In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States government sought to populate its recently expanded western territories. Through a series of homestead acts, American citizens were offered large plots of land for free -- if they put in the time. The first of these measures was the Homestead Act of 1862, and it would ultimately lead to the dispersal of nearly 10 percent of U.S. land, according to the National Park Service.
By signing the first Homestead Act on May 20, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln offered adventurous Americans the chance to stake their claims on up to 160 acres of their own. The act went into effect on January 1, 1863, and on that day, 418 people filed claims. Eligible applicants paid a $10 filing fee and had to be citizens of the U.S., or in the process of becoming naturalized citizens. The U.S. had just hosted its second wave of immigration, accounting for the arrival of nearly 7 million prospective citizens -- a third of them German, a population largely interested in farming.
Characteristics of a Homesteader
Homestead applicants had to either be the head of a family, or at least 21 years old. There were no gender barriers for pursuing a claim, and according to the National Park Service, anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of homesteaders were women. The act required loyalty from applicants, including a sworn statement they had never fought against the U.S. government, nor helped its enemies in any way.
Because the land was viewed as a good-faith gift from the government, the Homestead Act of 1862 came with a few stipulations: Land assigned for homesteading purposes could not be claimed as an asset if the homesteader owed a debt. Once an applicant was issued land, it was his to live on and farm, but he would not officially own it for the first five years. At that point, he could apply for a deed, which required that he prove he had continuously lived on the land, and that he had cultivated and improved it. “Improvements” were understood to mean that crops had been planted, and that a 12-foot by 14-foot residence had been built. Before a deed was granted, the government could reclaim any land that had been abandoned for more than six months.
The Option to Buy
Homesteaders could speed up the ownership process: after six months of living on the land, they had the option of purchasing the land from the federal government at a rate of $1.25 per acre, if they could prove they had made minor improvements.
- National Parks Service: Homesteading by the Numbers
- National Parks Service: Homestead Act of 1862
- National Archives: Teaching with Documents: Homestead Act of 1862
- Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute: Immigration in the United States
- National Park Service: Museum Gazette: The Homestead Act of 1862
- Library of Congress: Primary Documents in American History: Homestead Act
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