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They Settled in Montana: Introduction

Cartoon illustration of a homesteading family in front of their cabin.

Congress passed The Free Homestead Act in 1862 during the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln. It was enacted on January 1, 1863. By the 1860's, the Government had begun taking most of what is now the western United States from Indian control. Cities and farmland in the East were becoming overcrowded. The same 1862 Congress had just passed The Pacific Railway Act, which gave grants of public land and Federal bonds to the Union Pacific Railroad Company. In return, the Company constructed a railway from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. Many people, back east and on the frontier, felt that it was high time open the West to settlement. The Homestead Act was based on the belief that all people posess an equal right to land, so long as they are willing to live and work on it. Montana, in 1862, had what seemed like plenty of open space. The Free Homestead Act and the Homestead Acts which followed it affected Montana just as much, if not more, than any other state in the Union.

We have to understand that the land given away by Congress was first taken with force. It is difficult to understand why Congress would remove Native Americans from their homes. If living and working on a piece of land gives someone the legal right to claim that land, then surely the Indians had as much right as anyone else to continue living and working throughout the West. To the people running this country at that time, "working" a piece of land meant, "improving" it. It meant changing the land. One reason that the government may not have recognized the Indian claims to the West is that the Indians had learned to live in the area without physically changing it much. They collected native plants and hunted indigenous animals. Indians did not practice agriculture, as we understand it today. They weren't farmers. By 19th century American standards, they weren't "improving" the land at all. As it turns out, contributing traditional knowledge of Montana's native vegetation may be one of the most important "improvements" possible in the next century.

Homesteader cabin on the open plain.
Homesteader cabin on the open plain.

Let's go back about a hundred years. Around that time a man named John Wesley Powell came to Montana. He was the Director of the newly formed United States Geological Survey. Powell was a well-trained scientist and he studied Montana extensively. Back in Washington DC he made a series of recommendations as to how public lands in Montana should be managed. First of all, Powell recognized (as other people had already done), that Montana does not receive enough rain to practice traditional agriculture across most of the state. He pointed out that twenty inches of annual are necessary to support farms in the area. But even during wet years, most of Montana barely reaches the twenty-inch mark. In some places, the annual rainfall can be as little as four or five inches; hardly enough to support large plantings.

Powell warned against "crude and careless" farming and grazing methods which he predicted would result in gullying, sheet erosion, alkalization, and blowing of the soil. For the same reasons, he proposed that no fences should be raised in Montana unless maybe they were meant to protect a small house or garden. He suggested that each family settling in the area should have equal access to water. Because people are so spread apart in the West, he also thought that some families should band together voluntarily and form loose communities rather than attempt to establish costly towns or counties. One of his most insightful recommendations was that each family be allowed at least 2,560 acres of land in order to support itself. All in all, John Wesley Powell stated that a Homestead Act should never be applied to Montana. Instead, he proposed that people pool their efforts and work large tracts of land together. Though many people seemed to envision the West as the ideal setting for a new and fair society, a place where all people could have an equal chance at a good life, Powell's work was basically ignored by Congress.

Updated: August 4, 2020

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