Homestead Act

1862 Law Made It Possible for Settlers to Acquire Land in the West

Photograph of family of western homesteaders
Family on its way to a western homestead. MPI/Getty Images

The Homestead Act was a law passed during the Civil War which made it possible for settlers to acquire a 160-acre tract of land in the West by paying only a small registration fee.

The legislation had been proposed in various forms for decades, but was always blocked by opposition from southern legislators. Its passage by Congress became possible after the slave states seceded, and it was signed by President Abraham Lincoln and became law in May 1862.

Roots of the Homestead Act

When Thomas Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803 he envisioned that one day the West would be covered with farms. But despite Jefferson’s concept of a rural democracy, the U.S. Congress hosted perennial disputes throughout the early 19th century over what to do with the vast tracts of lands belonging to the federal government.

The attitude in the South was that splitting the land up into small farms, rather than large plantations, would tend to attract settlers who were opposed to slavery.

In the North, there was a belief that making land cheaply available in the West would drain the growing urban centers of immigrants and other laborers needed to work in factories.

In the late 1840s, after the Mexican War, the Free Soil Party, which was mainly dedicated to ending the spread of slavery, adopted a plank in its platform advocating the sale of public lands.

The Free Soil Party was not successful at the polls, but the idea of homesteading gained traction, and bills for it started to be introduced in Congress.

A homestead bill finally made it through Congress, but President James Buchanan vetoed it in 1860.

Passage Became Possible

The Republican Party was generally in favor of a Homestead Act, and when Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in 1860 the prospects for passage looked better.

And when the slave states seceded from the Union, much of the Congressional opposition to the idea of homesteading was suddenly removed.

The law which became effective in 1862 stated that an adult citizen (or an immigrant who declared an intention to become a citizen) could claim 160 acres of public land. The land was given free, though there was a small fee charged to file the claim.

The person receiving the land was required to live on it for five years, build, and farm at least ten acres. Many homesteaders encountered great difficulties in establishing their farms. But if they stayed for the full five years, they received the title for the land.

The Homestead Act was amended over the years, but it stayed in effect until 1935. It has been estimated that 285 million acres of land in the West had been homesteaded.