the passage of time, battles deriving from the Homestead Act continue to be waged. The topic is both historical and contemporary in relevance.
  • The Homestead Act affected territories acquired, often by force, by the United States from the empires of Spain and France, and the nation of Mexico. Once those territories became part of the United States, drastic economic, technological and population changes occurred as a result of the Homestead Act. The changes were profound and permanent. Huge numbers of European immigrants came to the area, fleeing wars and famine in the Old World and endemic poverty in the new one as well. At the same time, the Homestead Act accelerated the wholesale and permanent removal of the formerly-indigenous Native American Indian peoples from their Western homelands. It radically and permanently altered the economy of the region and the nation, and drastically affected the physical condition of the lands and natural resources of the West.
  • Without the Homestead Act, Colorado might not be the Centennial State. For Colorado, the Homestead Act greatly determined the time and manner of the arrival of huge numbers of settlers, primarily immigrants, setting the stage for Colorado’s subsequent history of remarkable economic growth.
  • Across its 123-year lifespan, the Homestead Act grew and changed in keeping with popular national beliefs. At its inception the Homestead Act and the ensuing settlement process drew on the deep popular belief in Manifest Destiny. By the time of the repeal of the Homestead Act in the late 20th Century, the popular beliefs of the nation had shifted toward environmental consciousness and concern for the preservation of treasured natural areas.

Exploration Questions

  • If you could have altered one element of the Homestead Act and its practical application, what would that have been? Why?
  • What similarities and differences are there between the Homestead Act and other movements of people into new places throughout history, not just within the United States? What are the differences?

Reflective Questions

  • Describe the stories of your ancestors who Homesteaded.
  • If you could go back in time, where would you choose to Homestead? Explain.

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Jones, Mary Ellen, The Daily Life on the 19th-Century American Frontier. Greenwood Press, 1998. 275 pages. This study examines the daily lives of ordinary men and women who flooded into the Trans-Mississippi West in search of land, fortune, a fresh start, and a new identity.
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