The Public Land Act of 1796 authorized the sale of federal lands in sections consisting of 640 acres each for a price of $2 per acre, explains How Stuff Works. This essentially reduced the price of the land while increasing the minimum acreage allowed for each sale.
The intent of the Public Land Act of 1796 was to reduce the prices so settlers were able to manage the cost and move into unsettled areas. However, the majority of the individuals that purchased property under this act turned out to be speculators rather than settlers.
Eventually, the extensive demand for low-priced land led to an ability for squatters to have the first chance to buy land they were on. This was called the Preemption Act of 1841. The land was offered to the individuals at a price of $1.25 per acre. Those living on the land once had no chance of purchasing, as the land was sold at auction for prices they could not afford. All these acts led to the 1862 Homestead Act, allowing individuals to claim the land they lived on as their own for free. Settlers took advantage of these acts to attain and utilize lands for timber cutting and sales.