Homesteading lets people claim federal land for free if they met certain requirements. The original homestead law, passed in 1862, provided farms to immigrants wanting to become citizens and citizens over the age of 21 who were heads of household, explains the United States Department of the Interior.
President Lincoln signed the original Homestead Act on May 20, 1862. The act went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, and people were able to file claims to secure land in the West and Midwest. After the applications were reviewed, the federal government awarded a land patent to approved homesteaders. Homesteaders could qualify for as many as 160 acres of land for a nominal registration fee.
Applicants who were granted a land patent were required to live on the land for at least five years. After the fifth year, the homesteader officially owned the land. If the homesteader was willing to pay a fee of $1.25 per acre, he could claim the land after living on it for only six months.