Friday, December 30, 2016

Friday Farming: The Stock Raising Homestead Act of 1916

Recently I've been posting the centennial of certain events as they occur.  Yesterday one such landmark passed by, that being the centennial of President Wilson signing into law the Stock Raising Homestead Act of 1916.  I noted that event here:
Today In Wyoming's History: December 29, 1916. Stock Raising Homestead Act of 1916 becomes law.
Today In Wyoming's History: December 29:
Abandoned post Wold War One Stock Raising Homestead Act homestead.
1916  The Stock Raising Homestead Act of 1916 becomes law.  It allowed for 640 acres for ranching purposes, but severed the surface ownership from the mineral ownership, which remained in the hands of the United States.

The Stock Raising Homestead Act of 1916 recognized the reality of  Western homesteading which was that smaller parcels of property were not sufficient for Western agricultural conditions.  It was not the only such homestead act, however, and other acts likewise provided larger parcels than the original act, whose anniversary is rapidly coming up.  The act also recognized that homesteading not only remained popular, but the 1916 act came in the decade that would see the greatest number of  homesteads filed nationally.

Perhaps most significant, in some ways, was that the 1916 act also recognized the split estate, which showed that the United States was interested in being the mineral interest owner henceforth, a change from prior policies.  1916 was also a boom year in oil and gas production, due to World War One, and the US was effectively keeping an interest in that production.  The split estate remains a major feature of western  mineral law today.
I've noted the Stock Raising Homestead Act of 1916 before, but having noted it in series, in association with the horrific events of World War One, the onset of Prohibition, the reelection of President Wilson and the Punitive Expedition has put this into focus.  This change in the homestead laws, allowing stockmen to claim a square mile, 640 acres, rather than a mere 40 acres.

40 acres had been the Eastern standard for a yeoman farmer, but in the west agriculture was based on animal husbandry, not farming, and a lot more than 40 acres was necessary.  Indeed the unrealistic 40 acre size of homesteads had contributed to the development of two competing systems that ultimately attempted, unsuccessfully, to sort itself out violently in the Johnson County War.  The Stock Raising Homestead Act of 1916 recognized this unreality and tried to make homesteading entries a bit more realistic in size, although they still were about half the size that they really needed to be in order to be realistic.  Still, at that size entrants could more realistically adjust.  It should be noted that a prior attempt, the Desert Lands Act, had been tried in 1877, so this wasn't the first effort at fixing the unrealistic size of the original Homestead Act.

In this sense the Stock Raising Homestead Act was a necessary revision.  In other ways, however, it was a bit late.  It came on the cusp of a massive, World War One inspired, boom in homesteading, but most of the homesteads would fail. That had always been the case, but the peak of homesteading of this era would have a fairly spectacular fall in the end. For the most part, at least in the Rocky Mountain West, that failure was cushioned by assistance from local banks and also from neighboring ranches of more substantial size acquiring the smaller units through purchase.  In a few instances, such as in the Thunder Basin, the Federal Government would come in to purchase back the smaller units that came in too late.

To some extent the Stock Raising Homestead Act reflected the end of an era, although that was not obvious at the time.  It would really only remain in effect for sixteen years, at which time further entrance was withdrawn.  It has had a lasting impact, however, in that it established the concept of a spit estate with a reservation in favor of the Federal Government, a feature of Western lands ever since.

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