The Homestead Acts were several laws in the United States by which an applicant could acquire ownership of government land or the public domain, typically called a homestead. In all, more than 160 million acres (650 thousand km2; 250 thousand sq mi) of public land, or nearly 10 percent of the total area of the United States, was given away free to 1.6 million homesteaders; most of the homesteads were west of the Mississippi River.
An extension of the homestead principle in law, the Homestead Acts were an expression of the Free Soil policy of Northerners who 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, thereby shutting out free white farmers.
The first of the acts, the Homestead Act of 1862, opened up millions of acres. Any adult who had never taken up arms against the Federal government of the United States could apply. Women and immigrants who had applied for citizenship were eligible. The 1866 Act explicitly included black Americans and encouraged them to participate, but rampant discrimination, systemic barriers and bureaucratic inertia slowed black gains. Historian Michael Lanza argues that while the 1866 law was not as beneficial as it might have been, it was part of the reason that by 1900 one quarter of all Southern black farmers owned their own farms.
Several additional laws were enacted in the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Southern Homestead Act of 1866 sought to address land ownership inequalities in the south during Reconstruction. The Timber Culture Act of 1873 granted land to a claimant who was required to plant trees—the tract could be added to an existing homestead claim and had no residency requirement.
The Kinkaid Amendment of 1904 granted a full section—640 acres (260 ha)—to new homesteaders settling in western Nebraska. An amendment to the Homestead Act of 1862, the Enlarged Homestead Act, was passed in 1909 and doubled the allotted acreage from 160 to 320 acres (65 to 129 ha) in marginal areas. Another amended act, the national Stock-Raising Homestead Act, was passed in 1916 and granted 640 acres (260 ha) for ranching purposes.
Land-grant laws similar to the Homestead Acts had been proposed by northern Republicans before the Civil War, but had been repeatedly blocked in Congress by southern Democrats who wanted western lands open for purchase by slave-owners. The Homestead Act of 1860 did pass in Congress, but it was vetoed by President James Buchanan, a Democrat. After the Southern states seceded from the Union in 1861 (and their representatives had left Congress), the bill passed and was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln (May 20, 1862). Daniel Freeman became the first person to file a claim under the new act.
Between 1862 and 1934, the federal government granted 1.6 million homesteads and distributed 270,000,000 acres (420,000 sq mi) of federal land for private ownership. This was a total of 10% of all land in the United States. Homesteading was discontinued in 1976, except in Alaska, where it continued until 1986. About 40% of the applicants who started the process were able to complete it and obtain title to their homesteaded land after paying a small fee in cash.
Donation Land Claim Act of 1850
The Donation Land Claim Act allowed settlers to claim land in the Oregon Territory, then including the modern states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and parts of Wyoming. The Oregon Donation Land Claim Act was passed in 1850 and allowed white settlers to claim three-hundred and twenty acres or six-hundred and forty acres to married couples between 1850 and 1855 when the act was repealed. Before it was repealed in 1855, the land was sold for $1.25 per acre. After the creation of the Oregon territory in 1848, the US government had passed the most generous land distribution bill in US history.
The Oregon land Donation Act of 1850 had many negative effects on Indigenous people as well as black people in the Pacific Northwest. Not only did the act use the land taken away from the Indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest, but the act also barred black citizens from owning land and real estate. The act guaranteed land for white settlers and "half-breed" Indian men to the Oregon territory. This act followed the passing of the 1848 territorial organic act which allowed any white settler to claim a maximum of six hundred and forty acres. The Land Donation Act, however, also acknowledged women’s property rights due to congress allowing the donation of four-hundred acres to settlers—land that could be claimed by heads of households—including women. This act differed from the Homestead Act of 1866 due to the ineligibility of black citizens from applying.
Homestead Act of 1862
The "yeoman farmer" ideal of Jeffersonian democracy was still a powerful influence in American politics during the 1840–1850s, with many politicians believing a homestead act would help increase the number of "virtuous yeomen". 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 made available to independent farmers, rather than wealthy planters who would develop it with the use of slaves forcing the yeomen farmers onto marginal lands. Southern Democrats had continually fought (and defeated) previous homestead law proposals, as they feared free land would attract European immigrants and poor Southern whites to the west. After the South seceded and their delegates left Congress in 1861, the Republicans and other supporters from the upper South passed a homestead act.
The intent of the first Homestead Act, passed in 1862, was to liberalize the homesteading requirements of the Preemption Act of 1841. It was signed by Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862, as following the Secession in the United States, the most vocal opposition in Congress, the Southern States, had been removed.
Its leading advocates were Andrew Johnson, George Henry Evans and Horace Greeley. George Henry Evans famously coined the phrase "Vote Yourself a Farm" in a bid to garner support for the movement.
The homestead was an area of public land in the West (usually 160 acres or 65 ha) granted to any US citizen willing to settle on and farm the land. The law (and those following it) required a three-step procedure: file an application, improve the land, and file for the patent (deed). Any citizen who had never taken up arms against the U.S. government (including former slaves after the fourteenth amendment) and was at least 21 years old or the head of a household, could file an application to claim a federal land grant. Women were eligible. The occupant had to reside on the land for five years, and show evidence of having made improvements. The process had to be complete within seven years.
Southern Homestead Act of 1866
Enacted to allow poor tenant farmers and sharecroppers in the South to become landowners in the Southern United States during Reconstruction. It was not very successful, as even the low prices and fees were often too much for the applicants to afford.
Timber Culture Act of 1873
The Timber Culture Act granted up to 160 acres of land to a homesteader who would plant at least 40 acres (revised to 10) of trees over a period of several years. This quarter-section could be added to an existing homestead claim, offering a total of 320 acres to a settler. This offered a cheap plot of land to homesteaders.
Kinkaid Amendment of 1904
Recognizing that the Sandhills (Nebraska) of north-central Nebraska, required more than 160 acres for a claimant to support a family, Congress passed the Kinkaid Act which granted larger homestead tracts, up to 640 acres, to homesteaders in Nebraska.
Forest Homestead Act of 1906
This act allowed homesteads within Forest Reserves (created from 1891 on) and National Forests (from 1905? on), responding to opponents of the nation's Forest Reserves who felt land suited for agriculture was being withheld from private development. Homestead applications were reviewed by the U.S. Forest Service (created in 1905). While at first five years residency was required (per the 1862 Act), in 1913 this act was amended to allow proving up in just three years.
Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909
Because by the early 1900s much of the prime low-lying alluvial land along rivers had been homesteaded, the Enlarged Homestead Act was passed in 1909. To enable dryland farming, it increased the number of acres for a homestead to 320 acres (130 ha) given to farmers who accepted more marginal lands (especially in the Great Plains), which could not be easily irrigated.
A massive influx of these new farmers, combined with inappropriate cultivation techniques and misunderstanding of the ecology, led to immense land erosion and eventually the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
Stock-Raising Homestead Act of 1916
Subsistence Homesteads provisions under the New Deal – 1930
- Small Tracts Act
In 1938 Congress passed a law, called the Small Tract Act (STA) of 1938, by which it is possible for any citizen to obtain certain lands from the Federal Government for residence, recreation, or business purposes. These tracts may not usually be larger than 5 acres. A 5-acre tract would be one which is 660 feet long and 330 feet wide, or its equivalent. The property was to be improved with a building. Starting July 1955, improvement was required to be minimum of 400 sq. feet of space. 4,000 previously classified Small Tracts were offered at public auction at fair market value, circa 1958, by the Los Angeles Office of BLM.
The Homestead Acts had few qualifying requirements. A homesteader had to be the head of the household or at least twenty-one years old. They had to live on the designated land, build a home, make improvements, and farm it for a minimum of five years. The filing fee was eighteen dollars (or ten to temporarily hold a claim to the land).
Settlers found land and filed their claims at the regional land office, usually in individual family units, although others formed closer knit communities. Often, the homestead consisted of several buildings or structures besides the main house.
End of homesteading
The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 ended homesteading; by that time, federal government policy had shifted to retaining control of western public lands. The only exception to this new policy was in Alaska, for which the law allowed homesteading until 1986.
The last claim under this Act was made by Ken Deardorff for 80 acres (32 ha) of land on the 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 Homestead Acts.
The homestead acts were sometimes abused, but historians continue to debate the extent. In the 1950s and 1960s historians Fred Shannon, Roy Robbins and Paul Wallace Gates emphasized fraudulent episodes, and historians largely turned away from the issue. In recent decades, however, the argument has mostly been that on the whole fraud was a relatively minor element and that strongly positive impacts regarding women and the family have only recently been appreciated. Robert Higgs argues that the Homestead Act induced no long-term misallocation of resources. In 1995, a random survey of 178 members of the Economic History Association found that 70 percent of economists and 84 percent of economic historians disagreed that "Nineteenth-century U.S. land policy, which attempted to give away free land, probably represented a net drain on the productive capacity of the country."
Although the intent was to grant land for agriculture, in the arid areas just east of the Rocky Mountains, 640 acres (260 ha) was generally too little land for a viable farm (at least prior to major federal public investments in irrigation projects). In these areas, people manipulated the provisions of the act to gain control of 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 to be used as a farm. Once the land was granted, other cattle ranchers would be denied the use of that water source, effectively closing off the adjacent public land to competition. That method was also used by large businesses and speculators to gain ownership of timber and oil-producing land. 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 and silver, which could be controlled through mining claims under the Mining Act of 1872, for which the federal government did not charge royalties.
The government developed no systematic method 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.
It was common practice and not fraudulent 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.
The homesteads were criticized as too small for the environmental conditions on the Great Plains; a homesteader using 19th-century animal-powered tilling and harvesting could not have cultivated the 1500 acres later recommended for dry land farming. Some scholars believe the acreage limits were reasonable when the act was written, but reveal that no one understood the physical conditions of the plains.
Related acts in other countries
Similar laws were passed in Canada:
The Legislative Assembly of Ontario passed The Free Grants and Homestead Act in 1868, which introduced a conditional scheme to an existing free grant plan previously authorized by the Province of Canada in The Public Lands Act of 1860. It was extended to include settlement in the Rainy River District under The Rainy River Free Grants and Homestead Act, 1886, These Acts were consolidated in 1913 in The Public Lands Act, which was further extended in 1948 to provide for free grants to former members of the Canadian Forces. The original free grant provisions for settlers were repealed in 1951, and the remaining provisions were repealed in 1961.
The Parliament of Canada passed the Dominion Lands Act in 1872 in order to encourage settlement in the Northwest Territories. Its application was restricted after the passage of the Natural Resources Acts in 1930, and it was finally repealed in 1950.
The Legislative Assembly of Quebec did not expand the scope of the 1860 Province of Canada Act (which modern day Quebec was part of in 1860), but did provide in 1868 that such lands were exempt from seizure, and chattels thereon were also exempt for the first ten years of occupation. Later known as the Settlers Protection Act, it was repealed in 1984.
Newfoundland and Labrador provided for free grants of land upon proof of possession for twenty years prior to 1977, with continuous use for agricultural, business or residential purposes during that time. Similar programs continued to operate in Alberta and British Columbia until 1970. In the early 21st century, some land is still being granted in the Yukon Territory under its Agricultural Lands Program.
Despite the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi provisions for sale of land, the Māori Land Court decided that all land not cultivated by Māori was 'waste land' and belonged to the Crown without purchase. Most provinces in colonial New Zealand had Waste Lands Acts enacted between 1854 and 1877. The 1874 Waste Lands Act in Auckland Province used the term Homestead, with allocation administered by a Crown Lands Board. There was similar legislation in Westland. It gave up to 75 acres (30 ha), with settlers just paying the cost of a survey. They had to live there for five years, build a house and cultivate a third of the land, if already open, or a fifth if bush had to be cleared. The land was forfeited if they didn't clear enough bush. Further amendments were made in 1877, 1882 and 1885, adding details such as pastoral and perpetual leases and village and special settlements. This contributed to rapid deforestation.
Several selection acts were passed in colonial Australia which were based on the Crown Lands Acts. They were passed in all six of the Australian colonies prior to federation, with the first one, New South Wales, passing such legislation in 1861.
In popular culture
- Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie series describes her father and family claiming a homestead in Kansas, and later Dakota Territory. Wilder's daughter Rose Wilder Lane published a novel, Free Land, which describes the trials of homesteaders in what is now South Dakota.
- Willa Cather's novels O Pioneers! and My Ántonia feature families homesteading on the Great Plains.
- Oscar Micheaux's novel The Homesteader: a Novel (1917) is a semi-autobiographical story of an African American homesteader in South Dakota shortly after the turn of the 20th century.
- Kirby Larson's young-adult novel Hattie Big Sky explores one woman's attempts to "improve" on her family's homestead before the deadline to retain her rights.
- The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! is based in the Oklahoma land rush.
- The 1962 Elvis Presley musical film Follow That Dream, adapted from Pioneer, Go Home! (1959), features a family that homesteads in Florida.
- The movie Far and Away, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, centers on the main characters' struggle to "obtain their 160 acres."
- The miniseries Centennial depicts the homestead development of an eastern Colorado town.
- The 1953 movie Shane depicts some early homesteaders in Wyoming opposed by a cattle baron who abuses, threatens and terrorizes them, calling them "pig farmers," "sod-busters," "squatters" and other taunts and insults. When the rancher gets violent, the homesteaders are divided over whether to leave or to hold onto their claims. A drifter working on one of the homesteads reluctantly tries to take action.
- The 2016 film The Magnificent Seven, loosely adapted from the 1960 film of the same name, features Sam Chisolm, an African American U.S. Marshal raised on a homestead in Lincoln, Kansas. His family had been lynched in 1867 by former Confederate Army soldiers, hired by a robber baron to drive off settlers and free up real estate on the American frontier.
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