Birthdays are a time to assess, to look back at the events and people who helped shape us, and to look forward to what we still want to accomplish.
Kansas’ birthday is Jan. 29, marking the day in 1861 that it became the 34th state.
Lots of people and events helped form Kansas, not the least of which were government programs that today some would undoubtedly condemn as overreach. Government assistance in the early years took a number of forms, most of which involved the distribution of government-owned land. It’s what the federal government had a lot of at the time.
Throughout U.S. history, distribution of government land was a controversial topic – and that’s not even counting the sad and indefensible means used to take land from Indians.
In the earliest days of colonial America, wealthy families gained huge tracts of land by currying favor with kings and dictators overseas. Land grants also were used by early American governments to appease military veterans who had been shorted on their pay by state legislatures and the Continental Congress.
How land was divvied up often created political debate, which by the 1800s was exacerbated by the issue of whether slavery would be allowed in western territories and states.
It’s not coincidence that the Homestead Act was passed in 1862, after Southern states had seceded.
The legislation was a huge government giveaway, in which any person – citizen or not – who staked a claim, lived on the land and made improvements to it could become a land owner.
According to the National Archives, more than 1.6 million Homestead claim applications were processed nationwide, and more than 270 million acres of land passed into private hands.
Without this huge government program, many of the people who now complain about government programs in the state wouldn’t be here. Earlier generations of their families could not have afforded to own land without the Homestead Act.
Another huge land giveaway benefited railroads and the men who wanted to build them.
The Pacific Railway Act of 1862 was the first of a series of federal laws that awarded companies land and other perks for building railroads across America. Eventually, according to the National Archives, Congress would authorize the giveaway of 174 million acres to companies building four transcontinental railroads.
According to an article that is part of the Kansas Historical Society collection, between 1850 and 1870, 80 railroads were given 7 percent of all the land in the U.S. – including about 16 percent of the land in Kansas.
Putting aside debates over corporate welfare, the laws facilitated the settlement of much of the western United States, as towns and farms appeared in places that were no longer so isolated from the rest of the state or country.
The building of railroads also led to more immigration. Immigrants from Europe, Mexico and China built much of the railroad system in our nation. Then the railroads, eager to sell the land they had been given and to generate more business, encouraged more people to come to America.
Many of us whose families moved to Kansas between 1870 and 1920 made it here because of the railroads and the laws that financed their development.
Another law passed by Congress in 1862 speaks to the importance that public education has played in Kansas.
The Morrill Act called for yet another giveaway of land. The federal government would give land to states, which in turn would sell the tracts to finance colleges and universities that specialized in agriculture and mechanics.
Kansas State University was founded the next year, becoming the country’s first land-grant college. Others include Cornell, MIT and the University of Wisconsin.
Just a year later, in 1864, the Kansas Legislature approved the establishment of the University of Kansas. Approval could have come earlier, but slavery debates and disputes about what town should be home to the university stalled progress.
The value of public education was plain to early Kansans. They understood that government was not always the problem, that public assets and legislation could be used to spread prosperity and improve the lives of all.
They were looking forward, to what their children and their state might accomplish.
A native of Garden City, Julie Doll is a former journalist who has worked at newspapers in California, Indiana and New York, as well as across Kansas.