The Homestead Act & Strike

This Act was passed in the US government in 1862, at the very height of the ‘Wild West’ era – brave pioneers heading west, ‘Redskins’ whose land it was biting the dust, shootists biting the dust, rumours of massive amounts of gold to be found by prospectors and so on. The intention of the Act was to encourage people in the East to settle anew in the West. Any citizen over 21, or head of a family would be allotted a property of 160 acres – to be his after five years occupation and work. In the following 38 years the government awarded more than 600,000 lucky claimants 80 million acres of mostly arable land. There were hitches however; many claimants were not farmers, they were land speculators, and farmers knew that 160 acres would make too small a farm to make it worth leaving the East and heading for the Great Plains. In fact, a better way to open up the vast ‘virgin’ lands was for individual states and the railroads to prospective settlers. The railroads had already received 520 million acres from the federal government. Perversely, railroads needed settlers to pay to ride on their trains, so they sold off much of the land they got from the government!

 

The 1892 Strike was one of the worst and most violent in the history of North America since the Declaration of Independence. The President of the Carnegie Steel Co. Henry Frick, imposed pay cuts at the corporation’s Homestead Works near Pittsburgh. The Steelworkers and their union refused to cooperate so Frick announced he would close the plant, later to re-open it using non-union workers. This was provocative enough but he backed his words by employing hundreds of spies, gunmen and professional strike-breakers to ‘protect the factory’. When these men arrived (they were employed by Pinkertons, the well-known detective agency) in Pittsburgh they were met by the toughest of the strikers, and there was a pitched battle. Ten men on both sides were killed.

The redoubtable Frick appealed to the Governor of Pennsylvania for help, and received the National Guard, ready to eject workers from the plant. Now no-one much liked Pinkerton’s whom they considered nasty snoopers, and at first public sympathy was with the strikers, but then some hasty workman made an attempt on Frick’s life, and public opinion changed. On 20 November the strike was cancelled by the union, and this was the encouragement needed for many other steel companies to boycott it. This had a crushing effect on the steelworkers’ union, meaning that there was no effective  union organisation in the steel industry until the successful formation of the Steelworkers’ Union in the 1930s.

 

 

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