The Homestead Act
In 1852, in the United States, a group calling themselves the Free Soil party had pushed for free land for homesteads in the West to be provided by the government. A bill was introduced to Congress in 1854, but many in Congress opposed it. The First Homestead Act passed Congress in 1860, but President Buchanan vetoed it. The settlers would have had to pay 25 cents an acre for the land.
The Homestead Act of 1862, signed by President Lincoln on May 20, 1862, took effect on January 1, 1863. This law provided free land in the west for settlers who would live on the land for five years and pay an eighteen dollar fee. The land was in what is now the states of Kansas, Colorado, Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming. Any adult, male or female, who was 21 or the head of a family, would get 160 acres. The settlers would have to build a home and farm the land to own the land after five years. If they wanted to own it after only six months, they could pay $1.25 per acre.
People of all types signed up to get ownership of the homesteads. First, a settler would have to go to a land office. Government employees checked to see if there was a prior claim to that piece of land. If not, the settler paid a ten-dollar filing fee and also two dollars to the land agent.
After the five years was up, the farmer had to find two neighbors who would testify that the farmer had farmed the land and made improvements to it during those years. After paying another six dollars, the farmer received the patent for that land and owned it. The paper was signed by the President of the United States. Often the settlers hung the document in their homes because they were so proud of what they had accomplished.
Unfortunately, much of the land was not good farming land and settlers did not stay for the five years. In Montana, Colorado and Wyoming, where cattlemen owned big ranches, the homestead tracts which were being farmed were in the way of the cattle grazing land. Sometimes the cattle owners would have other individuals buy homesteads for them so the ranchers could have water rights.
By the end of the 1800's, 570 million acres of possible homesteading land remained, but most was not suitable for farming. The land available for homesteading moved farther west. Because so much of it was dry, the government offered 640 acres here.
The first claim for homesteading land was made by Daniel Freeman on January 1, 1863. He put money down on a plot of 160 acres in Nebraska. His homestead was dedicated by Congress in 1936 as the Homestead National Monument. Freeman worked the farm until his death in 1908. His wife lived on the farm until her death in 1931.
Kenneth Deardorff made the last claim in the United States under the Homestead Act of 1862. He laid claim to 80 acres in southwestern Alaska. He fulfilled all the requirements in 1979, but didn't receive the patent for that land until 1988. The Homestead Act was repealed in 1976, except in Alaska where it remained in effect until 1986.
Homestead farmers bought over 270 million acres in the West and built the area into a large agricultural success. These farms became valuable to the whole country. Because of these farms, communities grew up all over the west. This manner of giving away land to urge people to move out west was a revolutionary idea and assisted in the settlement and cultivation of the West.
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