In 1862, eleven southern states left the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. The United States had struggled with sectional divisions for several decades. Sectionalism referred to the demands each region of the United States placed on Congress to serve regional needs without regard to the needs of the entire nation. These demands made it difficult for Congress to pass bills (or laws) that one region did not like. When the Confederate states left the Union, their senators and representatives left their seats in Congress. Congress was then able to pass much pending legislation.
Three important bills became law by the summer of 1862. These three laws used federal land, or the public domain, to support development in the territories and states. These laws had a major impact on the growth of North Dakota. North Dakota was not yet a state. It was part of the newly created Dakota Territory. The territory was seeking new residents, and it needed a strong economy to support them.
The first of these bills to pass was the Homestead Act (May 20, 1862.) This law was written in response to the American people’s request to have the public domain become available to farmers. This law became very important in bringing more people to northern Dakota Territory to live and farm.
Congress passed a bill to support the building of a transcontinental railroad on July 1, 1862. The Pacific Railway Act gave the railroad company 20 sections of land (12,800 acres) per mile of track to build a track that joined railroads across the continent. The railroad could develop or sell this land. The first railroad to take advantage of this law was the Union Pacific Railroad that crossed the country through Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho to California. In 1864, President Lincoln signed a charter to build a northern railroad through Dakota Territory. This became the Northern Pacific Railroad.
The third important Congressional bill was the Morrill Act, passed by Congress on July 2, 1862. The act, named for Justin Morrill of Vermont, gave to each qualifying state land from the public domain to support a college to educate the people of that state in agricultural and mechanical arts. Many states established an “A & M” college as soon as possible.
While Congress debated and passed these bills into law, the Civil War began. Though the Civil War was deadly and destructive, these three laws made use of federal lands to bring growth and development to the Great Plains. Their impact is still visible in North Dakota.