What Is the Homestead Act of 1862?

Photo Courtesy: National Park Service

Many historians consider the Homestead Act one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed in the United States. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law in 1862 in order to provide more people with the opportunity to become landowners.

To best understand why this law became so meaningful, it helps to take a deeper look at what the rules of the Homestead Act involved and why it played such a big role in the settlement of the American West. Exploring the pros and cons of the Homestead Act — and checking out a National Park that’s dedicated to the era — further demonstrates the significance of this law.

How Did the Homestead Act Work?

The Homestead Act created a law that gave people from all walks of life the opportunity to become landowners, and it also encouraged people to move to the western part of the country and begin settling it. As President Lincoln himself put it, the purpose of the act was “to elevate the condition of men, to lift artificial burdens from all shoulders and to give everyone an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.”

Photo Courtesy: National Archives

The provisions of the Homestead Act allowed almost anyone who was willing to work hard to claim a 160-acre area of land for a filing fee of $18. In order to keep the land, however, homesteaders had to meet certain requirements. To become landowners, they had to:

  • Be at least 21 years of age or the head of a household
  • Agree to live on the land, build a home on it, farm it and make improvements to it for at least five years
  • Certify that they had never borne arms against the United States, meaning they had never fought against the country

Once a homesteader had claimed a piece of land and fulfilled all of the requirements, they had to find at least two neighbors who could verify they were following the rules. At the end of five years, they were considered “proved up” and would receive a patent for the land that made them the official owners. Soldiers who had fought for the Union during the U.S. Civil War were allowed to subtract the time they served in the war from the five-year requirement. If people were willing to spend $200 for their 160-acre parcels, they only needed to reside on the land for six months to establish residency before being granted official ownership.

One of the most important benefits of the Homestead Act was that it gave women, formerly enslaved people and newly arrived immigrants the chance to become landowners when they previously hadn’t had the opportunity to do so. The act made huge amounts of land available to the public and resulted in the settlement of 270 million acres, which was around 10% of the total area of the United States.

What Are Some Pros and Cons of the Homestead Act?

The Homestead Act was a beneficial opportunity for many people who might never have otherwise been able to afford large amounts of land. On the other hand, it did require new landowners to build and run farms, which many people also couldn’t afford to do.

Photo Courtesy: National Park Service

The act did, however, end up leading the United States’ expansion into the West. Claims were filed in 30 states, with much of the land being settled in Montana, North Dakota, Colorado and Nebraska. Although this was helpful for those who were able to take advantage of the Homestead Act, it was devastating for many Native Americans, who found themselves forced off of their land in order to make way for homesteaders.

Another problem was that there were large numbers of people and companies that took advantage of the Homestead Act in less-than-honest ways. It didn’t help that some of the wording of the law wasn’t very specific and ended up allowing people to use loopholes. For instance, the act stated that 12×14 homes had to be built on each piece of land. Unfortunately, it didn’t specify that these measurements were in feet, so some people got around the requirement by building 12-inch by 14-inch “homes.”

Additionally, due to the nature of the West at the time, it was almost impossible to enforce the requirements of the Homestead Act because there just weren’t enough regulators to make sure that everything was up to code. As a result, the National Archives reveals that “of some 500 million acres dispersed by the General Land Office between 1862 and 1904, only 80 million acres went to homesteaders. Indeed, small farmers acquired more land under the Homestead Act in the 20th century than in the 19th.”

Why Did the Homestead Act Come to an End?

While many people associate the Homestead Act with pioneers of the 1800s, it actually remained an active law until 1976. It did meet a major bump along the way, however, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934.

Photo Courtesy: National Park Service

The Taylor Grazing Act was intended to regulate cattle-grazing activities on public land, which had become over-grazed by farming activities that damaged the soil. However, the law also ended up turning a great deal of rangeland into grazing districts managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The Homestead Act finally met its official end in 1976 when it was replaced with the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which stated that “public lands be retained in Federal ownership.” This means the formerly public land that could’ve been eligible for Homestead Act settlers became property of the U.S. federal government. Interestingly enough, homesteading was still allowed in Alaska until 1986.

By 1976, the Homestead Act seemed to have mostly run its course. The last person ever to receive land under the act was a man named Ken Deardorff, who filed a claim in 1974 and fulfilled all of the requirements by 1979. Unfortunately, it took until 1988 for the government to finally get his land patent to him for reasons that are still unknown.

History reveals that the first person ever to gain ownership of land under the Homestead Act was a man named Daniel Freeman, who filed a claim in 1863 in Beatrice, Nebraska. Due to the significance of his claim, the Homestead National Historical Park was established just outside the small Nebraska town. Daniel Freeman’s original homestead and the structure he built on it are still a part of the park to this day.

Visitors to the Homestead National Historical Park can also enjoy live history demonstrations, arts and crafts, and more at the park’s Homestead Educational Center. The park hosts a variety of other important buildings, such as a 14-foot by 16-foot cabin built in 1867 by a homesteader named George W. Palmer. You can also see the “Freeman School,” which served as a schoolhouse for prairie children from 1872 until 1967. There’s even a museum full of artifacts and information from the homestead era, access to genealogical information and miles of nature trails to explore, demonstrating the importance of the act and the impact it had on American history.