23 June 2014

Tell Moses Speese that African Americans Didn't Homestead

If nothing else, the study of genealogy teaches us that what others tell us about the past is often simply not true. 

Carolyn Finney states in an article in the Boston Globe website:
"[The] Homestead Act of 1862 made it possible for European immigrants to come here and go out West and grab large tracts of land, literally just by grabbing it before anybody else did. And you could just live on it for five years, and build a home and grow food, and it could be yours. That’s amazing. And they were the only ones allowed to participate. That land, we know already, used to belong to Native Americans. And black people weren’t allowed to participate at all."
My first response was "What?"

Finny was interviewed in response to a book she had written about how African-Americans are under-represented in the history of environmentalism in the United States. There's no doubt that is true.  But Finney's statements about the Homestead Act are not quite on the mark. 

The original Homestead Act of 1862 provided that individual homesteaders could obtain 160 acres of land. The majority of immigrants and homesteaders were not speculators or land barons. Finney implies the work of completing the homestead claim was easy. It wasn't--homesteading was more than "just living" and "just living" on the frontier was no easy experience. 

And 160 acres is not a large tract of land nor is it a vast estate. 

What concerns me most is the statement that "black people weren't allowed to participate at all." The Homestead Act, when actually read, indicates that "any adult citizen, or intended citizen, who had never borne arms against the U.S. government could claim 160 acres." 

Before the 14th Amendment in 1868, that may have effectively barred African-Americans from initiating homestead claims. But history shows that the vast majority of homestead claims were initiated and completed after the 14th Amendment was passed.

Restrictions are often placed in statute with an unwritten agenda. However after the 14th Amendment, the restriction would only have applied to African-Americans who had served in the Confederacy or to immigrants who refused to initiate naturalization proceedings. This hardly seems like a backhanded way to single out African-Americans. 

And it wasn't. Because African-Americans did homestead. NebraskaStudies.org has an entire section on them. Moses Speese and his family are just one example.

They were living in Seward County, Nebraska in 1880.
1880 U.S. Census, Precinct K, Seward, Nebraska; Roll: 756;
Page: 475A; Enumeration District: 142

Speese's testimony in his homestead claim indicated that he was a United States citizen and that he had been living in Seward County before he settled on his claim. There is no reference to Speese being an African-American in the claim. His citizenship and the proving of his claim are what mattered. Speese's paperwork looks like virtually every other claim I've looked at. I wouldn't have known he was an African-American by looking at his application.

What is ironic is that Finny's statement that there were no "black people" who homesteaded does a disservice to those African-Americans who did homestead. 

Were their numbers large? No. But to say "black people weren't allowed to participate" really doesn't do justice to those who did. It was a hard existence for anyone on the Plains.

It took me all of five minutes to confirm my suspicion that African-Americans did homestead under the Homestead Act. 

Finny's quote also implies that European immigrants were the only one allowed to obtain homesteads. I'm just hoping that was a misquote.