Why 160 Acres?

My wife, after reading Mike Newman’s piece about his great-grandfather homesteading in New Mexico, asked me, “Why 160 acres?” The only answer I could give her was that it had something to do with one of the several Homestead Acts passed by the US Congress and possibly with the terms of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. I also recalled it had something to do with the old saying, “forty acres and a mule.” Forty acres being about what one family with a mule could work in a years time and 160 being a multiple of that.

Anyway, it got me thinking that I needed to revisit our nation’s history and fill in what I had forgotten about land policies. At one time, while studying US westward expansion, I was up to speed on this subject but the “use it or lose it” rule has come into play. So, I did a little research and here’s what I’ve come up with.

Federal land policies predate the Northwest Ordinance and one law germane to this discussion was the Land Ordinance of 1785, which established the Public Land Survey System. Under this system public land was to be surveyed into townships measuring 6 miles by 6 miles. Townships were further sub-divided into 36 squares measuring 1 mile by 1 mile or 640 acres. Square or section 16 of each township was to be set aside for schools and other sections were kept by the Federal Government for later use and/or sale. Squares could be further divided into smaller sections for sale. The law also provided for the preservation of significant acreage in each state for the establishment of land-grant colleges such as The Ohio State University.

Thomas Jefferson was a major supporter of this system because it made tracts of land small enough and affordable enough for the common man, who he referred to as yeoman farmers. Jefferson was a strong believer in the worth of the common man and believed man was at his best when working the soil rather than being pent-up in urban environments.

By the time these early land policies came into effect many of the areas east of the Mississippi had already been surveyed accounting for the lack of symmetry in the East. However, if you’ve ever flown over the Great Plains you can readily see the results of government land policies. Boundaries of farm fields, townships, and even villages and cities are very symmetric and orderly.

Towards the end of the American Civil War the government briefly gave away forty acres to freed slaves along with a surplus army mule. This quarter of a quarter section was considered the minimum necessary for a former slave family to begin life anew and it was also viewed by General Sherman, and others, as a means of punishing southern landowners. The policy was abandoned following the death of Lincoln and much of the land was returned to its previous white owners.

After the Civil War the US Government decided it was important to fill in the barren spaces between the eastern states and the American settlements of the far west. The land was rapidly surveyed and the Homestead Act of 1862 allowed those who were willing to take the risk the opportunity to claim 160 acres of public lands. The amount was set at 160 acres rather than 40 because western lands were less productive and more acres were needed to eek out a living.

As less arable lands were homesteaded the amount was increased to 320 acres by subsequent Homestead Acts. Several years ago I spend an evening in Southwest Texas talking to some ranchers in a local tavern. One fellow’s sheep ranch was about 35,000 acres and his father’s ranch was over a 100,000 acres. The fields were all fenced off into 640 acre tracts and to protect their animals they had to rely on llamas and donkeys since these creatures could graze for their food and guard dogs couldn’t. Imagine trying to get food to a guard dog everyday in a six square mile field.

When I first went to California in the early 1960s the Homestead Act was still in effect and many homestead claims had been filed in the Mohave Desert. The typical claim at that time and place was 5 acres. Like all homestead claims there was a time-table for improving the land and as many as 40 percent of the claimants failed to meet the criteria.

To my knowledge, the last homestead act ended in 1976 for the lower 48 states and in Alaska it ended 10 years later. Over the course of its life the various acts gave away 270 million acres which equates to about 10 percent of America’s total area. There are, however, those who think a new act should be enacted and that every American should have the right to homestead a part of the vast expanses of land still owned by the US Government.

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