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Civil War Era in North Dakota

Federal Laws

Homestead Act

In 1862, Congress passed three bills of great importance to the future of Dakota Territory. At least two of these bills had been stalled in Congress for many years. Southerners had a point of view that differed from northerners. After southern states left the Union, Congress was able to pass these popular laws to help western territories and states attract new settlers.

Homestead Act, May 20, 1862. Citizens had called for land legislation since the United States became a nation. With millions of acres of land in the public domain (land owned by the federal government), there were many plans to distribute the land to both farmers and town developers. Sometimes, Congress sold the land for as little as 10 cents per acre. Congress also sold land  in extremely large, and expensive parcels. Family farmers were not happy with any of these plans and pressed Congress for more options. Many people thought the government should give the land away.

Since 1841, Americans had been able to purchase 160 acre parcels of land for $1.25 per acre under the Pre-emption Law. This law required that pioneers settle on the land and  improve it by building a house and barn or planting crops. This helped  pioneers who had packed up their families and belongings to move far away from more densely populated areas. Few farmers, however, had $200 in cash that this purchase required. The other requirement was that the purchaser had to settle on the  land before the survey was completed. The United States government had been surveying western lands since shortly after the passage of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. After the survey was completed, some of the public domain could be purchased.

In 1862, farmers and pioneers finally got the land law they really wanted. The Homestead Act allowed qualified settlers to claim 160 acres, or one-quarter of a section. A section of land, as defined by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, is 640 acres.  It is a square which is one mile long on each side.  A quarter-section of 160 acres is usually in the shape of a square that is ½ mile long on each side.   The Pre-emption law, the Homestead Law, and the Timber Culture Act (1873) each allowed a claimant one-quarter section of land.   These land parcels are so common, that people simply refer to a “quarter” or a “section.”

A homestead claimant claimant would have to pay only $14 in cash (this amount changed sometimes) for a filing fee. Of course, the claimant would also need enough money to travel to the land, build a house, and plant a crop. All of these actions were required by the law. Qualified claimants had to be 21 years old, head of a household (or single), a U.S. citizen, or an immigrant who had filed papers of intent to become a citizen. They had to live on the land for at least a portion of every year for five years. After they had met all the qualifications, claimants, or homesteaders, filed papers with proof of their qualifications to get title to their land. Because of this, homesteaders said that they had to “prove up.”

The Homestead Act did not allow a claimant to be someone who had taken up arms against the United States. Many southern states had already seceded, so when members of Congress passed this bill, they knew that Confederate soldiers would not be able to take advantage of this law. However, soldiers of the Union Army could prove up sooner than other homesteaders by deducting their years of service from the residency requirements.

The first person to claim a homestead was Daniel Freeman who filed his claim on January 1, 1863. He lived in eastern Nebraska. By the early 1870s, northern Dakota Territory was being surveyed and early homesteaders were able to file a claim to a quarter section. The law allowed only one quarter section per married couple, though their older children could also claim a quarter-section nearby.

Read more about the Homestead Act

Morrill Land Grant Act

On July 2, 1862, the Civil War Congress passed the third law to help settlers in the West. The bill was sponsored by Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont, so it is called the Morrill Act, or the Morrill Land Grant Act. This law gave to each state 30,000 acres of land per congressional representative. The land was to be taken from the public domain (the land still owned by the federal government) and used to build and support a college that would help prepare the state’s residents for their life’s work. The colleges were specifically to teach agriculture and mechanical arts. Women students were encouraged to study domestic science (the science of homemaking). Many of these colleges were called Agricultural Colleges or Agricultural and Mechanical Colleges (A & M). North Dakota established the North Dakota Agricultural College in 1890 at Fargo. Today, this same college is North Dakota State University.

NDSUThe Morrill Act follows the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 in providing support for public education. The Northwest Ordinance was still in effect when settlers began to enter Dakota Territory. This law required that every township set aside one section to support public education. That means that every township, consisting of 36 sections, reserved one section for education. Usually that section would be rented to a farmer and the rent money was used to educate the township’s children. The Morrill Act is the first instance of the federal government providing support for higher education.

Pacific Railway Act Proclamation

On July 1, 1862, Congress passed another act that had been stalled by sectional conflict. Railroad technology had improved greatly over the previous three decades. The United States was ready to build a railroad to the West Coast. Since the discovery of gold in California and the admission of California as a state (1850), rapid freight and passenger transport between east and west coasts had become even more important.  The problem was that members of Congress from southern states wanted the transcontinental railroad to take a southern route.  Northerners, of course, preferred a northern route.  Finding a passage through the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada mountains was a problem for the northern route, but the re-discovery of South Pass in Wyoming in 1824 made a northern route possible.

When the southern states seceded from the Union, the problem was solved. The majority of the remaining states agreed to a northern route beginning in Omaha, Nebraska and terminating in Sacramento, California. Construction did not begin until the Civil War ended, but the tracks which had been built from both directions were joined on May 10, 1869.

The Pacific Railway Act provided incentives for construction companies. For each mile of track laid, the railroad company received 20 sections of land and low interest loans. The land belonged to the railroad. The railroad company could sell the land, build towns on it, or keep it for other purposes.

Northern Pacific RailroadThe Union Pacific Railroad, the first to be built under this law, did not pass through Dakota Territory. However, a few years later, a similar law supported the building of the Northern Pacific Railroad (NPRR) which laid its track through the northern part of Dakota Territory. The railroad gave towns like Fargo, Bismarck, and Dickinson an economic importance that helped them grow. Farmers had locations to ship their products to market, and residents could get on a train and be in Minneapolis or Billings in a few hours. With a transcontinental railroad line, it made sense for the territory to move the capital from Yankton to Bismarck in 1883.

Many settlers in northern Dakota Territory preferred to buy railroad land rather than make a Homestead claim. Some of the NPRR land was near the tracks and the railroad towns where the farmers marketed their crops. Railroad land generally cost about $2.50 per acre, although the land sometimes cost more if it was of especially good quality.