Development of the West

The United States in 1860

The United States in 1860

The United States acquired large amounts of territory in the Louisiana Purchase and Mexican-American War. In 1860, about 40% of the area in the Lower 48 were not yet States. Arguments over whether these territories would allow slavery was one of the major causes of the Civil War. The region between the Pacific Coast states of Oregon and California and Iowa and Missouri was a vast, sparsely populated area. And this territory was owned by the Federal Government.

While the North and South fought the Civil War, the Federal Government determined the status and future development of large portions of these western territories.

Transcontinental Railroad

The Republican Platform of 1860 included the following plank - “…a railroad to the Pacific ocean is imperatively demanded by the interests of the whole country; that the Federal Government ought to render immediate and efficient aid in its construction.” Prior to the Civil War, the country could not agree on the best route for a transcontinental railroad. Southerners wanted it to go through the South including the then future states of New Mexico and Arizona ending in Los Angeles.  Northerners favored a central route from Nebraska through Nevada into central California. With the onset of the Civil War, the South lost all representation in Congress, and the Transcontinental Railroad Bill passed the Republican Congress. In 1862, President Lincoln signed it into law.

A combination of techniques financed the railroad. The Federal Government issued bonds to pay for construction. The railroads, Union Pacific and Central Pacific, sold stock and bonds. Finally, the government granted land to the railroads which they were able to either sell or mortgage to raise additional capital. The grants were in a checkerboard pattern, with railroads receiving alternating sections with the government. The size of the lots generally was one-mile square, extending ten miles on each side of the railroad line. In total, the railroads received over one million acres. Construction of the railroad started during Lincoln’s administration and finished in 1869. The railroad helped to open the West for settlement and development.

Homestead Act

The 1860 Republican platform stated: “…we demand the passage by Congress of the complete and satisfactory homestead measure...” A Homestead Act grants citizens free or low-cost land in return for farming or otherwise improving the property. The South opposed the Homestead Act, believing it would lead to small farming settlements instead of large slave-based plantations. In 1860, after years of struggle, Congress narrowly passed a Homestead bill, but Democratic President Buchanan vetoed it, perhaps out of sympathy to the South. His veto message stated: “He[settlers] desires no charity, either from the Government or from his neighbors. This bill, which proposes to give him land at an almost nominal price out of the property of the Government, will go far to demoralize the people and repress this noble spirit of independence.

In 1862, with Lincoln as President, and Southern Democrats absent due to secession,, Congress passed the Homestead Act. Women, as well as men, were allowed to participate in the program. In 1866, Congress enacted the ‘Southern’ Homestead Act opening up Southern land to former slaves.

The original program provided for 160-acre homesteads. Thomas Jefferson defined these lot sizes in the Northwest Land Ordinances of the 1780s. These Ordinances banned slavery north of the Ohio River and defined a procedure for territories to become states. The laws also established a system for land ownership. Jefferson’s acts created townships that were squares, six miles on a side, subdivided into 36 one-mile square lots. And 160 acres is a quarter of a square mile. Eventually, over 10% of the U.S. land was homesteaded.

Land Grant Universities

The 1862, the Republican Congress passed a bill titled “An Act donating Public Lands to the several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts.” This Act created the land-grant College system in the United States. President Buchanan vetoed an earlier version of the bill passed in 1859 stating that supporting education was a State, not a Federal responsibility. Lincoln signed the bill after its second passage.

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Each State received Federal land which could then be sold to raise funds for the development of Colleges.  Today there are over 70 land-grant Universities, virtually all of them public. A few maintain a tie back to their origin as part of their name. For example, the ‘A&M’ in Florida A&M stands for ‘Agriculture and Mechanic Arts.’

Many of today’s great public universities are land grant institutions. These include Texas A&M, the Ohio State University, Michigan State, and Penn State. Total enrollment in land grant institutions exceeds 700,000 students. A few private institutions originally started as land-grant Colleges including Cornell and MIT.

In 1890, Congress extended land-grant Universities to the former Confederate States as long as admission was either color-blind or separate universities provided for ‘colored students.’ This provision led to the establishment of several historically black colleges, including Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.


We remember the Civil War as a cataclysmic event. The North battled the South to restore the Union and end slavery. At the same time, development of the West was facilitated by the War. Before the war, Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans were unable to agree on land use legislation. Once the South seceded, the remaining Republican majority was able to enact ground-breaking legislation which President Lincoln signed into law.  By 1862, land usage acts supporting the transcontinental railroad, homesteading, and land-grant Colleges were passed, enabling the rapid development of the West in the second half of the 19th century.