The cry was FREE LAND!! The Homestead Act of 1862, was one of the most significant and enduring events in the westward expansion of the United States. By granting 160 acres of free land to claimants, it allowed nearly any man or woman a chance to live the American dream.
When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law on May 20, 1862, he created a method of westward expansion that would exist for the next 123 years and eventually be responsible for the settlement of over 270 million acres of the American landscape. He also fulfilled the long-held hopes and dreams of many free land advocates who had for years been lobbying for the passage of some form of a homestead law.
The Homestead Act had an immediate and enduring effect on America that is still felt today. It affected public lands in 30 of the 50 states. It brought about vast, sweeping changes to nearly every aspect of life in this country and helped define the world in which we now live. May 20, 2002 marks the 140th anniversary of Lincoln’s approval of the Act, and this brief description of it and its importance to American life is offered in honor of this event.
When it went into effect at one minute past midnight on January 1, 1863, the Homestead Act represented the first-ever instance of the U.S. government being willing to transfer large tracts of the public domain to individual settlers. Each settler filing a claim was entitled to up to 160 acres (a quarter section) of unappropriated federal land. Prospective homesteaders had to be either heads of households or single persons over the age of twenty-one years. Immigrants who wished to claim property had to first file intentions to become American citizens. Once the claim had been filed and accepted by the appropriate land office, the homesteader had to begin actual residence on the property within six months and could not be absent from the claim for more than six months during any given year. Homesteaders also were barred from establishing legal residence anywhere other than the claim. Over the course of the next five years, the homesteader had to build a living structure of certain dimensions and cultivate a percentage of the property for agricultural purposes. At the conclusion of the five-year residency period, homesteaders were required to publish their intentions to take final possession of their properties from the government. If no one disputed the claim and all requirements of the Act had been fulfilled, the settler received the deed to the property from the General Land Office.
While May 20, 1862 certainly marked the beginning of one era, it just as certainly marked the end of another. Almost since the inception of the Republic had many clamored for the passage of a law that would give them opportunities to live on and farm some of the lands of the vast western frontier. (It is important to note that many of the earliest free land advocates thought of the “western frontier” as western Massachusetts or, at most, Ohio.)
Many of the first free land proponents found inspiration in the words of one Virginia planter who wrote: “As few as possible should be without a little portion of land. The earth is given as common stock for man to labor and live on. The small landholders are the most precious part of the state.” Another of this planter’s writings contained the bold assertion that “all men are created equal.” He was, of course, Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson’s vision for America was that of a nation of small, independent farmers. He resisted what he viewed as any form of intrusion by a large6 powerful national government. He also disapproved of urbanization and hoped that America would always be a society and an economy based on agricultural pursuits. Jefferson’s dream of independent farmers making up the mass of the body politic came to be known as the “Jeffersonian ideal.” Though this ideal was never fully realized and America later industrialized and urbanized at a rapid pace6 the concept of everyone having the opportunity to own and work a piece of land took hold in the nation’s collective mind. It is in the Jeffersonian ideal that many historians find the intellectual roots of the free land idea that eventually culminated with the Homestead Act.
Thomas Jefferson also greatly influenced the history of the Homestead Act while serving as President of the United States (1801-1809). In 1803, at his direction, the United States purchased the 820,000 square mile Louisiana Territory from the French for $15 million, or roughly three cents per acre. Not long after, Jefferson sent the Corps of Discovery under Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark into the vast Louisiana wilderness to explore and report their findings. Many of the lands through which they traveled were later made available as homestead lands. Without the foresight of Jefferson and the expertise of Lewis & Clark and the members of the Corps of Discovery, homesteading may never have existed due to a lack of suitable land. Instead, the vast midwestern and western territories became American soil and, six decades later, began to be broken by the plows of “free land” farmers.
Between the time of the Louisiana Purchase and Lincoln’s approval of the Homestead Act, other public figures also vocally supported the idea of the federal government granting western lands to individual settlers. In the 1820s, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri called for donations of land from the government to citizens. Benton urged the government to sell land to those who could afford it and give land to those who couldn’t. In the 1850s, Tennessee representative and senator (and future President) Andrew Johnson also supported several homestead bills in Congress, one of which made it to the desk of President James Buchanan in 1860. Buchanan, however, feared the reaction that was sure to come from the southern states, which opposed the spreading of settlement to areas that would not guarantee the presence of slavery. The fact that African-Americans were eligible to claim homestead lands also caused concern among southerners, who feared that more slaves would attempt escape to apply for homestead lands and move to areas where no legal provisions for slavery existed. In fact, the entire concept of free land was threatening to the south because it represented a diminishing of power for the elite southern planter class (i.e., slave owners). Always one to appease the south in futile attempts to avoid civil war, Buchanan vetoed the first Homestead Act.
In the early 1860s, Representative Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania became the champion of the free land cause. On February 29, 1860, he delivered an impassioned speech on the subject in the House of Representatives:
“Why should not the legislation of the country be so changed as to prevent for the future the evils of land monopoly, by setting apart the vast and unoccupied Territories of the Union, and consecrating them forever in free homes for free men?”
Grow eventually authored the Homestead Act that appeared before Lincoln and was signed into law on May 20, 1862. By this time, of course, the nation was over a year into the civil war that James Buchanan had tried so pitifully to avoid. The secession of the southern states gave the passage of the Act a political angle as well. Would it not benefit the United States to have as many free settlers as possible in the western territories? All the better to spread the influence of the Union and contain the forces of slavery and secession.
If Grow and Lincoln hoped to entice settlers to leave the east and venture to the public lands of the west, they were wildly successful. Though homesteads were actually available in many eastern states (and in several southern states after the Confederacy was defeated in the Civil War), the majority of those who took Uncle Sam up on his offer of free land moved to midwestern and western areas such as Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas. The Homestead Act was a chief factor in the shifting of settlement demographics in the United States. No longer did people feel they had no choice but to suffer through the drudgery of life in eastern cities. Many who left Europe for a chance at a better life set their sites specifically on areas such as the Great Plains or the Rocky Mountains rather than the tenement buildings of New York, Boston or Philadelphia. America has always rightfully been called the “land of opportunity,” and never in its history has that title been more appropriate than during the homesteading era.
Agriculture in America was largely expanded and revolutionized by the Homestead Act. While the western lands on which many homesteaded were often bleak and dry, many of them were fit for the production of crops that otherwise would never have been grown in the United States. Corn, wheat and milo certainly would not have flourished in the east as they did (and still do) in the midwestern and western states. While the east gradually became more and more urban, the lands of the homesteaders continued to produce young farmers that did nothing less than feed the country and, later, much of the world via agricultural exports. Without the Homestead Act, the U.S. would certainly never have become the agricultural superpower it is today.
The lands of the homesteaders did not remain untouched by the Industrial Revolution, either. In fact, many of the technological marvels of the twentieth century were directly related to farming and, therefore, directly related to the Homestead Act. As acres and volumes of crops increased, so did the demand for modern technology to keep farms working. Tractors, threshers, irrigation systems and other marvels of the industrial age gradually made their way onto even the smallest homesteads and allowed farmers to sometimes triple their output, increasing their labor or need for hired hands. Farms today rely on the technological advances that developed during the Industrial Revolution and flourished thanks to the hundreds of thousands of farms established under the Homestead Act.
Of the two million that made claims of 160 acre parcels of land throughout the life of the Homestead Act, approximately 783,000 were successful, “proving up” on their pieces of ground after the required five years and acquiring their individual deeds. This number demonstrates that about 60 percent of those that began the homesteading process never completed it. Why was the failure rate so high? Many factors contributed to claimants not lasting five years.
Foremost among these factors was the sheer difficulty of farming on so many of the midwestern and western lands. The ground was often tough, or the soil of an extremely poor quality. One Kansas town advertised itself as having soil of a “rich, black, sandy loam.” When settlers arrived, however, they found that “sandy” was the only part of the description that held any truth. Many farmers simply could not make anything grow in the ground they had chosen.
Natural disasters were also forces that created problems for farmers. Prairie fires, winter blizzards, tornadoes and insect infestations were all capable of destroying a year’s worth of work in just a few hours. Some homesteaders succumbed to the seclusion and isolation of farming in remote territories where another human being was often not seen for months. Poor hygiene and lack of proper medical care often led to illnesses that wiped out entire homesteader families. The common cold could easily develop into pneumonia when the closest doctor was a hundred miles away.
Though homesteaders often had numerous things working against them, many also possessed a strong determination to succeed and truly own the pieces of ground they were temporarily “borrowing” from the government. Many had escaped hard lives and terrible conditions in cities and preferred the harsh but rewarding life of a farmer to that of a poor city dweller. Many also knew that the Homestead Act offered them their only real opportunity to ever be landowners and to achieve the American dream of land and home ownership. How else could a poor person get 160 acres and a farm of his or her own? Once acquired, they often swore they would hold the land the rest of their lives. Through the actions and attitudes of so many, the Homestead Act was responsible for the settlement of nearly ten percent of all the land in the 48 continental United States and Alaska.
The Homestead Act truly impacted nearly every facet of American life from the day it went into effect until the time of its final repeal in 1986. The staying power of the Act and the enduring quality of its influence are testaments to the greatness and value it held to American society and the world. One hundred and forty years later, these are the characteristics of the Act that make it worthy of study and commemoration.
The above text courtesy of the National Parks Service.
Those wishing to learn more about the Homestead Act can visit Homestead National Monument of America, a unit of the National Park System located in Beatrice, Nebraska. The site of the Monument is an original homestead that was among the very first filed anywhere in America on the day the Act went into effect. Film presentations, museum exhibits, an 1867 homesteader cabin, an 1872 prairie schoolhouse, and 100 acres of restored tallgrass prairie can all be enjoyed at Homestead National Monument of America. For further information, call 402-223-3514 or visit www.nps.gov/home.