History of the Homestead Act of 1862

Mar 4


Billy Long

Billy Long

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The West has always exerted a pull on the American spirit and the Homestead Act of 1862 was an important component of settling the West. This article discusses the importance of the Homestead Act on Westward migration.


The West has always exerted a pull on the American spirit.  The American Dream originated as the desire of colonial families to pursue the western frontier with the goal of carving out a rewarding life through acquiring land for a family agricultural business.   The sheer vastness of the United States fostered a belief that American land belonged rightfully to its citizens.  By the 1850’s,History of the Homestead Act of 1862 Articles a significant amount of land had been acquired by settlers moving west and most of the continental United States had been filled out by small families dedicated to their land and living off of it.   

In an effort to gain control of the free claim and use of public land by the westward emigrants, the United States government passed the Pre-emption Act of 1841 which outlined rules and rights for the sale and use of public land and provided a way for the government to profit from land acquisition. Essentially, The Pre-emption Act of 1841 permitted squatters, who had lived on public land for at least 14 months, to purchase up to 160 acres at an extremely low price before the land would be made available for sale to the public which consisted mostly of working class anglos.    A discontentment amongst the working class began to rise over the unfairness of the new land claim law.  The argument was that the working class had a right to free land as well.  A Tennessee Congressman, Andrew Johnson, adopted the cause in the 1840’s and sided with the working-class whites, that the Pre-emption Act was unjust and discriminatory and began efforts to abolish the Act. 

Many Southerners opposed Johnson’s new quest to fight for the rights of all citizens to be granted an opportunity to acquire free land.  Most of the working-class anglos, who were predominately non-southerners, were against slavery.  This caused dissention with wealthy plantation owners who monopolized the agricultural production in America and feared that, if working-class whites were allowed the opportunity to start acquiring land as easy as squatters were, they would grow in numbers powerful enough to vote against slavery.   The Homestead Act of 1862 declared that any citizen could claim 160 acres of land, outside of the original 13 colonies, with the agreement that the land must be “improved” with a dwelling and produce crops.  After five years, if the original filer was still on the land, it was his property, free and clear.   After the Homestead Act was passed, land acquisitions via the Pre-emption Act greatly decreased.  Between 1862 and 1986, nearly 1.6 million homesteads were granted and 270 million acres were privatized.   This represents 10% of the land in the United States.

Despite its good intentions for encouraging farming and offering the opportunity for countless early American families to realize the American Dream, the Homestead Act was poorly designed, widely abused and unworkable for most settlers.  Those utilizing the Homestead Act to acquire land did not have to own farming equipment or livestock or understand how to farm.  For those settlers who owned land west of the 100th meridian, the longitudinal line in the middle of the United States representing the boundary between the moist east and the arid west, the scarcity of water caused a reduced ability to produce crops and sustain livestock.  Additional laws were set into place to try and offset the problems associated with owning arid land such as giving additional acres if the plains settlers planted 40 acres of timber – a complete impossibility.   A common abuse of the Homestead Act was for an individual to act as a representative of a large cattle operation in order to file for a homestead surrounding a water source. Once the homestead was granted, the fake cattle company could shut down other farms and ranches by creating dams and reservoirs for themselves, virtually denying others access to water.
By the early 1900’s, American’s attitudes toward public land began to change from private ownership and farming to creating laws and incentives for private land owners to put land in  government control for public use and benefit to preserve and better protect U.S. natural resources.  As a result of these changing attitudes, homesteading was ended by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976.