When the Homestead Act of 1862 was signed into effect by President Abraham Lincoln, it must have seemed like winning the lottery for Americans who suddenly found they could become landowners. The law provided 160 acres to adults who paid a $10 fee and promised to farm their land for at least five years. It was the culmination of many years of lobbying for free land distribution in the relatively uninhabited American West. Some opponents argued that giving away land for free could hurt the supply of cheap labor in the East and South.
Purpose of the Homestead Act of 1862
The Homestead Act of 1862 has been called one of the most significant events contributing to U.S. westward expansion. It provided a way for large amounts of unused land in the public domain to transition to private ownership. The Homestead Act also demonstrated democratic ideals by offering “an unfettered start and fair chance” to all Americans, in the words of President Lincoln. It was a revolutionary approach for moving public land into a large number of private hands, with the purpose of developing the West and fostering economic growth.
The law didn’t offer a free ride. Homesteaders left family, friends and familiar communities to take on the challenges of farming in unfamiliar terrains and climates. Many had previously lived in urban slums and with no farming experience were ill-equipped to deal with high winds, blizzards and insect plagues that threatened both settlers and their crops. Water and fuel for fires could be scarce and a lack of timber on the plains forced many homesteaders to build homes from sod.
Because the West was still unsettled, homesteaders also faced social isolation for months at a time. There were many who couldn’t last for five years and lost the claim to their land. Even so, about half of those who attempted homesteading were able to complete the requirements and claim land ownership.
Homestead Act Provisions
Anyone who was at least 21 years of age or the head of a household could sign up to become a homesteader at a land office near where they planned on settling. Many homesteaders were from groups that historically had problems becoming landowners, including former slaves, single women and recent immigrants. Before ownership of their homestead land was signed over, they had to build and live in a home on the land and maintain a farm for five years.
For homesteaders with some extra money who found five years too long, the Homesteading Act provided an option of purchasing the land for $1.25 per acre after living on it for six months. Those who stuck out the five years could claim their land by having two neighbors sign a document testifying that the homesteading terms had been satisfied. For an additional $6 fee, homesteaders were awarded a land patent that verified their ownership. Many new landowners proudly framed this patent, which also served as a deed of title.
Efforts to distribute the vast acres of public lands in America had been underway almost since the nation’s beginning, but for a variety of reasons, there had always been strong opposition to homesteading legislation. By the mid-1800s, factory owners in northern states didn’t want to lose cheap workers to homesteading and southern states thought that western expansion could lead to the birth of new states that opposed slavery. Right before Lincoln was voted into office, President James Buchanan vetoed a similar bill. At the time the Homestead Act was signed in 1862, much of the opposition had vanished with the secession of southern states during the Civil War.
The Homesteading Act increased the U.S. population by attracting people from around the world with the offer of free land. Besides native-born Americans, immigrants came from France, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe to homestead. Those who weren’t U.S. citizens had to file a declaration that they intended to become citizens.
For African Americans freed from slavery, the Homestead Act offered a chance to flee the oppression and racism of the post-war South. For historic reasons, many African American homesteaders settled in Kansas. So many left for the South for Kansas in the late 1800s that it was referred to as an exodus.
Lincoln’s Western Interests
When President Lincoln took office in 1860, southern states were already beginning to secede from the Union. By the time the Homestead Act was signed, 11 states had left the Union. The role the new president played in settling the West is attributed by historians to his desire to take advantage of the economic potential of the West as well as blocking southern states from spreading slavery to that area. Populating the West with homesteaders was seen as an effective way to strengthen the Union.
A few months after the Homestead Act of 1862 became law, the new Railroad Act enabled the construction of a transcontinental railroad system. By 1869, the completed railroad made traveling easier for homesteaders. As more homesteaders moved west, the railroads brought farm tools, weapons and household goods that made life a bit easier. In addition to the Homestead and Pacific Railway acts, Lincoln signed bills that supported agricultural development and the development of colleges in the West.
Results of Homestead Act of 1862
The impact of the Homestead Act of 1862 has led many historians to call it the most important legislation in the nation’s history. By 1900, more than 600,000 homestead claims had been filed and 80 million acres distributed. Most of the homestead land was in the Western Plains, an area that includes Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming and Colorado. By 1934, over 1.6 million homesteaders had settled over 270 million acres, representing 10 percent of U.S. land. Homesteading lands were located in 30 states.
Because many homesteaders were unable to find success with farming, some of the land given away by the Homestead Act moved into the hands of speculators who formed larger parcels of land for resale. Over the decades, the increasing mechanization of farming led to the replacement of small homesteads across America with larger, industrial-sized farms.
Even so, the Homesteading Act of 1862 remained in effect for more than a century. The act was repealed by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, with a ten-year extension given to homesteaders in Alaska. The final homesteading claim under the law was made for 80 acres in Alaska in 1988. Since then, the U.S. federal government has gotten out of the business of giving away free land.
Creation of Homestead National Monument
In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the establishment of the Homestead National Monument as part of the National Park Service. The park includes an education center, historic school and 100 acres of tallgrass prairie that memorializes the undeveloped landscape plowed by homesteaders. A 14-by-16 foot cabin occupied by a homesteading family with 10 children is also one of the park’s exhibits.
The Homestead National Monument is located in Nebraska on the site of the Daniel Freeman homestead. Freeman was the first homesteader to apply for a land grant under the Homestead Act; he eventually acquired more than 1,000 surrounding acres. Nebraska is a fitting home for the memorial park since about 45 percent of Nebraska’s land was distributed as part of the Homestead Act of 1862.
Catie Watson spent three decades in the corporate world before becoming a freelance writer. She has an English degree from UC Berkeley and specializes in topics related to personal finance, careers and business.