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California is an infamously tough place to be poor: home to about half of the entire nation’s homeless population, burdened by staggering home prices and unsustainable rental rates, California is a state in crisis. But it wasn’t always that way.

In 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, the most ambitious and sweeping social policy in the history of the United States. In the Golden State more than a hundred thousand people filed homesteading claims between 1863 and the late 1930s. More than sixty thousand Californians succeeded, claiming about ten million acres.

In Backcountry Ghosts Josh Sides tells the histories of these Californian homesteaders, their toil and enormous patience, successes and failures, doggedness in the face of natural elements and disasters, and resolve to defend hard-earned land for themselves and their children. While some of these homesteaders were fulfilling the American Dream—that all Americans should have the opportunity to own land regardless of their background or station—others used the Homestead Act to add to already vast landholdings or control water or mineral rights.

Sides recovers the fascinating stories of individual homesteaders in California, both those who succeeded and those who did not, and the ways they shaped the future of California and the American West. Backcountry Ghosts reveals the dangers of American dreaming in a state still reeling from the ambitions that led to the Great Recession.


“This gem of a book arises from a simple premise. Genocide and gold were the brutal conceivers of California, but it took another epic force to civilize the land. For Josh Sides it is Lincoln’s great land giveaway known as the Homestead Act that invents the state. Sides brings the act to vivid life on the backcountry roads where homesteaders go about their remaking of nature. Besotted with the dream, they know not their own bounds. They are ghosts, yes. But they are us.”

MARK ARAX, author of The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust across California


“A surprising, engaging, and original book about homesteading in a state where homesteaders got pushed to the edges. Josh Sides tells gripping personal stories to reveal a much broader California history.”

RICHARD WHITE, author of California Exposures: Envisioning Myth and History


“In this revelatory, beautifully honed, and finely researched work, Josh Sides reclaims a very significant yet little-known part of California and U.S. history by bringing forth the story of the thousands of homesteaders in the Golden State between 1863 and the late 1930s. Backcountry Ghosts moreover courageously engages, expands, and updates the Jeffersonian mythos of land ownership serving as liberty’s prerequisite.”

ANTHEA M. HARTIG, Elizabeth MacMillan Director of the National Museum of American History


“Homesteading is at the very center of mythical American assumptions tying together nation and promise, land and purpose. This magnificent book jolts the idea and the practice off their perch of complacent caricatures of meaning and geography. Josh Sides lays one durable myth against another—California and homesteading—and what he discovers ought to reorient much of what we think about both.”

WILLIAM DEVERELL, director of Huntington-University of Southern California Institute on California and the West

-- William Deverell

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