Homestead Act
A homestead act is one of three United States federal laws that gave an applicant freehold title
Title (property)
Title is a legal term for a bundle of rights in a piece of property in which a party may own either a legal interest or an equitable interest. The rights in the bundle may be separated and held by different parties. It may also refer to a formal document that serves as evidence of ownership...

 to an area called a "homestead" – typically 160 acre
The acre is a unit of area in a number of different systems, including the imperial and U.S. customary systems. The most commonly used acres today are the international acre and, in the United States, the survey acre. The most common use of the acre is to measure tracts of land.The acre is related...

s (65 hectare
The hectare is a metric unit of area defined as 10,000 square metres , and primarily used in the measurement of land. In 1795, when the metric system was introduced, the are was defined as being 100 square metres and the hectare was thus 100 ares or 1/100 km2...

s or one-fourth section
Section (United States land surveying)
In U.S. land surveying under the Public Land Survey System , a section is an area nominally one square mile, containing , with 36 sections making up one survey township on a rectangular grid....

) of undeveloped federal land west of the Mississippi River
Mississippi River
The Mississippi River is the largest river system in North America. Flowing entirely in the United States, this river rises in western Minnesota and meanders slowly southwards for to the Mississippi River Delta at the Gulf of Mexico. With its many tributaries, the Mississippi's watershed drains...


The original homestead act, known as the Homestead Act of 1862, was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led his country through a great constitutional, military and moral crisis – the American Civil War – preserving the Union, while ending slavery, and...

 on May 20, 1862. The law required three steps: file an application, improve
Land improvement
Land improvement or land amelioration refers to investments making land more usable by humans. In terms of accounting, land improvements refer to any variety of projects that increase the value of the property...

 the land, and file for deed
A deed is any legal instrument in writing which passes, or affirms or confirms something which passes, an interest, right, or property and that is signed, attested, delivered, and in some jurisdictions sealed...

 of title. Anyone who had never taken up arms against the U.S. government, including freed slaves, could file an application to claim a federal land grant. The occupant also had to be 21 or older, had to live on the land for five years and show evidence of having made improvements.

Because much of the prime low-lying alluvial land
Alluvial plain
An alluvial plain is a relatively flat landform created by the deposition of sediment over a long period of time by one or more rivers coming from highland regions, from which alluvial soil forms...

 along rivers had been homesteaded by the turn of the twentieth century, a major update called the Enlarged Homestead Act was passed in 1909. It targeted land suitable for dryland farming
Dryland farming
Dryland farming is an agricultural technique for non-irrigated cultivation of drylands.-Locations:Dryland farming is used in the Great Plains, the Palouse plateau of Eastern Washington, and other arid regions of North America, the Middle East and in other grain growing regions such as the steppes...

, increasing the number of acres to 320. In 1916, the Stock-Raising Homestead Act
Stock-Raising Homestead Act
The Stock-Raising Homestead Act of 1916 provided settlers of public land—a full section or its equivalent—for ranching purposes. Unlike the Homestead Act of 1862 or the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, land homesteaded under the 1916 act separated surface rights from subsurface rights,...

targeted settlers seeking an 640 acres (259 ha) of public land
Public land
In all modern states, some land is held by central or local governments. This is called public land. The system of tenure of public land, and the terminology used, varies between countries...

 for ranch
A ranch is an area of landscape, including various structures, given primarily to the practice of ranching, the practice of raising grazing livestock such as cattle or sheep for meat or wool. The word most often applies to livestock-raising operations in the western United States and Canada, though...

ing purposes.

Only about 40 percent of the applicants who started the process were able to complete it and obtain title to their homestead land. Eventually 1.6 million homesteads were granted and 270000000 acre of federal land were privatized between 1862 and 1934, a total of 10% of all lands in the United States. Homesteading was discontinued in 1976, except in Alaska, where it continued until 1986.


The intent of the Homestead Act of 1862 was to liberalize the homesteading requirements of the Preemption Act of 1841
Preemption Act of 1841
The Preemption Act of 1841, also known as the Distributive Preemption Act , was a federal law approved on September 4, 1841. It was designed to "appropriate the proceeds of the sales of public lands.....

. Leading advocates were Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson
Andrew Johnson was the 17th President of the United States . As Vice-President of the United States in 1865, he succeeded Abraham Lincoln following the latter's assassination. Johnson then presided over the initial and contentious Reconstruction era of the United States following the American...

, George Henry Evans
George Henry Evans
Born in England, George H Evans was a radical reformer, with experience in the Working Men's movement of 1829 and the trade union movements of the 1830s...

 and Horace Greeley
Horace Greeley
Horace Greeley was an American newspaper editor, a founder of the Liberal Republican Party, a reformer, a politician, and an outspoken opponent of slavery...

. The "yeoman farmer
Yeoman refers chiefly to a free man owning his own farm, especially from the Elizabethan era to the 17th century. Work requiring a great deal of effort or labor, such as would be done by a yeoman farmer, came to be described as "yeoman's work"...

" ideal was powerful in American political history, and plans for expanding their numbers through a homestead act were rooted in the 1850s. The "Free soil" party of 1848-52 and the new Republican Party after 1854 demanded that the new lands opening up in the west be available to independent farmers and not be bought out by rich slave owners who would buy up the best land and work it with slaves, forcing the white farmers onto marginal lands. This was the basis of the Free Soil Party
Free Soil Party
The Free Soil Party was a short-lived political party in the United States active in the 1848 and 1852 presidential elections, and in some state elections. It was a third party and a single-issue party that largely appealed to and drew its greatest strength from New York State. The party leadership...

 of 1848, and a main theme of the Republican Party. Homestead laws were defeated by Southerners who feared it would attract European immigrants and poor Southern whites to the west.

After the South seceded and their delegations left Congress in 1861, the path was clear of obstacles, and the act was passed.

The Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 gave 320 acres (1.3 km²) to farmers who accepted more marginal lands that could not be irrigated. A massive influx of new farmers eventually led to massive land erosion and the Dust Bowl
Dust Bowl
The Dust Bowl, or the Dirty Thirties, was a period of severe dust storms causing major ecological and agricultural damage to American and Canadian prairie lands from 1930 to 1936...

 of the 1930s.

End of homesteading

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 ended homesteading; the government believed that the best use of public lands was for them to remain in government control. The only exception to this new policy was in Alaska
Alaska is the largest state in the United States by area. It is situated in the northwest extremity of the North American continent, with Canada to the east, the Arctic Ocean to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the west and south, with Russia further west across the Bering Strait...

, for which the law allowed homesteading until 1986.

The last claim under this Act was made by Ken Deardorff for 80 acres (32.4 ha) of land on the Stony River
Stony River (Alaska)
The Stony River is a river in southwest Alaska. It lends its name to Stony River, Alaska, a village with a population of 61. The river meanders westward from the Mount Mausolus area until it meets the Kuskokwim River at the community of Stony River....

 in southwestern Alaska. He fulfilled all requirements of the homestead act in 1979 but did not receive his deed until May 1988. He is the last person to receive title to land claimed under the provisions of the homestead acts.

Dispossession of Native Americans

While distributing much land to farmers at minimal cost, homesteading took place on lands that had recently been cleared of Native Americans
Indigenous peoples of the Americas
The indigenous peoples of the Americas are the pre-Columbian inhabitants of North and South America, their descendants and other ethnic groups who are identified with those peoples. Indigenous peoples are known in Canada as Aboriginal peoples, and in the United States as Native Americans...

. Economically, the program was a large scale redistribution of land from autonomous tribes to taxpaying farmers, a process carried out directly when Indian reservation
Indian reservation
An American Indian reservation is an area of land managed by a Native American tribe under the United States Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs...

s were broken up into holdings by individual families (especially in Oklahoma, which had originally been designated as the Indian Territory
Indian Territory
The Indian Territory, also known as the Indian Territories and the Indian Country, was land set aside within the United States for the settlement of American Indians...


Fraud and corporate use

The homestead acts were much abused. Although the intent was to grant land for agriculture, in the arid areas east of the Rocky Mountains
Rocky Mountains
The Rocky Mountains are a major mountain range in western North America. The Rocky Mountains stretch more than from the northernmost part of British Columbia, in western Canada, to New Mexico, in the southwestern United States...

, 640 acres (2.6 km²) was generally too little land for a viable farm (at least prior to major public investments in irrigation projects). In these areas, homesteads were instead used to control resources, especially water. A common scheme was for an individual acting as a front for a large cattle operation to file for a homestead surrounding a water source under the pretense that the land was being used as a farm. Once granted, use of that water source would be denied to other cattle ranchers, effectively closing off the adjacent public land to competition. That method could also be used to gain ownership of timber and oil-producing land, as the federal government charged royalties for extraction of these resources from public lands. On the other hand, homesteading schemes were generally pointless for land containing "locatable minerals," such as gold
Gold is a chemical element with the symbol Au and an atomic number of 79. Gold is a dense, soft, shiny, malleable and ductile metal. Pure gold has a bright yellow color and luster traditionally considered attractive, which it maintains without oxidizing in air or water. Chemically, gold is a...

 and silver
Silver is a metallic chemical element with the chemical symbol Ag and atomic number 47. A soft, white, lustrous transition metal, it has the highest electrical conductivity of any element and the highest thermal conductivity of any metal...

, which could be controlled through mining claims under the Mining Act of 1872, for which the federal government did not charge royalties.

There was no systematic method used to evaluate claims under the homestead acts. Land offices relied on affidavits from witnesses that the claimant had lived on the land for the required period of time and made the required improvements. In practice, some of these witnesses were bribed or otherwise colluded with the claimant.

Although not necessarily fraud, it was common practice for the eligible children of a large family to claim nearby land as soon as possible. After a few generations, a family could build up a sizable estate.
However, working a farm of 1500 acres (6.1 km²) would not have been feasible for a homesteader using 19th-century animal-powered tilling and harvesting. The acreage limits were reasonable when the act was written.

According to Hugh Nibley
Hugh Nibley
Hugh Winder Nibley was an American author, Mormon apologist, and professor at Brigham Young University...

, much of the rain forest west of Portland, Oregon
Portland, Oregon
Portland is a city located in the Pacific Northwest, near the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers in the U.S. state of Oregon. As of the 2010 Census, it had a population of 583,776, making it the 29th most populous city in the United States...

 was acquired by the Oregon Lumber Company by illegal claims under the Act.

Related acts in other countries

The act was later imitated with some modifications by Canada
Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...

 in the form of the Dominion Lands Act
Dominion Lands Act
The Dominion Lands Act was an 1872 Canadian law that aimed to encourage the settlement of Canada's Prairie provinces. It was closely based on the United States Homestead Act, setting conditions in which the western lands could be settled and their natural resources developed...

. Similar acts usually termed the selection acts
Selection (Australian history)
Selection referred to "free selection before survey" of crown land in some Australian colonies under land legislation introduced in the 1860s. These acts were similar to the United States Homestead Act and were intended to encourage closer settlement, based on intensive agriculture, such as...

were passed in the various Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

n colonies in the 1860s, beginning in 1861 in New South Wales
New South Wales
New South Wales is a state of :Australia, located in the east of the country. It is bordered by Queensland, Victoria and South Australia to the north, south and west respectively. To the east, the state is bordered by the Tasman Sea, which forms part of the Pacific Ocean. New South Wales...


Popular culture

  • In the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder
    Laura Ingalls Wilder
    Laura Elizabeth Ingalls Wilder was an American author who wrote the Little House series of books based on her childhood in a pioneer family...

     (Little House on the Prairie
    Little House on the Prairie
    Little House is a series of children's books by Laura Ingalls Wilder that was published originally between 1932 and 1943, with four additional books published posthumously, in 1962, 1971, 1974 and 2006.-History:...

    series), she describes her father claiming a homestead in Kansas
    Kansas is a US state located in the Midwestern United States. It is named after the Kansas River which flows through it, which in turn was named after the Kansa Native American tribe, which inhabited the area. The tribe's name is often said to mean "people of the wind" or "people of the south...

    , and later Dakota Territory
    Dakota Territory
    The Territory of Dakota was an organized incorporated territory of the United States that existed from March 2, 1861, until November 2, 1889, when the final extent of the reduced territory was split and admitted to the Union as the states of North and South Dakota.The Dakota Territory consisted of...

  • Willa Cather
    Willa Cather
    Willa Seibert Cather was an American author who achieved recognition for her novels of frontier life on the Great Plains, in works such as O Pioneers!, My Ántonia, and The Song of the Lark. In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for One of Ours , a novel set during World War I...

    's book, O Pioneers!
    O Pioneers!
    O Pioneers! is a 1913 novel by American author Willa Cather. It was written in part when Cather was living in Cherry Valley, New York, with Isabelle McClung and was completed at the McClungs' home in Pittsburgh...

    , is a narrative following the life of a homesteading family living in Nebraska
    Nebraska is a state on the Great Plains of the Midwestern United States. The state's capital is Lincoln and its largest city is Omaha, on the Missouri River....

     before the turn of the century.
  • The young adult novel Hattie Big Sky, by Kirby Larson, follows one woman's attempts to "improve" on her family's homestead before the deadline for improvement passes and she loses the rights to the land.
  • The Oklahoma land rush is referred to in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma
    Oklahoma is a state located in the South Central region of the United States of America. With an estimated 3,751,351 residents as of the 2010 census and a land area of 68,667 square miles , Oklahoma is the 28th most populous and 20th-largest state...

  • The 1962 Elvis Presley
    Elvis Presley
    Elvis Aaron Presley was one of the most popular American singers of the 20th century. A cultural icon, he is widely known by the single name Elvis. He is often referred to as the "King of Rock and Roll" or simply "the King"....

     musical film Follow That Dream
    Follow that Dream
    Follow That Dream is a 1962 musical film starring Elvis Presley made by Mirisch Productions. The movie was based on the 1959 novel Pioneer, Go Home! by Richard P. Powell. Producer Walter Mirisch liked the song Follow that Dream and retitled the picture...

    , based on the 1959 novel Pioneer, Go Home!
    Pioneer, Go Home!
    Pioneer, Go Home! is a satirical novel by Richard P. Powell, first published in 1959. The novel follows a New Jersey family, The Kwimpers, who relocate to Columbiana, a fictional state that resembles Florida, and squat on the side of a highway where a new bridge is being built, outraging local...

    , focuses on a family that homesteads in Florida
  • The plot of the movie Far and Away
    Far and Away
    Far and Away is a 1992 adventure-drama-romance film directed by Ron Howard from a script by Howard and Bob Dolman, and stars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Cinematography by Mikael Salomon, with a music score by John Williams...

    starring Tom Cruise
    Tom Cruise
    Thomas Cruise Mapother IV , better known as Tom Cruise, is an American film actor and producer. He has been nominated for three Academy Awards and he has won three Golden Globe Awards....

     and Nicole Kidman
    Nicole Kidman
    Nicole Mary Kidman, AC is an American-born Australian actress, singer, film producer, spokesmodel, and humanitarian. After starring in a number of small Australian films and TV shows, Kidman's breakthrough was in the 1989 thriller Dead Calm...

    , centers on the main characters' struggle to "obtain their 160 acres."

See also

  • Daniel Freeman
    Daniel Freeman
    Daniel Freeman was an American homesteader, physician and Civil War veteran. He was recognized as the first person to file a claim under the Homestead Act of 1862...

    , the first person to file a claim under the Homestead Act of 1862.
  • Donation Land Claim Act of 1850
  • General Land Office
    General Land Office
    The General Land Office was an independent agency of the United States government responsible for public domain lands in the United States. It was created in 1812 to take over functions previously conducted by the United States Department of the Treasury...

  • Land Act of 1804
    Land Act of 1804
    The Land Act of 1804 was U.S. legislation that refined provisions for the purchase of U.S. public land north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi river. At the time, the region was divided into the Indiana Territory and the State of Ohio. The goal of the change was to make migration to the...

  • Land grants
  • Land patent
    Land patent
    A land patent is a land grant made patent by the sovereign lord over the land in question. To make a such a grant “patent”, such a sovereign lord must document the land grant, securely sign and seal the document and openly publish the same to the public for all to see...

  • Land run
    Land run
    Land run usually refers to an historical event in which previously restricted land of the United States was opened for homesteading on a first arrival basis. Some newly opened lands were sold first-come, sold by bid, or won by lottery, or by means other than a run...

  • Military Tract of 1812
    Military Tract of 1812
    In May 1812, an act of Congress was passed which set aside bounty lands as payment to volunteer soldiers for the War against the British...

  • Preemption Act of 1841
    Preemption Act of 1841
    The Preemption Act of 1841, also known as the Distributive Preemption Act , was a federal law approved on September 4, 1841. It was designed to "appropriate the proceeds of the sales of public lands.....

  • Public Land Survey System
    Public Land Survey System
    The Public Land Survey System is a method used in the United States to survey and identify land parcels, particularly for titles and deeds of rural, wild or undeveloped land. Its basic units of area are the township and section. It is sometimes referred to as the rectangular survey system,...

External links

  • Homestead Act. - Library of Congress
    Library of Congress
    The Library of Congress is the research library of the United States Congress, de facto national library of the United States, and the oldest federal cultural institution in the United States. Located in three buildings in Washington, D.C., it is the largest library in the world by shelf space and...

  • Homestead National Monument of America. - National Park Service
    National Park Service
    The National Park Service is the U.S. federal agency that manages all national parks, many national monuments, and other conservation and historical properties with various title designations...

  • "About the Homestead Act". - National Park Service
    National Park Service
    The National Park Service is the U.S. federal agency that manages all national parks, many national monuments, and other conservation and historical properties with various title designations...

  • Homestead Act of 1862. - National Archives and Records Administration
    National Archives and Records Administration
    The National Archives and Records Administration is an independent agency of the United States government charged with preserving and documenting government and historical records and with increasing public access to those documents, which comprise the National Archives...

  • Homesteaders and Pioneers on the Olympic Peninsula. - Olympic Peninsula Community Museum. - University of Washington
    University of Washington
    University of Washington is a public research university, founded in 1861 in Seattle, Washington, United States. The UW is the largest university in the Northwest and the oldest public university on the West Coast. The university has three campuses, with its largest campus in the University...

    . - Online museum exhibit that documents the history of several families who moved to the Olympic Peninsula following the Homestead Act of 1862
  • "Adeline Hornbek and the Homestead Act: A Colorado Success Story". - National Park Service Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) lesson plan. - National Park Service
    National Park Service
    The National Park Service is the U.S. federal agency that manages all national parks, many national monuments, and other conservation and historical properties with various title designations...

  • Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture - Homestead Act
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