From Homesteading the Plains Toward a New History, by Richard Edwards, Jacob K. Friefeld, and Rebecca S. Wingo (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), Kindle pp. 12-15:
Scholars have described homesteading as deeply flawed or unimportant or both; what’s the basis for their being so critical and dismissive? Their negative view is based on several shared understandings about homesteading—some scholars would call these characterizations “received wisdom,” lawyers would call them “stipulations,” and social scientists would term them “stylized facts.” They are what everyone “knows” to be true or agrees to treat as true, a simplified presentation of a perhaps more complicated train of empirical findings that adequately serves most purposes. Stylized facts operate as the preamble or premise, not the targets, of analysis. As we document in detail in succeeding chapters, scholars have adopted four findings about homesteading as stylized facts:
- Homesteading was a minor factor in farm formation; most farmers purchased their land.
- Most homesteaders failed to prove up their claims.
- The homesteading process was rife with corruption and fraud.
- Homesteading caused Indian land dispossession.
If these four assertions are true, it is easy to see why scholars would have a censorious view of homesteading and treat it as a minor factor in settlement.
The first stylized fact is that while homesteading has received a lot of popular attention, it was unimportant in creating actual farms; the historical reality, it is said, is less dramatic or romantic, and it is that most farmers simply bought their land. For example, mid-twentieth-century historian Fred Shannon declared that “less than a sixth of the new homes [i.e., farms] and a little over a sixth of the acreage [was] on land that came as a gift from the government. Eighty-four out of each hundred new farms had to be achieved either by subdivision of older holdings or by purchase.” In 2000 historians Robert V. Hine and John Mack Faragher asserted, “Most western settlers, it turns out, were not homesteaders.” The last generation or two of scholars have used the presumed unimportance of homesteading as reason enough to ignore it, increasingly treating it as a kind of ephemera of the period, like the Grange or utopian communities—once considered important but now receding in more sober retrospection. Why spend time and attention on a minor land program?
Scholars have moved on to other western topics and issues, and we can see their abandonment of homesteading in their college textbooks. Every scholarly discipline tends to express its “consensus” views in its textbooks—authors want instructors to adopt their books, and they know that to gain acceptance, their books must in general reflect the profession’s prevailing views (hence the often-lamented “lack of originality” in textbooks). Indeed, the common style is to omit source citations (except credits for reprinting copyrighted material) because, it is assumed, all the discipline’s practitioners “know” this information. When we examine college textbooks of American history, we find that homesteading has largely been written out of them, and in at least one case, it has been completely forgotten. Another way to see current historians’ marginal interest in homesteading is the absence of research articles on homesteading; we searched article titles in the leading American history journal, aptly called the Journal of American History, from 1965 through 2015, using JSTOR; JAH published no articles on homesteading during that fifty-year span. Homesteading, with its stylized facts, is no longer open to debate nor is it an appealing subject of research. One result of this abandonment is that virtually no one has worked to reconfirm or challenge the assertions and findings of the great mid-twentieth-century public land scholars like Benjamin Hibbard, Fred Shannon, Paul Gates, and Gilbert Fite, so when today’s scholars cite homesteading-related statistics in support of the first stylized fact, they almost always have to rely on decades-old compilations or calculations.
The second stylized fact, that most settlers who tried homesteading failed at it, is also deeply entrenched in the scholarly literature. Fred Shannon, the most forceful proponent of this point, defined “failure” as an entryman who failed to prove up and receive his or her patent—that is, someone who abandoned his or her claim. He then provided a statistical analysis as proof, and a long line of scholars adopted his work as authoritative. His writings remain the most frequently cited authority on this topic. Echoing (though not citing) Shannon, historian Alan Brinkley in 2012 declared, “The Homestead Act rested on a number of misperceptions. . . . Although [many] homesteaders stayed on Homestead Act claims long enough to gain title to their land, a much larger number abandoned the region before the end of the necessary five years.”
The third stylized fact, that homesteading was shot through with corruption and fraud, is the oldest point of consensus to be entrenched in the homesteading literature. In the 1880s public lands reformer Thomas Donaldson and GLO Commissioner William Sparks campaigned vigorously—so vigorously that Sparks was fired by President Cleveland—against land frauds. Historians then picked up the theme, and a long line of twentieth-century scholars complained about fraud, including Hibbard, Shannon, Roy Robbins, and Gates. Present-day scholars tend to situate homesteading in the rowdy, expansionist, proudly self-aggrandizing, and corrupt post–Civil War era, where financiers manipulated markets, trusts and industrial combines monopolized markets, congressmen offered themselves for sale, and the government granted to railroad companies immense tracts of public land with virtually no oversight. They found their notion of fraud-infested homesteading fit seamlessly into the same narrative, and they expected to find the same evils perverting it as had led to the theft of other public lands and assets. So historian Louis Warren, perhaps thinking he was expressing nothing controversial, simply noted, “After 1862, the federal government deeded 285 million acres to homesteaders. Half their claims were fraudulent, backed by false identities, fake improvements, or worse.”