The Wild West of Yester-Year

The Homestead Act of 1862
By Rachel Kovaciny

I was six years old when the Homestead Act ceased to provide free land to Americans willing to live on it and improve it. I’m not that old, friends; at least, forty doesn’t feel old so far.

Did you have any idea the Homestead Act was in effect in the lower forty-eight until 1976, with special provisions still allowing people to claim land in Alaska until 1986? I sure didn’t until I started my research for this article!
As far back as the 1780s, the American government had been considering the question of how to distribute government-owned land. It wasn’t until eighty years later that lawmakers got around to figuring out how to make that happen. On July 4, 1861, President Lincoln made a speech in which he declared his belief that the government had a responsibility “to elevate the condition of men, to lift artificial burdens from all shoulders, and to give everyone an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.” High-minded ideals, to be sure, but he put them into action when he signed the Homestead Act into law in 1862.

President Lincoln wasn’t the only person who thought dispersing federal lands was a good idea—both the Senate and the House of Representatives passed the act with overwhelming majorities. Amid an agonizing war that would claim hundreds of thousands of lives, the Homestead Act was a sign to Americans that their country could have a future. One war would not end that nation’s expansion and progress. That this was still the Land of Opportunity. To file a claim under the Homestead Act of 1862, a person was required to be the head of a household or 21 years of age, or have served in the US military (not the Confederate military). They had to be either a US citizen or in the process of becoming one. They could not have taken up arms against the US government. Applicants needed to provide an adult witness or two who could attest to the truth of their statements.

The application fee was only $18, for which you got the legal right to live on 160 acres of land for five years. You had to build a home (at least 12x18 feet) on the land and farm it for five years. If you did that, the land belonged to you. If after six months you wanted to buy the land outright, you could buy it from the government starting at a little over a dollar an acre. Union veterans of the Civil War could deduct their time served in the military during the war from that five years if they could prove the length of their service.

The lure of free land and new homes did what the government had hoped—it gave Americans an incentive to settle the wide middle section of the country. Settlers poured in from the east and the west. New communities formed and towns sprang up. While speculators and large landholders often grabbed vast chunks of land in less than honest ways, ordinary people who wanted a chance to farm their own land and live in their own homes instead of being beholden to a landowner did most of the actual settling.

While today we think of homesteaders as families with children, thanks in no small part to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s memoirs and the TV show based on them, many single people also filed claims, men and women both. This was one of the first times in America that a woman could own land in her own name, not that of a father or a husband, though if a landholding woman married, her land belonged to her husband as well. This act also gave black Americans their first opportunity to own land. Subsequent acts such as the Southern Homestead Act of 1866 and the Timber Culture Act of 1873 widened the available areas for settlement and how you could claim them. 

A man named Daniel Freeman made the first claim under this act on January 1, 1863. From then until Kenneth Deardorff received title to his land in Alaska in May 1988, an estimated 270 million acres were claimed under the auspices of the Homestead Act. Approximately 4 million claims were filed, though only 1.6 million claims were officially fulfilled. Those massive numbers mean an extraordinary number of people—men and women, black and white, young and old, lifelong citizen and brand-new immigrant, single and married and widowed—went west hoping to create a better life than the one they left behind. Some succeeded. Some failed. But all of them at least had the chance to try their best to fulfill their dreams.