The Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged people to take a chance on settling the Great Plains. Any citizen or intended citizen could lay claim to 160 acres. They had to live on the land for five years and make improvements like building a house and planting trees and crops. By 1903, much of that “free” land was already in the hands of settlers and unavailable to new pioneers. Much of the land that was available was in the hands of land speculators.
By this date in 1903, the Emmons County Record reported that as many as 130,000 new settlers had traveled to the northwest in the first six months of the year. They came with dreams of owning land. The number of new settlers was down from the same period the previous year. The newspaper blamed the high cost of land. Rather than being able to claim a homestead, new arrivals now had to purchase the land. Speculators took advantage by charging as much as twenty dollars per acre. That was enough to discourage those who had hoped to file a claim under the Homestead Act.
The settlers had been boon for the railroads. The Northern Pacific estimated that 55,000 of them had traveled on its lines. But now there was a decrease in passengers, and it could be that it was railroads’ own fault. The railroads had sold off large tracts of land to speculators. They were, after all, in the transportation business, not the real estate business. They found owning extra land to be a financial burden, in large part because of the taxes they had to pay on it. To unload the land quickly, they sold it to speculators for a dollar or two an acre. Consequently, the railroads eventually felt the financial pain of decreased ridership as higher land prices discouraged settlement.
The newspaper lamented that if the railroads had sold their land directly to settlers, North Dakota’s population would have been considerably larger and more permanent. The newspaper suggested that the only solution was for the land companies to form an agreement to adhere to set prices. But that was not very likely. Speculators were counting on a continued demand for land, especially with the growth of bonanza farms.
Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher
Emmons County Record. “New Settlers.” 14 August 1903. Williamsport, ND. Page 3.
National Archives. “Homestead Act of 1862.” https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/homestead-act Accessed 10 July 2019.
MNOpedia. “Bonanza Farms.” https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/homestead-act Accessed 10 July 2019.