The Homestead Act of 1862
The Homestead Act
Bismarck, North Dakota (September
Homestead Act, one of the most important pieces of American legislation, was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1862
during the height of the Civil War. Before the
Homestead Act, the federal government had been busy acquiring
land from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, all part
of the attitude called Manifest Destiny (as in, it's manifest that the destiny
of the United States is to stretch from ocean to ocean).
the mid-1800s, the country that we know now as the United States was nearly
complete, except for Alaska, Hawaii, and unorganized land in the west known as
Indian Territory. The problem for the federal government was that there were few
settlers on or near the frontier. Yes, settlers could purchase land
from the federal government, but few people did or could afford
encourage people to settle the West (which also, at that time, encompassed what
we call today the Midwest), Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862,
legislation that was largely the work of Senator Andrew Johnson from Tennessee. The Homestead Act marked a reversal of policy for the
federal government. Before the Homestead Act, the government's main role regarding
land was to acquire as much as possible, but after the Homestead Act, the
federal government began dispensing this land to the
Left: Homesteaders and their sod house in the Midwest during the late
1800s. Millions of sod houses dotted the prairies in the late 1800s, but
almost all of them have melted back into the prairie.
basic concept of the Homestead Act was simple. Any person age 21 or older,
male or female, could file a patent for 160 acres (a quarter-section, or a quarter-mile on
each side) of the unclaimed public domain. If the settler built a house
and a well on that land, plowed it, and lived there for the next five years, he
or she "proved
up" the claim and the title passed to him or her.
the next 50 years, the Homestead Act was modified to make it even easier
for pioneers to settle land. In 1873, the Timber Culture Act was passed that gave settlers an additional 160
acres of land if they planted trees on the land (under the mistaken belief that
trees produce rainfall, when it's the other way around), and some pioneers acquired 320 acres by filing
for a Homestead claim and a Tree claim. In the early 1900s, as pioneers
pushed into increasingly arid areas of the U.S., the amount of
land given to settlers through the Homestead Act was increased from 160 acres to
thought of free land lured hundreds of thousands of Americans living in the eastern
to settle in the west. It also lured millions of Europeans, mostly from
northern Europe and Scandinavia, to America, especially considering that the
economies in many of these countries were faltering in the late 1800s and land
there was scarce. This massive emigration to America included some of my
ancestors, who arrived in the 1870s and 1880s from Norway and Germany in
search of free land.
Certainly, there were problems with the Homestead Act.
was common and much of the best land went to railroads or other
corporations. Also, many of the pioneers who settled in the arid
lands of the Midwest had to abandon their claims when drought set in.
Nevertheless, the Homestead Act funneled millions of acres of land into
the hands of hard-working pioneers. Many historians argue, and
rightfully so, that the
Homestead Act was the single most important legislation of 19th century America.
continued to settle land through the Homestead Act well into the mid-1900s,
although most of these claims were in Alaska. The Homestead Act was
repealed in 1976 when the government stopped accepting applications
for homesteads, and the cry of "Free Land" was no more.
Above left: A modern sod house on the McCone Farm near Sanborn, Minnesota (see News:
August 17, 2001)
Above right: That's me on my great-great-grandfather Ole Svang's homestead, near
Webster, South Dakota. Ole and his wife Birgit moved here in 1882 when
they were in their 60s and farmed this land for over 20 years (see News:
August 30, 2001).