Homestead Law, a law granting free land to settlers. The first such law was the Homestead Act passed by Congress in 1862. It gave the privilege of obtaining a quarter section (160 acres [65 hectares]) of land, free of charge, to any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of 21 years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such. The applicant had to pay a small filing fee, build a house and live on the land for five years (reduced to three years in 1912), and meet certain conditions as to cultivation. Later laws provided for homestead grants of up to 640 acres (259 hectares) on semi-arid land not irrigable and not valuable for minerals or timber.

A homesteading familyA homesteading family on the trail in 1886.

Persons who settled on homestead lands were called homesteaders. Those who settled on public lands illegally were called squatters. In many instances they were given the right to acquire title to the land.

During the early history of the nation the federal government sold land from its vast public domain, usually for $1.25 an acre. The homestead movement began about 1800 with strong support in the West but with opposition in the South and East. A homestead bill was passed by Congress in 1860 but vetoed by President James Buchanan. The victory of the Republicans in 1860 and the secession of the Southern states cleared the way for adoption in 1862. The homestead laws were administered by the Bureau of Land Management of the Department of the Interior. Some 1,400,000 homesteads were granted under these laws. The federal government ended the homestead program in 1976 in all states but Alaska; there the Homestead Act remained in force until 1986.

Canada passed a similar homestead law, the Dominion Lands Act of 1872, designed to encourage settlement of its western lands. All lands that were still unoccupied in 1930 were transferred to the control of the provinces.