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Homestead Act (1862)

Homestead Act (1862)

James L. Huston

Excerpt from the Homestead Act

That the person applying for the benefit of this act shall, upon application to the register of the land office in which he or she is about to make such entry, make affidavit before the said register or receiver that he or she is the head of a family, or is twenty-one years or more of age, or shall have performed service in the army or navy of the United States, and that he has never borne arms against the Government of the United States..., and that such application is made for his or her exclusive use and benefit, and that said entry is made for the purpose of actual settlement and cultivation...; and upon filing the said affidavit with the register or receiver, and on payment of ten dollars, he or she shall thereupon be permitted to enter the quantity of land specified ...

Throughout American history, various individuals have dreamed of certain laws that when enacted would transform society and make us a more egalitarian and just nation. The Homestead Act (12 Stat. 392) was one of these visions, but, unlike other schemes, the homestead ideal was actually put into practice. Its results proved far different from the hopes that promoted its passage.

The homestead ideal was that each head of a familyin the nineteenth century, this person was almost always a manshould possess a small farm of some 100 acres to support a family. By having land of their own, the farmers could be independent of the bullying of others and thus could act as objective citizens, making wise choices between good legislators and poor ones. These farmers could not be threatened with dismissal from jobs (as could wage-earners, people hired to work for owners of wealth). They valued hard work, by which they fed themselves and their families, and distrusted luxury and leisure. Indeed, the ideal of the independent farmer formed the basis of Thomas Jefferson's political philosophyhe hoped the nation would always be guided by the yeoman farmer (a farmer who owned his own land), and he purchased the territory of Louisiana partly to ensure the United States would forever remain a small farmer nation.


By the 1830s the country had experienced urban development and industrialization, changes unforeseen by Jefferson. Small farmer life was not possible in the large cities, and of course factories employed wage-earners. Thus the United States began to acquire a working class. But the new working class received miserable wages and battled employers over their pay and working hours. Leaders among the working men usually sought to establish labor unions by which they could bargain with employers for better conditions, but some sought a more general solution. Such reformers turned to the supply of land in the West and believed that the nation could be saved severe class conflicts between employers and workers by reserving that land for small farmers. Thus, workingmen from the East could travel to the West, obtain a small farm (about 100 to 200 acres) for free from the federal government, and preserve the small independent farmer quality of American political life.

Two New York working-class leaders vigorously promoted the homestead ideal. George Henry Evans, who founded the Land Reform Association in the 1840s, and John Commerford, a trade unionist who headed the National Reform Association in the 1850s, received great aid and publicity from the New York City newspaper publisher Horace Greeley. Greeley's paper, the New York Tribune, had the greatest circulation of all newspapers prior to the Civil War. However, others became attracted to the homestead plan for reasons other than rejuvenating American society with more farmers. Rather, they reasoned that by using the West to siphon off some workersnot all of thema labor shortage would be created in the East, thereby raising wages and dispelling class conflict. This latter view became popular among politicians.


By the late 1840s the homestead proposal attracted politicians who brought the subject before Congress, the most prominent being Andrew Johnson of Tennessee. Until this time the government had auctioned off public lands to the highest bidder, thereby allowing speculators to buy vast tracts of land and hold it off the market until the price rose so they could make handsome profits. The small farmer was effectively excluded from such land sales. However, by 1841 pressure on Congress to make lands available to common folk had produced the Preemption Act, by which settlers on government land could buy 160 acres for $1.25 per acre before the land was auctioned off. The Preemption Act was popular, but it soon was displaced in public sentiment by the homestead agitation. The House of Representatives passed a homestead bill in 1852, but the Senate would not agree to it. A somewhat similar proposal was actively considered in 1854, and a plan by Pennsylvania Representative Galusha A. Grow was actually passed by Congress in 1860, only to be vetoed by then President James Buchanan.

Originally, the homestead ideal received general approval from both the Whigs (the precursor of the Republicans) and Democrats. But in the 1850s questions about slavery came into prominence that emphasized regional differences connected with the question of free western land. Southern politicians increasingly saw the homestead ideal as a means of increasing the number of free states so as to diminish the power of the South in national councils. Republicans, on the other hand, saw the homestead plan as a way to attract Northern voters and stop what they feared was the burgeoning influence of the slave states.

The controversy over slavery's expansion into the territories brought about the secession of South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas in 1860 to 1861, and soon plunged the country into Civil War. That circumstance led to the passage of the Homestead Act. When the states that formed the Confederacy seceded, they also withdrew their senators and representatives from Congress, thereby giving the Republicans a commanding majority. Senator Justin S. Morrill of Vermont picked up the Grow Homestead Bill of 1860 and with little dissent marshaled it through the House of Representatives on February 28, 1862. It passed the Senate on May 6, and Abraham Lincoln signed the bill into law on May 20.


And so the homestead vision took actual legislative form and became law. But its results were hardly anything its promoters intended. Indeed, at least four important factors hindered the achievement of the homestead dream:

First, the public land available for homesteading was in the Great Plains, an area not well suited to small farming. Much of the land was more adapted to cattle ranches and mining, operations that required much more than the 160 acres allowed by the Homestead statute. In short, the Homestead law might have worked better had it passed in 1790 or 1800, when the land available for habitation would support small farms. But by 1862 public lands were those in a climate that did not fit the agriculture practiced in the East.

Second, national legislators saw in the public lands not only a chance to help small farmers but to stimulate the national economy by giving portions of the region to enterprises and to eastern states. In the 1850s Congress began (with the Illinois Land Grant of 1850) the practice of giving land to railroads to assist in the completion of these vital arteries of transportation. The most famous of these land grants came during the Civil War in the Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864. Then, Congress thought it wise to stimulate the creation of agricultural and mechanical colleges in the nation. In 1862 Congress passed the Land Grant College Act, the handiwork of Justin Morrill, and offered states funds from the sale of certain amounts of western land. Congress also passed a batch of land laws to achieve various objectives in development of the West: the Timber Culture Act of 1873, the Desert Land Act of 1877, and the Timber and Stone Act of 1878. All these actions removed western land available to homesteaders.

Third, Congress constantly amended the Homestead Act so as to allow settlers less time to claim their land. This opened the door for fraud. By letting settlers file for land titles earlysettlers then paying a small price per acreCongress encouraged them to make momentary improvements in order to obtain the land and settle their title to a speculator or monopolist. Congress did not encourage settlers to establish permanent farms for themselves.

Fourth, the federal government in the nineteenth century lacked the personnel to adequately run the land offices. Enforcement officials were over-whelmed. This of course gave rise to cheating. Speculators, monopolists, and others used the land laws to create giant farms. So instead of the Homestead Act promoting small farms, it ended up promoting the large western ranch. Of the some 1 billion acres of public land that the government owned in the nineteenth century, 183 million acres went to railroad corporations; 140 million acres to the states; 100 million acres to Indian tribes; and 100 million acres to free farmers (the total acreage given out in cash sales). (One half of the land had not been sold because it had been reserved for national parks or was totally unsuited for agricultural development.)

So only one acre in five that the government released out of its hands went to small farmerscertainly not the vision of the Homestead Act promoters. And to show how irrelevant the policy actually was to the social condition of the United States, class relations grew even more violent in the years between 1873 and 1896, as capitalists and workers fought bitterly over control of the factory floor, working conditions, and wages. Indeed, the period has been called the "Great Upheaval." As it turned out, the homestead ideal was no solution to the nation's social problems stemming from the Industrial Revolution.


Bronstein, Jamie L. Land Reform and Working-Class Experience in Britain and the United States, 18001862. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

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

Richardson, Heather Cox. The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies during the Civil War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Robbins, Roy M. Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 17761936. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 1962.

Shannon, Freed A. The Farmer's Last Frontier: Agriculture, 1860-1897. New York: Harper and Row, 1945.

Manifest Destiny

The term "manifest destiny" expressed the belief that the expansion of the United States across North America was both right and inevitable. The term was first used in 1845 in the Democratic Review by John L. O'Sullivan, who wrote that it was "our manifest destiny to over-spread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." O'Sullivan was referring in particular to the annexation of Texas, but his phrase was quickly adopted by those advocating annexation of the Oregon Territory, parts of Mexico, and even Cuba. Believers in manifest destiny felt that American abilities and institutions were inherently superior to those of other peoples, and that it was therefore their "mission" to spread American values across the continent. During the 1890s, the concept was revived and used to justify the annexation of Hawaii and islands taken from Spain in the Spanish-American War.

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Homestead Act (1862)


The Homestead Act, passed by the Republican-dominated Congress during the American Civil War (18611865), was intended to place public land in the hands of western settlers. It stated that any adult citizen (or a person who declared an intention to become a citizen) who was the head of a family could lay claim to 160 acres of public land. The only payment required was a small registration fee. The claimant was required to live on the land for a five-year period while improving it by building a house measuring at least 12 by 14 feet and farming at least ten acres. The period of residence was reduced to six months if the settler was willing to pay a price of $1.25 an acre. Within three years of the act's passage, more than 15,000 claims on public lands had been registered with the federal government.

The passage of the Homestead Act represented the culmination of 30 years' work by Republicans and their Whig predecessors. When the United States purchased the Louisiana territory from France in 1803, it acquired a huge tract of federally administered land. President Thomas Jefferson (18011809) envisioned this territory divided into small farms, whose owners could follow his rural vision of American democracy. Over the next few decades, Congress was split on the question of what to do with this land. Southern legislators feared that homestead laws, which divided public lands into small farms rather than large plantations, would attract immigrants and others who were opposed to slavery. Some of their northern counterparts, especially from the industrialized northeast, feared that the lure of free land would drain cheap immigrant labor from the factories to the frontier. Others, such as Senator Thomas Hart Benton, supported free farms as a means of encouraging democratic growth.

The problem became especially acute after the Mexican War (18461848), when transportation of both people and produce became cheaper because of new canals and railroads. So important was the issue that one party, the Free-Soilers, made distribution of public lands the major plank in their campaign platform during the 1840s. Although bills offering public lands to settlers were passed by the House of Representatives in 1852, 1854, and 1859, they were all defeated by the southern-dominated Senate. When an 1860 homestead bill was finally passed by both houses of Congress, President James Buchanan (18571861) vetoed it.

Although the Homestead Act was intended to benefit the homeless immigrants of the east, those who gained the most from it were native-born Americans and land speculators. Immigrants were mostly too poor to afford the stake needed to move west and take up a claim. It was typically second- or third-generation Americans who sold their farms to head west with their families. Most of these farmers, however, were poorly prepared for farming on the Great Plains. The quality of land allotments open to farmers varied considerably, and good claims were quickly taken up. Accustomed to plenty of water and wood for cooking and heating, as well as plentiful grass for their livestock, many were unable to cope with the arid conditions of the West. Many original homesteaders were unable to live on their new land long enough to complete their claims. These farmers often sold their claims to land speculators, who resold them to latecomers at a profit. Some land speculators also bought abandoned land and hired claimants to file false claims.

Those homesteaders who remained on their claims found new opportunities, as well as challenges. Federally funded railroads spanned the continent by 1869, opening isolated farms to markets and manufactured goods and bringing new settlers to the prairie. These pioneers built schools, churches, and towns, as well as homesteads. Within 40 years of the passage of the Homestead Act, most of the territories opened to settlement had either entered the Union as states or filed for statehood.

See also: Homesteaders, Westward Expansion


Lee, Lawrence Bacon. Kansas and the Homestead Act, 18621905. New York: Arno Press, 1979.

Potter, Lee Ann, and Wynell Schamel. "The Homestead Act of 1862."Social Education. October 1997.

Soza, Edward. Mexican Homesteaders in the San Pedro River Valley and the Homestead Act of 1862, 18701908. Altadena, CA: E. Soza, 1994.

Tatter, Henry. The Preferential Treatment of the Actual Settler in the Primary Disposition of the Vacant Lands in the United States to 1841. New York: Arno Press, 1979.

Trimm, Warren P. "Two Years in Kansas." American Heritage, February/March 1983.

i sold my pennsylvania farm with its stumps and stones and stingy soil that yielded so grudgingly to the toil i had given it. my wife, susie, and i decided to go to kansas and take up a government claim.

warren p. trimm, kansas homesteader

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Homestead Act

Homestead Act, 1862, passed by the U.S. Congress. It provided for the transfer of 160 acres (65 hectares) of unoccupied public land to each homesteader on payment of a nominal fee after five years of residence; land could also be acquired after six months of residence at $1.25 an acre. The government had previously sold land to settlers in the West for revenue purposes. As the West became politically stronger, however, pressure was increased upon Congress to guarantee free land to settlers (see Foot Resolution; Preemption Act). Several bills providing for free distribution of land were defeated in Congress; in 1860 a bill was passed in Congress but was vetoed by President Buchanan. With the ascendancy of the Republican party (which had committed itself to homestead legislation) and with the secession of the South (which had opposed free distribution of land), the Homestead Act, sponsored by Galusha A. Grow, became law. In 1976 it expired in all the states but Alaska, where it ended in 1986.

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