Homestead Act (1862)

Passed by a Union-controlled Congress and signed into law on May 20, 1862, by President Abraham Lincoln, the Homestead Act represented two decades of effort to organize and settle western lands. Including the additions made to the original legislation in 1909 and 1916, approximately 270 million acres of land were distributed and more than 1.5 million new homesteads granted. The Homestead Act provided a means for landless Americans and immigrants to claim farms at a reduced cost, which helped settle the interior of the country, encouraged Indian removal, and closed the frontier. Homesteaders became some of the most active western Populists during the 1890s.

, some believed that the opportunity for free land would eliminate poverty. The Homestead Act, as passed in 1862, sought to encourage private ownership of the public domain in accordance with long-held ideas about republicanism and farm ownership made popular by Thomas Jefferson. Historian Heather Cox-Richardson (2007) claimed it served as proof that the federal government worked for the good of citizens.

The requirements to claim a 160-acre homestead included paying a small filing fee, improving the land, and residing on the claim for a minimum of five years. No restriction on sex, race, ethnicity, or age was placed on the act, although claimants had to be the head of household and immigrants had five years to apply for citizenship. If homesteaders wanted to gain title to their land quickly, they could pay $1.25 per acre after six months of residence. To further encourage settlement of public lands, the federal government gave land grants to railroad companies and to the states (the Pacific Railway Act and the Morrill Land-Grant College Act, respectively), which meant that settlers looking for western land had alternative options.

Conditions for homesteaders varied by location. On the Great Plains, a lack of trees forced settlers to build homes into hillsides, called dugouts, or construct homes from large pieces of sod, which were dried and laid on top of one another like bricks. The natural insulation of these materials helped with the extreme weather conditions of the region, but problems of cleanliness and natural disasters plagued many homesteaders. As an alternative to the sod or dugout homes, some settlers built log homes or small shacks from lumber and tar paper. Problems with drought, flooding, locusts, hail, blizzards, and fierce thunderstorms plagued many homesteaders’ attempts to farm. The isolated and dirty conditions along with the hard work made homesteading difficult. Living apart from major cities and far from rail lines made it difficult for some homesteaders to profit in the cash-poor economy of the Plains. Some took on debt to purchase supplies, seed, and equipment for their farms. At relatively high interest rates, inability to pay back these loans forced some farmers off their land. Farmers who homesteaded were forced to depend on the railroads to move their products to market, which later resulted in conflicts between western farmers and railroad corporations.

Despite high hopes for the success of the Homestead Act, problems existed with the plan. Approximately 400,000 new farms were formed and millions of acres were distributed, but it did not remove poverty-stricken people from cities. The original allotment of 160 acres did not provide enough land for successful small farms in some areas of the arid West, particularly without irrigation. One popular theory of the late 1800s claimed that rain followed the plow. Settlers in dry regions believed that if they plowed up the rich prairie land it would generate moisture and regular rainfall. The failure of this theory caused many farms to be started on land that did not receive enough precipitation for small-scale grain farms. Speculators continued to participate in the distribution and sale of cheap land that could be purchased by settlers. States and railroad companies also received large land grants during this time period, which they sold for profits to settlers. Some states did not participate in the Homestead Act. For example, Texas possessed its own public-land dispersion policy formulated before its statehood. None of the original 13 states, Vermont, Maine, Kentucky, Tennessee, or West Virginia had public land for sale under the Homestead Act because they had no large tracts of federal land left for distribution. Native American lands were opened later to settlers under additional legislation.

Some terms of the Homestead Act allowed large claims to be filed. For example, a family could have older children make individual homestead claims of their own, eventually resulting in members of one family owning hundreds of acres of land. Ranchers, timber companies, and mining companies also had employees file claims, which the company ultimately bought to consolidate large holdings of land. “Improving the land” was left to interpretation. Some settlers built simple, small, windowless claim shacks on their lands. This allowed them to claim the homestead but did not necessarily fulfill the intent of the act, which was to fill the Plains with small, operational family farms.

In 1976, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act stopped use of the Homestead Act for the lower 48 states. However, Alaska received an exemption from this act, and the last homestead claimed under the Homestead Act was claimed in 1988 near the Stony River in Alaska. A total of close to 1.6 million homesteads were granted, which accounted for approximately 270 million acres of land, or about 10 percent of all the land in the United States.

Megan Birk

See also: Long-Haul/Short-Haul Discrimination ; Plains and Midwest, Populism in the ; Railroads ; Union Pacific Railroad


Cox-Richardson, Heather. West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of the United States after the Civil War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007.

Gates, Paul W. History of Public Land Law Development. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968.

Gates, Paul W. The Jeffersonian Dream: Studies in the History of American Land Policy and Development. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

Phillips, Sarah T. “Antebellum Agricultural Reform, Republican Ideology, and Sectional Tension.” Agricultural History 74 (4): 799–822.

White, Richard. “It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.