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The Homestead Act of 1862



Bismarck, North Dakota (September 2001):  The 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).


By 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 to. 


To 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 general public.


1-7038_Homesteaders_and_Soddy.jpg (40871 bytes)

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.


The 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. 


Over 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 640 acres.


The thought of free land lured hundreds of thousands of Americans living in the eastern U.S. 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.  Fraud 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. 


Pioneers 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).