Homestead Act of 1862
The Homestead Act of 1862 gave a citizen, or an immigrant who intended to become a citizen, the right to buy 160 acres of government land for a modest fee after occupying it for five consecutive years.
The steady westward flow of settlers during the antebellum period helped prompt Congress to address the settlement, sale, and distribution of federally owned western lands. Legislative proposals concerning these issues frequently produced vigorous debate over both practical policy details and their wider sectional implications. In regard to policy, Congress came to consider three main approaches. Preemption, a method that became law in 1830, allowed a settler who squatted on public lands to purchase a maximum of 160 acres at prices as low as $1.25 an acre. Graduation, an approach that took the force of law in 1854, involved the steady reduction of prices on lands that did not sell after being on the market for more than a decade. The third manner of dealing with western land called for Congress to provide free or nominally “free” homesteads of 160 acres to poor and landless Americans. By the 1850's, northern and western legislators had focused their attentions on securing the passage of a homestead act of this type. By contrast, Southerners in Congress opposed such a law because they feared it would devalue their lands, produce a higher tariff, and people the West with antislavery settlers. Despite southern efforts, momentum toward a homestead act continued to build during the 1850's. After failing to pass in 1852, 1854, and 1859, a homestead bill finally passed Congress in 1860 but was vetoed by President James Buchanan.
After secession, Republican legislators, no longer hindered by southern opposition, passed the Homestead Act of 1862. It allowed a “head of a family” over the age of 21 (or younger if a veteran) who had not fought for or aided the Confederacy to pay a $10 fee for a claim of up to 160 acres. After dwelling on a homestead for five consecutive years, applicants could earn title to the land by paying fees ranging from $26 to $34. Applicants could also choose to buy the land after six months for as little as $1.25 per acre. To block speculation, the law stipulated that homestead land was solely for the use of “actual settlement and cultivation,” and could not be used to benefit anyone but the settler and his or her family.
In practice, the Homestead Act did not always deliver what it seemed to promise to land-hungry settlers. Much of the land available under the Homestead Act was of limited agricultural value, and 160 acres frequently proved to be too small of a plot for profitable western farming. Yet the law’s impact was significant. During the Civil War, almost 20,000 settlers claimed lands totaling 3 million acres, and in sum this law provided for the distribution of over 80 million acres of land. Perhaps most importantly, the Homestead Act of 1862 demonstrates the key role that the federal government played in the settlement of the West.
Leonard P. Curry, Blueprint for Modern America: Nonmilitary Legislation of the First Civil War Congress (Nashville, TN:Vanderbilt University Press, 1968); and Roy M. Robbins, Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776–1936 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1942).
Gregory J. Renoff
Last updated: 2006