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[[File:Freeman homestead-certificate.jpg|thumb|Certificate of homestead given under the Homestead Act in Nebraska, 1868.]]

The Homestead Act was one of several United States Federal laws that gave an applicant freehold title up to 160 acres (1/4 section) of undeveloped land outside of the original 13 colonies. The new law required three steps: file an application, improve the land, and file for deed of title. Anyone who had never taken up arms against the U.S. Government, including freed slaves, could file an application and improvements to a local land office.

The original act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862.

In 1909, a major update called the Enlarged Homestead Act was passed, targeting land suitable for dryland farming (much of the prime low-lying alluvial land along rivers had been homesteaded by then); it increased the number of acres to 320. In 1916, the Stock-Raising Homestead Act targeted settlers seeking of public land for ranching purposes.

Eventually 1.6 million homesteads were granted and were privatized between 1862 and 1986, a total of 10% of all lands in the United States.


The Homestead Act was intended to liberalize the homesteading requirements of the Preemption Act of 1841. The "yeoman farmer" ideal was powerful in American political history, and plans for expanding their numbers through a homestead act were rooted in the 1850s. The South resisted, fearing the increase in free farmers would threaten plantation slavery. Two men stood out as greatly responsible for the passage of the Homestead Act: George Henry Evans and Horace Greeley. The agitation for free land became evident in 1844, when several bills were introduced unsuccessfully in Congress. After the South seceded and their delegations left Congress in 1861, the path was clear of obstacles, and the act was passed. Because of this there was little or no land left.

The Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 gave to farmers who accepted more marginal lands which could not be irrigated. A massive influx of new farmers eventually led to massive land erosion and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

The end of homesteading

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 ended homesteading; the government believed that the best use of public lands was for them to remain in government control. The only exception to this new policy was in Alaskamarker, for which the law allowed homesteading until 1986.

The last claim under this Act was made by Ken Deardorff for 80 acres (32 hectares) of land on the Stony Rivermarker in southwestern Alaska. He fulfilled all requirements of the Homestead Act in 1979, but he did not actually receive his deed until May 1988. Therefore, he is the last person to receive the title to land claimed under the provisions of the Homestead Act.


Dispossession of Indians

While distributing much land to farmers at minimal cost, homesteading took place on lands that had recently been cleared of Native Americans. Economically, the program was a large scale redistribution of land from autonomous tribes to taxpaying farmers, a process carried out directly when Indian Reservations were broken up into holdings by individual families (especially in Oklahoma).

Fraud and corporate use

The Homestead Act was much abused. The intent of the Homestead Act was to grant land for agriculture. However, in the arid areas east of the Rocky Mountains, was generally too little land for a viable farm (at least prior to major public investments in irrigation projects). In these areas, homesteads were instead used to control resources, especially water. A common scheme was for an individual acting as a front for a large cattle operation to file for a homestead surrounding a water source under the pretense that the land was being used as a farm. Once granted, use of that water source would be denied to other cattle ranchers, effectively closing off the adjacent public land to competition. This method could also be used to gain ownership of timber and oil-producing land, as the Federal government charged royalties for extraction of these resources from public lands. On the other hand, homesteading schemes were generally pointless for land containing "locatable minerals", such as gold and silver, which could be controlled through mining claims and for which the Federal government did not charge royalties.

There was no systematic method used to evaluate claims under the Homestead Act. Land offices would rely on affidavits from witnesses that the claimant had lived on the land for the required period of time and made the required improvements. In practice, some of these witnesses were bribed or otherwise collaborated with the claimant. In any case the land was turned into farms.

Although not necessarily fraud, it was common practice for all the children of a large family who were eligible to claim nearby land as soon as possible. After a few generations a family could build up quite sizable estates.

. It should be noted that working a farm of would not have been feasible for a homesteader using 19th century animal-powered tilling and harvesting. The acreage limits were reasonable when the act was written.

Related acts in other countries

The act was later imitated with some modifications by Canadamarker in the form of the Dominion Lands Act. Similar acts—usually termed the Selection Acts—were passed in the various Australian colonies in the 1860s, beginning in 1861 in New South Walesmarker.

Popular culture

See also

Further reading

  • Dick, Everett, 1970. The Lure of the Land: A Social History of the Public Lands from the Articles of Confederation to the New Deal.
  • Gates, Paul W., 1996. The Jeffersonian Dream: Studies in the History of American Land Policy and Development.
  • Hyman, Harold M., 1986. American Singularity: The 1787 Northwest Ordinance, the 1862 Homestead and Morrill Acts, and the 1944 G.I. Bill.
  • Lause, Mark A., 2005. Young America: Land, Labor, and the Republican Community.
  • Phillips, Sarah T., 2000, "Antebellum Agricultural Reform, Republican Ideology, and Sectional Tension." Agricultural History 74(4): 799-822. ISSN 0002-1482
  • Richardson, Heather Cox, 1997. The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies during the Civil War.
  • Robbins, Roy M., 1942. Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776-1936.
  • Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. New York: Vintage, 1959.

References and notes

Specific references:
  1. McPherson. - pp.450-451.
  2. (paragraphs.3,6&13) (Includes data on the U.S. Homestead Act)
  3. Split EstatePrivate Surface / Public Minerals: What Does it Mean to You?, a 2006 Bureau of Land Management presentation
  4. The Homestead Act of 1862. -
  5. Phillips. - p.2000.
  6. McPherson. - p.193.
  7. McElroy. - p.1.
  8. "Horace Greeley". - Tulane University. - August 13, 1999. - Retrieved: 2007-11-22.
  9. McPherson. - p.194.
  10. McPherson. - 450-451.
  11. McElroy. - p.2.
  12. List of Laws about Lands. - The Public Lands Museum
  13. Hansen, Zeynep K., and Gary D. Libecap. - "U.S. Land Policy, Property Rights, and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s". Social Science Electronic Publishing. - September, 2001.
  14. Hansen, Zeynep K., and Gary D. Libecap. "Small Farms, Externalities, and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s". - Journal of Political Economy. - Volume: 112(3). - pp.665-94. - November 21, 2003
General references:

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