What is the Homestead Act of 1862? How does the homestead act relate to western expansion, and to life as we know it today?
The Homestead Act of 1862
The Homestead Act of 1862 helped settle the western portion of the United States. This publicly surveyed land was open to all, as long as they paid their fee, built a cabin or barn and otherwise “improved” the land, and lived on it for five continuous years. After five years had passed, the individual attained title to the land.
To speed up the process, the government also offered an alternative arrangement. Individuals who could prove continuous residency of just six to eight months and met the other criteria of improving the land such as building a home, barn or fencing, could pay just $1.25 per acre.
Congress passed the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862, granting any American citizen, intended citizen or freed slave who had never taken up arms against the United States 160 acres of land in exchange for a filing fee. Any head of a household age 21 and over could claim land under the new act. Over 270 million acres, or 10 percent of the continental United States, was set aside for claim through the Homestead Act.
Such an act helped thousands achieve the American dream of owning their very own land. While it might not seem revolutionary to us today, in the 1800s many people taking advantage of the homestead act were first or second generation Americans. Many fled oppressive European systems of class and status and life no better than a serf of tenant farmer on a rich person’s land. To own your own land was a dream they couldn’t achieve in Europe, but in America, it was possible thanks to the Homestead Act.
The History of the Homestead Act
While the act itself passed into law on May 20, 1862, it was in the works for many years prior to that date. Even as far back as 1787, congress had debated the wisdom of offering land in exchange for settlement and improvement.
By the 1850s, a vigorous national debate had begun around the Homestead Act. One earlier version of the bill passed the House in 1858, but the southern states vetoed it in the senate. Southerners were afraid that if free land was offered to all, it would open up new farms that would compete with their hold on American agriculture. This would threaten their position that slavery was a necessity to maintain the farms that fed and clothed the nation. A second bill passed both the House and Senate on its next go-round, but then-president James Buchanan vetoed it.
The Republican Party of 1860 campaigned on a platform that included passage of the Homestead Act. Republicans hoped that the act would both reduce urban poverty and expand settlement into new territories including Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, North and South Dakota.
The act passed in 1862, but many of the intended beneficiaries were off fighting in the Civil War. Soldiers who had begun farming on Homestead Act land who left their farms to fight were compensated with time spent fighting for the Union applied to the time on the farm, so they didn’t lose any of their land by leaving it before the deadline.
Effects of the Homestead Act
Lawmakers had good intentions, but the Homestead Act failed to lessen the grip of sums in America. Many of the people they thought would benefit from the Homestead Act couldn’t afford to move out of the slums or build homes. The costs of wagons, mules or horses, even lumber and seed were too much for them to leave the slums even if given free land.
Speculators ran rampant, often gobbling up the best land in the territory at low prices. The people who benefited the most from the Homestead Act were poor farmers in the East and Midwest who had some resources to draw upon and wanted to build a better farm elsewhere.
The Homestead Act was still in effect until the late 20th century. The last claim made under the Homestead Act was made in 1988 for 80 acres of public land in the southeastern portion of Alaska.
Perhaps the folks in American Gothic (painted by Grant Wood in 1930) found themselves here because of the Homestead Act.
The question remains: Would you have moved out west? Let us know in the comments.
Like this post? You’ll also like:
- Homestead Act of 1862 National Park Service website.
- What was the Homestead Act? National Park Service.
- The Homestead Act on The History Channel.
- Our Documents, documents of the United States.