President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law in 1862. The Homestead Act offered people a way of acquiring land without the needed capital. Under the Homestead Act, any U.S. citizen or intended U.S. citizen could settle land as long as he had never taken up arms against the U.S. government. Under the terms of the law, people could settle a plot of land of 160 acres. They had 5 years in which to improve the quality of the land; after that, ownership was transferred if the settlers met the improvement criteria.
One of the problems with the Homestead Act was the fear of migration west. Both the northern and southern states had problems with previous homesteading attempts. At the time of the Homestead Act, 11 states had left the union. Southern politicians feared the law would create several new states, made up of farmers who would be opposed to slavery. The urban centers in the northern states feared that the law would take a vital source of cheap labor away from the factories.
The Homestead Act gave a parcel of free land to anyone willing to settle it and use it for agricultural purposes. However, in many regions of the West, 160 acres was not sufficient to create a sustainable farm. Although the land was free, money and experience were still needed to make the farm a success. According to Nebraska Studies, only about 52 percent of all homestead farms actually followed through and claimed the deed of ownership after the 5-year period.
Because anyone could claim land under the Homestead Act, land speculators were a problem. Many land speculators claimed land with no intention of living on it. Some laid their claim and held onto it, to sell for a profit at a later date.
Harsh Living Conditions
Farming on the western plains was much more difficult than farming in the East. The plains brought high winds, cold and plagues of insects. The lack of trees and timber meant many farmers had to build homes out of sod. Fuels were limited, meaning that simple activities such as cooking and washing became very difficult. Many homestead farmers failed in their efforts, due to the harsh conditions on the plains.
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