The Homestead Act - Creating Prosperity
homestead law has been
called the most important act for the welfare of the people ever passed in
the United States.
In 1852 a political
group, called the Free Soil party, demanded free homesteads for the
people. In 1854 the first free
was introduced in Congress by Congressman Galusha A. Grow of Pennsylvania.
The people of the
and poor people everywhere were in favor of the bill; however, there was
Homestead Act required the
settler to pay twenty-five cents an acre for his land and was passed by
Congress in 1860; however, the bill was vetoed by President Buchanan.
It was not
until May 20, 1862, that the free
Homestead Act was
finally passed and signed by then President Abraham Lincoln. The law took
effect on January 1, 1863.
Under this law any man or woman twenty-one
years old or the head of a family could have 160 acres of undeveloped
land by living on it five years and paying eighteen dollars in fees. They were also required to build a home, make
improvements and farm the land before they could own it outright.
Alternatively, the homesteader could purchase the land for $1.25 per
acre after having lived on the land for six months.
Homesteader George O. Waters, Dry Valley, near
Comstock, Nebraska, by Solomon D. Butcher, 1887.
The first claim under the
Homestead Act was made
Freeman for a farm in
Nebraska on January 1, 1863.
Today, Freeman's homestead
continues to stand as the Homestead National Monument near Beatrice,
lived on and worked the land until his death on December 30, 1908.
His wife Agnes continued to live on the homestead
until shortly before her death in 1931. In 1936, by an act of the
United States Congress, the site of Freeman's homestead was recognized as the
"first" homestead in the United States when it was designated as the
Homestead National Monument of America.
Settlers from all
walks of life including newly arrived immigrants, farmers without land
of their own from the East, single women and former slaves came to
meet the requirements.
People interested in
Homesteading first had to file their intentions at the nearest
Land Office and after a check for any ownership claims, the prospector
paid a filing fee of $10 to claim the land temporarily, as well as a
$2 commission to the land agent.
When all requirements
had been completed and the homesteader was ready the take legal
possession, the homesteader found two neighbors or friends willing to
vouch for the truth of his or her statements regarding land
improvement and sign the "proof" document.
After successful completion of this final
form and payment of a $6 fee, the homesteader received the patent for the land, signed with the name
of the current President of the United States. This paper was often
proudly displayed on a cabin wall and represented the culmination of
hard work and determination.
By the end of the 19th
century, over 570 million acres remained open to settlement, but very
little of this was usable for agriculture. As the Frontier moved west onto
the arid Great Plains, the amount of land a homesteader
was allowed to claim was increased to 640 acres.
homesteading cut into the access of the large ranches to the public domain
where hundreds of thousands of cattle grazed upon the open range, a
practice called free grazing. The ranchers fought back by themselves (or
their cowboys) homesteading prime spots which gave access to water. At
times tensions escalated into violence, conflicts called
range wars; for
Johnson County War in
Homestead Act was often
used as a scam. Usually, the land that was available was in too poor a
shape to farm on, especially in the middle of the plains where droughts
were common occurrences. Because of hardships like these, not many
families actually stayed for the entire five years.
Many corporations also
took advantage of this act. They would pay people to buy the
top-of-the-line property which contained an abundance of resources such as
timber, minerals, and oil. Then the settlers would claim later on that
they had "improved" the land. In reality, the improvements made to the
land were minimal.
Homestead Act of 1912
reduced the homestead requirement from five to three years; however by this time
most of the land in the lower 48 states had already been taken.
The Taylor Grazing Act of
1934 substantially decreased the amount of land available to homesteaders
Because much of the prime land had been homesteaded
decades earlier, successful
homestead claims dropped
sharply after this time.
continued on a small scale in Alaska. Much of the remaining public domain
was included in the National Forests or is administered by the Bureau of
The Federal Land Policy
and Management Act of 1976 ended homesteading;
the government believing that the best use of public lands was for them to
remain in government control. The only exception to this new policy was
Alaska, for which the law allowed homesteading until 1986.
The last claim
Homestead Act was made by
Kenneth Deardorff for 80 acres of land on the Stony River in south-western
Alaska. He fulfilled all requirements of the
Homestead Act in 1979, but
he did not actually receive his patent until May 1988. Therefore, he is
the very last person to receive the title to land claimed under the
provisions of the
farmers, who claimed some 270 million acres over the years, became the
agricultural producers to the nation as a whole. Additionally, strong
communities with a commitment to social values, education, and personal
responsibility were spawned throughout the territories covered by the
agricultural, and social stability generated by the
Homestead Act was utterly
inconceivable in other times and places -- and formed a large part of the
foundation of American prosperity in the 20th century.
of America, updated May, 2017.
Freeman School is recognized as the longest running one room schoolhouse
in Nebraska, open from 1872 to 1967. The National Park Service has
restored the interior to look much like it did in the 1880's. Photo
by Kathy Weiser, 2005.
Struggle For Possession - The
First Emigrants (by Randall Parrish 1907)
Frontier In History by Emerson Hough (1918)
Frontier Types by Theodore Roosevelt (1888)
Johnson County War
Old West Feuds & Range Wars
Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny (main page)
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