Homestead Act (United States) (1862)


The Homestead Act was the result of steady opposition of workers’ groups, western settlers, and agrarians to the U.S. government’s policy of using western lands as a source of revenue. Promising 160 acres of free land to any head of household who would develop the land and live on it continuously for five years, the act did more than any other piece of legislation to open the West to family farmers. The measure also enabled immigrant groups to maintain a strong sense of Old World identity in the New World, as they often took up lands in remote regions of the upper Midwest and plains territories.
U.S. land policy had originally envisioned western lands as a means of raising revenue, and the government thus sold land competitively, with high minimum prices and in large blocks. This led to widespread speculation and little development. Gradually prices were reduced, by 1841 to $1.25 per acre when first put up for sale. Westerners generally held that the land remained without value until it was developed and thus pressed for the federal government to pass legislation discouraging speculation and encouraging settlement. The offer of free or inexpensive land became the necessary enticement as the frontier pushed westward to offset the cost of imported supplies needed on the treeless prairies before homesteads could be established. The New York Tribune took up the cause in the 1840s, as did the Free Soil Party after 1848. Division over land reform weakened the Democratic Party and provided an issue around which the Republicans rallied after the mid-1850s. With the South having seceded from the Union by 1861, President Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans were able to push through the Homestead Act.
Many land reformers were dissatisfied, as the act was not accompanied by legislation to explicitly halt land speculation, and much land was reserved for railway grants and Indian reservations. Prospective farmers nevertheless flocked to the lands thus opened. By 1890, 957,902 homestead claims had been filed and by the 1930s, almost 3 million. German and Scandinavian immigrants were particularly attracted, as they often had modest amounts of capital to establish themselves. Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Kansas, and Nebraska were substantially developed by immigrant farmers. Although only a little more than half of homesteaders actually completed the terms of their filing and speculation continued, the Homestead Act had an unprecedented impact in the rapid development of the western states and territories. As the best farmlands were taken, the government increased homestead acreage in the 20th century to 320 and then 640 acres. The Taylor Grazing Act (1934) effectively ended homesteading in the lower 48 states, organizing remaining government land into districts administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

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