Now, giving away land has long been part of the American tradition. When we were British colonies, the crown gave land to anyone who would come over and settle. With independence won, states sold land at giveaway prices to anyone who would come and get it. Georgia even set up a lottery to distribute free land to the lucky winners, land it took from Indians who thought it was theirs.
As Americans moved west, the federal land office was one of the most important frontier institutions, for it was there that titles were secured and futures were made.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, men with money got Congress to parcel out federal land (of which there was plenty) in ways that allowed men with money to get most of it. So, big farms (we called them plantations down in Dixie) pushed out small farms until there was concern among the more radical congressmen, who happened to be Northern and Republican, that the nation was heading toward “a system of land monopoly.” This, GOP Rep. Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania warned in 1860, was “one of the direst, deadliest curses that ever paralyzed the energies of a nation or palsied the arm of industry.”
What the Republicans wanted to do was set up a system whereby any U.S. citizen (or “intended” citizen) could get 160 acres of federal land simply by applying for it, living on it, farming it for five years and paying a title fee — about $18.
Democrats, dominated by Southern planter interests, blocked the plan until 1861, when the Confederacy was formed and Dixie Democrats left Congress. Republicans then were able to push the legislation through, and on May 20, 1862, the Homestead Act became law.
The act was a model of liberal legislation. Not only did it distribute and redistribute property to the masses (eventually some 4 million would file claims), it did not discriminate (much) on the basis of gender and race — female heads of households were eligible, as were African-Americans once the 14th Amendment made them citizens.
Meanwhile, according to well-established national policy, Native Americans got a raw deal, for it was their land that was being given away.
As a result, writes T.A. Frail in the recent Smithsonian magazine, America was transformed “into an ownership society.”
Talk about social engineering.
And so it followed that in the years to come that people went west, staked out claims, built homes and farms and became solid citizens, just as the social engineers who wrote the law were sure they would. In all, homesteaders took up some 270 million acres. Or, to put it another way, the Republican-run federal government gave away 10 percent of the land in the United States.
Today, if you ride along rural roads in the Midwest, you can see signs identifying “Homestead Farms,” which have remained intact since the act was passed.
The best land was quickly taken up, and by the turn of the century much of what remained was considered too sorry to homestead. Some of that sorry land was down in south Baldwin County. But sorry land was just what “Zeke” Martin wanted. In 1926, Martin laid claim to a lonely stretch of beach, which for him was the ideal place to live as he wanted to live, away from folks who seemed intent on trying to get him to abide by their rules.
But getting away from rule-makers wasn’t easy. When he filed his homestead claim, Martin was told that to validate ownership he had to till the soil.
Now, it is hard to say just what “Zeke” Martin wanted to do down there — other than be left alone — but it is certain that he did not want to be a farmer. Besides, the soil was sand, which isn’t very tillable — not that he planned to till it.
So he planted some fig trees, and when the homestead inspector came around, he pointed to the scraggly shrubs as evidence that he was doing what the government told him to do.
Then, when the inspector left, Martin let the birds eat the figs and he went back to doing whatever he wanted to do, which, among other things, was finding ways to avoid doing what social engineers told him to do.
Today, if you go down to the Gulf Coast, you will find more than a few people who are the ideological descendants of Mr. Martin. These folks believe (or at least hope) that sand is not fertile ground for social engineering.
Sometimes they are disappointed.
But usually not.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. E-mail: email@example.com.