America has had many milestones in its storied history -- some more well-known than others. Take 1862 for example. Our nation was in the second year of a violent Civil War and just a few generations removed from the War of Independence that created these United States. Much of what is remembered about those years revolves around the tragedy of the war, the ending
of slavery and how a determined president fought to preserve the Union.
It is easy to overlook given the impact of the war but the Homestead Act of 1862, signed by our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, would have equally far-reaching effects on our republic.
The first in a series, the initial Homestead Act encouraged westward expansion and changed the complexion of America forever. While it did run roughshod over existing Native Americans, the promise of free land enticed millions from around the globe to come here. It is said to be one of the largest peaceful migrations of people in our history -- perhaps eclipsed only by the California Gold Rush almost two decades earlier.
If you ever caught an episode of Little House on the Prairie or seen Elvis Presley up on the big screen in Follow That Dream, then you have seen homesteading in Technicolor. It defined the American Dream for many and President John F. Kennedy called the Homestead Act the "single greatest stimulus to national development ever enacted."
What is interesting is that it was both the delivery of a campaign promise and part of the Manifest Destiny that gripped America at the time. The Free Soil Party was short-lived and absorbed into the newly-minted Republican Party of the mid-19th century. In 1856, California's "Pathfinder" and first U.S. Senator, John C. Fremont, ran on the slogan of "Free speech, free press, free soil, free men, Frémont and victory!" (Try saying that fast at a modern-day campaign rally!) But it would take a lanky rail-splitter from Illinois -- one Abraham Lincoln -- another four years to get it through Congress and finally signed into law.
The Homestead Act matters because it opened up America and put us on a course to become the thriving nation we are today. There has been a homestead mentality of "A Little land, A Lot of Living," from the first settlers to the efforts of Bolton Hall in Southern California -- to the last homestead claim by Ken Deardoff in Alaska in the late 1980s.
Fast forward just over fifteen decades and our thanks still go out to President Lincoln and the 37th U.S. Congress for working together to pass such far-sighted and impactful legislation -- in a time of war -- to do what was right for the nation. Perhaps we still have a much to learn from that bygone era.