The Law: Federal legislation making public land available to settlers for free
Date: Signed into law on May 20, 1862
Significance: The Homestead Act accelerated settlement of western lands in the United States. Initiated in response to pressure for the disposition of public lands, the act transferred ownership of property to U.S. citizens or immigrants willing to establish residence on the land and to make improvements and cultivate crops. A significant number of beneficiaries of the act were immigrants from Europe.
Support for the concept of distributing public land began during the early years of the United States. A precursor to the Homestead Act, the Pre-emption Act of 1841, legitimized squatting by permitting farmers to grow crops on public land that could later be purchased from the government. Despite growing pressure to open western lands, concern over economic and political issues generated opposition to homesteading. For example, eastern factory owners believed that homesteading would lure away immigrants who were an important source of cheap labor. Opposition also came from plantation owners in southern states concerned about increasing the number of small farms whose owners were not likely to support slavery. Homesteading legislation was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1852, 1854, and 1859 but each time was defeated in the U.S. Senate.
The principle of dispersing public land became a major tenet of the Republican Party during the late 1850’s as a means of preventing the spread of slavery into western lands. In 1860, homesteading legislation was approved by both houses of Congress but vetoed by President James Buchanan. However, the secession of southern states at the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War brought an end to major opposition. The Homestead Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862, and took effect on January 1, 1863.
The central provision of the act was to enable adult heads of households to claim 160 acres each of surveyed public land. To be eligible to file claims on the land, homesteaders had to be U.S. citizens or have submitted declarations of intent to become citizens. Title to homesteaded properties could be obtained after five years of residence on the land, provided that the claimants made improvements, including construction of houses and wells and cultivation of at least ten acres.
The opportunity to acquire free land became an important factor attracting immigrants who sold assets in their home countries to purchase passage and supplies needed upon arrival in the United States. However, leniency in administration of the homesteading program allowed many people who knew little about farming to claim land—a fact that contributed to the failure of some farms. The harsh environment also created hardships for new immigrants. While 160 acres of humid land in eastern states could support a family, the same acreage west of the hundredth meridian was often too arid to sustain crops in the absence of irrigation.With few trees available in some areas, settlers built sod homes to provide shelter from wind, hailstorms, and winter blizzards.
By 1900, title to about 80 million acres of land had been distributed to 600,000 farmers. In some cases, homestead property was later acquired by speculators who had lent money needed by homesteaders to purchase equipment and supplies. Speculators also acquired land through phony claims or by purchasing abandoned farms. In 1976, the Homestead Act was repealed through passage of the Federal Land Policy Management Act in all states except Alaska, where homesteading ended in 1986.
Thomas A. Wikle
See also: Civil War, U.S.; Economic consequences of immigration; Emigration; Families; History of immigration, 1783-1891; Land laws; Nebraska; Oklahoma; Political parties; Westward expansion.