President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862 granted Americans 160-acre plots of public land for the price a small filing fee. The Civil War-era act, considered one of the United States’ most important pieces of legislation, led to Western expansion and allowed citizens of all walks of life—including former slaves, women and immigrants—to become landowners.
Why the Homestead Act Was Passed
In a July 4, 1861 speech, Lincoln told the nation the purpose of America’s government 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." He followed through with the passage of the Homestead Act, which remained active for 124 years until it was repealed in 1976, and resulted in 10 percent of U.S. land—or 270 million acres—to be claimed and settled.
The incentive to move and settled on western territory was open to all U.S. citizens, or intended citizens, and resulted in 4 million homestead claims, although 1.6 million deeds in 30 states were actually officially obtained. Montana, followed by North Dakota, Colorado and Nebraska had the most successful claims. Native Americans were forced from their lands and onto reservations to make way for homesteaders.
During a speech made in Ohio in February 1861, Lincoln said the act was “worthy of consideration, and that the wild lands of the country should be distributed so that every man should have the means and opportunity of benefiting his condition."
How People Applied to the Homestead Act
To make a claim, homesteaders paid a filing fee of $18—$10 to make a temporary claim on the land, $2 for commission to the land agent and an additional $6 final payment to receive an official patent on the land. Land titles could also be purchased from the government for $1.25 per acre following six months of proven residency.
Additional requirements included five years of continuous residence on the land, building a home on it, farming the land and making improvements. Homesteaders, who had to be the head of a household or 21 years of age and had to certify they had never borne arms against the U.S., also needed two neighbors or friends to attest to the government that they had fulfilled the requirements. Union soldiers could shave off time served in the Civil War from the five-year residency requirement.
How Speculators Took Advantage of the Homestead Act
Of course, there were those who took advantage of homesteading. According to the National Archives, a limited number of farmers and laborers could afford to build a farm, which included access to tools, crops, livestock and more.
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“In the end, most of those who purchased land under the act came from areas quite close to their new homesteads (Iowans moved to Nebraska, Minnesotans to South Dakota, and so on),” the agency states. “Unfortunately, the act was framed so ambiguously that it seemed to invite fraud, and early modifications by Congress only compounded the problem. Most of the land went to speculators, cattlemen, miners, lumbermen, and railroads.”
Other loopholes, according to the National Archives, included building the required 12-by-14 dwelling in inches, rather than feet, since the exact measurement wasn’t specified. A shortage of investigators also allowed false claims to be approved. And unpredictable weather, water shortages and remoteness led many homesteaders to abandon their claims well before the five-year mark.
But with improvements in rail lines and growing populations, new towns and states were created. "One hundred years ago the Congress passed the Homestead Act,” President John F. Kennedy said in his message on conservation, sent to Congress in 1962, “probably the single greatest stimulus to national development ever enacted."
The Act’s End and Repeal
Homesteading virtually came to a screeching halt with the enactment of the Taylor Grazing Act, signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934, which regulated grazing on federal public lands and authorized the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to apportion grazing districts.
In 1976, the Homestead Act was repealed with the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which stated “public lands be retained in Federal ownership.” The act authorized the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to manage federal lands. Homesteading was still allowed for another decade in Alaska, until 1986.
In 1974, a Vietnam veteran and native Californian named Kenneth Deardorff filed a homestead claim on 80 acres of land on the Stony River in southwestern Alaska. After fulfilling all the requirements of the act and living and working on the land for over a decade, Deardorff received his patent in May 1988. He was the last person to receive the title to land claimed under the Civil War-era act.
Today, the Homestead National Historical Park outside Beatrice, Nebraska, commemorates the Homestead Act. Why the tiny midwest town? That’s where Daniel Freeman, deemed the first homesteader to file a claim (on Jan. 1, 1863) by the Department of the Interior, established his homestead site.