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Imagine being able to get free land like this – of course, you had to develop it but still.

Friday, January 4th, 2019 at 3:51pm Jenna Christensen


Norwegian immigrants in 1898 on their land claimed under the Homestead Act

Norwegian immigrants in 1898 on their land claimed under the Homestead Act

What Was the Homestead Act of 1862?

The Homestead Act of 1862 was federal legislation that allowed settlers to claim up to 160 acres of land in the public domain at little cost and with few requirements. It went into effect in the United States on January 1, 1863. The Homestead Act was a significant piece of legislation in U.S. history, as it hastened the development and settlement of the West.  

Why Was the Homestead Act Passed?

Since about the 1830s, there had been a concerted effort by western farmers, reformers, and others to push through federal legislation opening up land in the public domain to those willing to settle and work it. However, opposition by other groups, notably Southern slaveholders, prevented the passage of any homesteading bills until the secession of the South at the onset of the Civil War. After the South seceded (eliminating the main opposition), the law was passed by Congress and then signed by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862.

What Were the Requirements to Claim Land?

The Homestead Act of 1862 granted up to 160 acres of public domain land to any U.S. citizen—or potential citizen—who was at least 21 years old or head of a household (including women, free African Americans, and people of other races). All they had to do was pay a small filing fee and live and work on the land for five years. After 6 months, they were eligible to obtain the land early if they paid $1.25 an acre.

What Was the Impact of the Homestead Act?

By the end of the Civil War, 15,000 land claims had been made, with 600,000 claims made by 1900. Not all the land was claimed by homesteaders, however—large amounts were taken by land speculators or granted to railroads and special interests.

Later amendments made changes to the act (including allowing people to claim larger tracts of land), but by the mid-1930s, land claims had dropped dramatically. Then in 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt removed public land from use in 12 western states, limiting the land available under the Homestead Act.

By the time the Homestead Act was repealed in 1976 (with an exception for Alaska, where it lasted until 1986), 270 million acres of land—about 10 percent of the country—had been claimed under the act.

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