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Free Land: How the Homestead Act Helped America Expand Westward

Homesteader
Homesteaders, like this woman at work in her garden in West Virginia, were promised 160 acres of free land as long as they were willing to work that land. Library of Congress

In America in the latter part of the 19th century, land was everything. Owning land bestowed a certain measure of prestige and respectability. It provided stability. Possible wealth. It meant a future.

For all those reasons, and others, thousands of people tromped westward in the nation's expansion toward the Pacific in the 1860s and many decades that followed, claiming huge parcels of free land in the first steps toward their own American dreams.

For many — even those who had found it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to become landowners before; women, former enslaved people and immigrants among them — the Homestead Act of 1862 made it possible.

"I think it's absolutely a representation of the American Dream," says Jonathan Fairchild, the historian at the Homestead National Monument of America in Beatrice, Nebraska, "the thought that, no matter who you are, where you're coming from, that with hard work and a little bit of luck, you can be successful."

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What Was the Homestead Act?

The Civil War still was raging when President Abraham Lincoln, in May 1862, signed into law the Homestead Act, which promised 160 acres (64 hectares) of free land, most of it in America's expanding West, for anyone willing to work the land.

Some strings (beyond the inevitable, even then, bureaucratic paperwork) were attached to getting the land in the first place. Among them:

  • Claimants had to be at least 21 years old.
  • They had to be head of a household.
  • They had to fork over about $18 in filing fees.
  • They had to be a U.S. citizen, or be eligible to become a U.S. citizen.
  • They had to swear that they never had fought against the United States.
  • And they had to promise to improve the land that was being given to them.

Anyone who met those criteria would be granted full title to the plot after five years (and some more paperwork and a few more dollars in fees) if they proved that they:

  • lived on the land
  • built a home there
  • farmed it (or raised livestock) and otherwise improved it
Homesteader
Families like this one, whose head of household was Joseph Beckwith (far right), moved west to Nebraska to work the land they were given for free.
Library of Congress

From the 1860s through the 1980s, nearly 4 million people took advantage of the offer. In the 123 years the Act was in effect, about 1.6 million of those claimants successfully "proved up" — they met the final criteria for improving the hard, sometimes desolate, often untamable land — to gain deed to the property.

At its height, in the five-year period from 1911-1915, more than 42.5 million acres (17.1 million hectares) of land were awarded under the Homestead Act and its various offshoots. Somewhere around 10 percent of U.S. land — 270 million acres (109 million hectares) — eventually was given away under the Homestead Acts, according to the National Park Service.

These homesteads would become the basis of wealth for countless families for, in many cases, generations to come. It's estimated that some 93 million people today are descendants of homesteaders.

"It is one of the most successful endeavors in American history, causing the great land rush to the Wild West and forming the vision for a new homesteading program in urban America today," President George H.W. Bush said in 1990. "Because Abraham Lincoln's Homestead Act empowered people, it freed people from the burden of poverty. It freed them to control their own destinies, to create their own opportunities, and to live the vision of the American dream."

Homesteader
Emma and Neil Erickson, who filed for the Homestead Act in 1887, are seen here in front of their main house at Faraway Ranch in Cochise County, Arizona. Faraway Ranch is now part of the National Park Service.
Library of Congress

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The Legacy of the Homestead Act

After the 14th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1866, slaves and former slaves became eligible to own land under the Homestead Act.

"If you're talking an African American family shortly after the Civil War ... talk about what it means to be going from potentially being enslaved, and literally being considered property by the law of the land, to having your freedom, to owning hundreds of acres of land in your own name, to becoming an independent and successful small-family farm owner," Fairchild says. "It's just incredible to talk about."

Even before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, giving women the right to vote, the Homestead Act granted them the opportunity to own land. Just owning land in many places in the country provided women a de facto right to vote. An estimated 10 percent of all homesteaders were women.

And though the Homestead Act originally excluded some who were not eligible to become citizens — notably, Native Americans whose land was stolen away from them and granted to others eligible under the Act, and those from Asian countries — it provided a pathway to many immigrants to become American landowners.

"It was the first piece of legislation to include all of the necessary components to be considered an accommodating immigration law," Fairchild says. "It didn't exclude on gender or race, and it provided, within the language of the law, everything required of immigrants to become naturalized citizens.

"The Homestead Act of 1862 was, for its time, a remarkably democratic piece of legislation that helped break barriers in the United States."

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