One hundred fifty years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act of 1862. The act gave an applicant ownership of 160 acres of undeveloped federal land located west of the Mississippi River. It is one of the reasons why the western 2/3 of the United States was settled within a generation after the end of the Civil War.
As the United States expanded westward towards the Pacific Ocean, any land not under the jurisdiction of a state was considered federal property. This land was mostly empty except for those areas granted to or controlled by Native American tribes. By the fourth decade of the 19th century, the government in Washington began to consider ways to encourage Americans to move west of the Mississippi River. The first major legislation to do this was the Preemption Act of 1841, which in part granted preemption rights to individuals who were already settled on federal lands. This meant that squatters were given the opporunity to buy the land on which they had settled before it was offered for sale to the general public. The land was offered at very low prices and many settlers took the government up on the offer. Most settlers in the Kansas and Nebraska territories, which were both opened to settlement in 1854, claimed rights under the Preemption Act to buy their land.
A more comprehensive act, entitled the Homestead Act, was introduced and passed by Congress in 1860. However, President Buchanan vetoed the bill and the Repulicans who supported the act did not have enough votes to override the Executive Branch. This first version of the act required settlers to pay twenty-five cents an acre for land. This fee would be dropped when the act was re-introduced in 1862.
The act was opposed by Southern Democrats because it limited settlers to 160 acres, an area of land too small for the type of plantation many slave owners imagined for themselves. To them, the act was an attempt to ensure that states created west of the Mississippi River were controlled by non-slave owners and immigrants. After Abraham Lincoln's election in November, 1860, however, southern states began to secede from the Union and took most of their Senate delegations with them. With the removal of the slavery issue from the debate over the legislation, the Homestead Act passed and was signed into law in May, 1862.
The new law established a three-fold homestead acquisition process: filing an application, improving the land, and filing for deed of title. Any U.S. citizen, or intended citizen, who had never borne arms against the United States could file an application and lay claim to 160 acres of surveyed federal land. For the next 5 years, the homesteader had to live on the land and improve it by at least building a 12-by-14 dwelling and growing crops. After 5 years, the homesteader could file for his patent (or deed of title) by submitting proof of both residency and the required improvements to a local land office.
Local land offices forwarded the paperwork to the General Land Office in Washington, DC, along with a final certificate of eligibility. The case file was examined, and valid claims were granted patent to the land free and clear for a registration fee of $18. Title could also be acquired after just a 6-month residency and trivial improvements, provided the claimant paid the government $1.25 per acre. After the Civil War, Union soldiers could deduct the time they served from the residency requirements.
Some land speculators took advantage of a legislative loophole created when those drafting the law failed to specify whether the 12-by-14 dwelling was to be measured in feet or inches. Others hired phony claimants or bought abandoned land. The General Land Office was under-funded and could never hire a sufficient number of investigators. As a result, overworked and underpaid investigators were often susceptible to bribery.
Physical conditions on the frontier presented even greater challenges. Wind, blizzards, and plagues of insects threatened crops. Open plains meant few trees for building, forcing many to build homes out of sod. Limited fuel and water supplies could turn simple cooking and heating chores into difficult trials. Ironically, even the smaller size of sections took its own toll. While 160 acres may have been sufficient for an eastern farmer, it was simply not enough to sustain agriculture on the dry plains, and scarce natural vegetation made raising livestock on the prairie difficult. As a result, in many areas, the original homesteader did not stay on the land long enough to fulfill the claim.
Homesteaders who persevered (it’s estimated that 40% of settlers stayed long enough to make their claim) were rewarded with opportunities as rapid changes in transportation eased some of the hardships. Six months after the Homestead Act was passed, the Railroad Act was signed, and by May 1869, a transcontinental railroad stretched across the frontier. The new railroads provided easy transportation for homesteaders, and new immigrants were lured westward by railroad companies eager to sell off excess land at inflated prices. The new rail lines provided ready access to manufactured goods and catalog houses like Montgomery Ward offered farm tools, barbed wire, linens, weapons, and even houses delivered via the rails.
On January 1, 1863, the first day the act went into effect, Daniel Freeman and 417 others filed claims. Many more pioneers followed over the course of the next generation, populating the land, building towns and creating new states from the territories. In 1936, the Department of the Interior recognized Freeman as the first claimant and established the Homestead National Monument on his homestead near Beatrice, Nebraska. By 1934, over 1.6 million homestead applications had been processed and more than 270 million acres—10 percent of all land in the United States at that time—had been passed into the hands of individuals. The passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 repealed the Homestead Act in the 48 contiguous states, but granted a ten-year extension on claims in Alaska. The last claim under the act was made by Ken Deardorff for 80 acres of land on the Stony River in southwestern Alaska. He fulfilled all requirements of the act in 1979 but did not receive his deed until May 1988.