The Homesteading Act (Homestead Acts) was a set of legislation enacted in the United States that allowed an applicant to obtain ownership of government land or the public domain, commonly referred to as a homestead. Moreover, 160 million acres (650 thousand km2; 250 thousand sq mi) of public land were given away for free to 1.6 million homesteaders, accounting for roughly 10% of the total area of the United States. The majority of the homesteads were west of the Mississippi River.
The Homesteading Act was a legal extension of the homesteading, which was an expression of Northerners’ Free Soil policy, which wanted individual farmers to own and operate their own farms, as opposed to Southern slave-owners who wanted to buy up large tracts of land and use slave labor, effectively shutting out free white farmers.
The Homesteading Act of 1862 was the first of the acts, and it freed up millions of acres. Any adult who has never taken up arms against the United States federal government was eligible to apply. Eligible were women and immigrants who had petitioned for citizenship. The 1866 Act specifically included and encouraged black Americans to participate, but widespread prejudice, systemic hurdles, and bureaucratic sloth hindered black progress.
According to historian Michael Lanza, while the 1866 homesteading statute was not as beneficial as it may have been, it was a factor in one-quarter of all Southern black farmers owning their own farms by 1900.
Several more statutes were passed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. During Reconstruction, the Southern Homesteading Act of 1866 attempted to redress land ownership disparities in the south. The Timber Culture Act of 1873 provided land to a claimant who was obligated to plant trees; the tract could be added to an existing homestead claim and there was no requirement to live on the land.
The Kinkaid Amendment of 1904 gave new homesteaders in western Nebraska a complete section—640 acres (260 ha). In 1909, the Enlarged Homestead Act amended the Homestead Act of 1862, doubling the permitted acreage in marginal areas from 160 to 320 acres (65 to 129 ha). The national Stock-Raising Homestead Act, which was revised in 1916, provided 640 acres (260 ha) for ranching operations.
The History of the Homesteading Act
Before the Civil War, northern Republicans advocated land-grant laws comparable to the Homestead Acts, but they were repeatedly rejected in Congress by southern Democrats who wanted western lands open for acquisition by slave owners. The Homesteading Act of 1860 was passed by Congress, but President James Buchanan, a Democrat, vetoed it. After the Southern states seceded from the Union in 1861 (and their legislators left Congress), President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill into law (May 20, 1862). The first person to file a claim under the new law was Daniel Freeman.
Between 1862 and 1934, the federal government dispersed 270,000,000 acres (420,000 square miles) of public land for private ownership, granting 1.6 million homesteads. This accounted for 10% of all land in the United States. Except in Alaska, where it was allowed to continue until 1986, homesteading was abolished in 1976. After paying a nominal charge in cash, about 40% of the applicants who started the process were able to finish it and receive title to their homesteaded land.
The 1850 Donation Land Claim Act
The Donation Land Claim Act permitted settlers to claim land in the Oregon Territory, which included what is now Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and sections of Wyoming at the time. Between 1850 and 1855, when the Oregon Donation Land Claim Act was repealed, white settlers in Oregon could claim three hundred and twenty acres or six hundred and forty acres for married couples. The land was sold for $1.25 per acre before it was revoked in 1855. The US government issued the most generous land distribution bill in US history after the formation of the Oregon territory in 1848.
The Oregon Land Donation Act of 1850 had a number of negative consequences for Native Americans and African-Americans in the Pacific Northwest. The act not only used property seized from Indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest, but it also prohibited black people from owning land and real estate. White settlers were promised land under the act, while immigrants were barred from the Oregon territory. Following the passage of the 1848 territorial organic legislation, which permitted any white settler to claim up to 640 acres, this act was passed. The Land Donation Act, on the other hand, recognized women’s property rights by permitting settlers to donate 400 acres to them—land that could be claimed by heads of households, including women. This statute differs from the Homestead Act of 1866 in that immigrants and black citizens were not eligible to apply.
1862 Homesteading Act
During the 1840s and 1850s, the Jeffersonian democratic “yeoman farmer” concept remained a major influence in American politics, with many legislators believing that a homestead act would assist expand the number of “virtuous yeomen.” The Free Soil Party of 1848–52, as well as the new Republican Party after 1854, argued that the new lands opening up in the west should be made available to independent farmers rather than wealthy planters who would develop them with the aid of slaves, driving yeomen farmers onto marginal areas. Previous homestead law plans had been contested (and rejected) by Southern Democrats, who believed that free land would attract European immigrants and poor Southern whites to the west. The Republicans and other supporters from the upper South approved a homesteading legislation when the South seceded and their members departed Congress in 1861.
The purpose of the first Homestead Act, which was passed in 1862, was to relax the Preemption Act of 1841’s homesteading requirements. It was signed by Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862, after the most outspoken opponents in Congress, the Southern States, had been removed following the secession of the United States.
Andrew Johnson, George Henry Evans, and Horace Greeley were among its most ardent supporters. In order to gain support for the cause, George Henry Evans famously invented the term “Vote Yourself a Farm.”
The homestead was a piece of public property in the West (typically 160 acres or 65 hectares) that was given to any US citizen who wanted to settle and farm it. The statute (and those that followed it) mandated a three-step process: submit an application, enhance the land, and submit a patent application (deed). Anyone who was at least 21 years old or the head of a household and had never taken up arms against the United States government (including freed slaves after the fourteenth amendment) could apply for a federal land grant. Women were allowed to participate. The occupier has to live on the property for five years and show proof of renovations. Within seven years, the process had to be completed.
As a result of the act, Native Americans in the United States lost a lot of their land and natural resources, which were allotted and sold to newcomers.
1866 Southern Homesteading Act
Homesteading Act During Reconstruction, this law was enacted to help poor tenant farmers and sharecroppers in the South to become landowners. Even the modest pricing and fees were sometimes too much for the applicants to afford, so it was not particularly successful.
The 1873 Timber Culture Act
The Timber Culture Act gave a homesteader up to 160 acres of land if they planted at least 40 acres (reduced to 10) of trees over several years. This quarter-section might be combined with an existing homestead claim to give a settler a total of 320 acres. This provided homesteaders with a low-cost allotment of land.
The Kinkaid Amendment was enacted in 1904.
Recognizing that a claimant needed more than 160 acres to feed a family in the Sandhills (Nebraska) of north-central Nebraska, Congress passed the Kinkaid Act, which gave homesteaders in Nebraska bigger homestead holdings of up to 640 acres.
1906 Forest Homestead Act
Responding to opponents of the nation’s Forest Reserves who felt land suitable for agriculture was being withheld from private development, this legislation enabled homesteading within Forest Reserves (established from 1891 on) and National Forests (from 1905? on). The US Forest Service reviewed homestead applications (created in 1905). While the 1862 Act required five years of residency, it was revised in 1913 to allow for proof of residency in just three years.
The 1909 Enlarged Homesteading Act
The Enlarged Homesteading Act of 1909 was passed in response to the fact that much of the prime low-lying alluvial property near rivers had been homesteaded by the early 1900s. It expanded the amount of acres for a homestead to 320 acres (130 ha) for farmers who accepted more marginal lands (particularly in the Great Plains) that could not be easily watered to permit dryland farming.
Tremendous land degradation and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s resulted from a massive influx of these new farmers, along with improper farming techniques and a lack of understanding of ecology.
The 1916 Stock-Raising Homestead Act
The Stock-Raising Homestead Act was passed in 1916 to provide settlers with 640 acres (260 ha) of public land for ranching.
Provisions for Subsistence Homesteads under the New Deal – 1930
In Wonder Valley, California, a typical STA “Jackrabbit” farm cabin still stands.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Subsistence Homesteading program, initiated during the New Deal in the 1930s, sparked renewed interest in homesteading.
Act to Protect Small Tracts of Land – Homesteading Act
The Small Tract Act (STA) of 1938 was approved by Congress in 1938, making it possible for any citizen to obtain certain lands from the federal government for habitation, enjoyment, or business purposes. Typically, these parcels are no more than 5 acres in size. A 5-acre parcel is defined as one that is 660 feet long and 330 feet wide, or it’s equivalent. A structure was to be built on the land to improve it. Beginning in July 1955, improvements had to be a minimum of 400 square feet. The Los Angeles Office of the Bureau of Land Management auctioned off 4,000 previously classified Small Tracts at fair market value in 1958.
Requirements for homesteading
The Homestead Acts contained low restrictions for eligibility. A homesteader has to be the head of the family or twenty-one years old. For a minimum of five years, they had to live on the specified land, build a home, make improvements, and farm it. There was an eighteen-dollar filing fee (or ten to temporarily hold a claim to the land).
In practice, settlers found land and submitted claims at the regional land office in small groups, though others created more tightly connected communities. Aside from the main house, the homestead usually comprised of various buildings or constructions.
The 1862 Homestead Act spawned a new phenomenon: huge land rushes, such as the 1880s and 1890s Oklahoma Land Runs.
Homesteading is coming to an end.
Homesteading was prohibited by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, and by that time, federal policy had switched to keeping control of western public lands. The lone exception to this new regulation was Alaska, where homesteading was permitted until 1986.
Ken Deardorff filed the last claim under this Act for 80 acres (32 ha) of land on the Stony River in southern Alaska. In 1979, he met all of the homestead act’s requirements, but it wasn’t until May 1988 that he received his deed. He is the final individual to be granted title to land under the Homestead Acts.
The homestead statutes were occasionally abused, but historians disagree about the scope of the abuse.
Historians Fred Shannon, Roy Robbins, and Paul Wallace Gates emphasized fraudulent occurrences in the 1950s and 1960s, and historians mainly ignored the matter. However, in recent decades, the argument has largely been that fraud was a minor factor overall, and that major positive effects on women and the family had only recently been recognized. Robert Higgs claims that the Homestead Act (homesteading act) resulted in no long-term resource misallocation. In a 1995 poll of 178 members of the Economic History Association, 70% of economists and 85% of economist historians disputed that “Nineteenth-century US land policy, which aimed to give away free land, probably represented a net drain on the country’s productive capacity.”
Although the intention was to provide land for agriculture, 640 acres (260 ha) was often insufficient for a productive farm in the arid areas just east of the Rocky Mountains (at least prior to major federal public investments in irrigation projects). People in these locations abused the act’s provisions to seize control of resources, particularly water. A frequent plan involved a person serving as a front for a huge cattle enterprise filing for a homestead around a water supply under the guise that the land would be used as a farm. Other cattle ranchers would be denied access to that water source once the land was awarded, thereby sealing off the nearby public area to competition. Large corporations and speculators have also utilized this strategy to acquire wood and oil-producing land. Royalties were charged by the federal government for the extraction of certain resources from public lands. Homesteading plans, on the other hand, were mostly ineffective for land containing “locatable minerals,” such as gold and silver, which could be controlled through mining claims under the Mining Act of 1872, for which the federal government did not levy royalties.
The government did not develop a systematic approach for evaluating homestead claims. Affidavits from witnesses were used by land offices to verify that the claimant had resided on the land for the requisite amount of time and completed the required improvements. Some of these witnesses were bribed or otherwise conspired with the claimant in practice.
It was usual practice, not fraud, for a big family’s eligible offspring to claim surrounding land as quickly as feasible. A family could amass a significant estate over several generations.
The homesteads were criticized as being too tiny for the Great Plains’ environmental circumstances; a homesteader could not have cultivated the 1500 acres later recommended for dry land farming utilizing 19th-century animal-powered tilling and harvesting. Some historians feel that when the act was drafted, the area limits were reasonable, but that no one knew the physical realities of the plains.
According to Hugh Nibley, the Oregon Lumber Company acquired much of the rain forest west of Portland, Oregon, through illegal claims under the Act.