The Homestead Act was one of the most important laws passed in the history of the United States enabling 270 millions acres, or 10% of the area of the United States, to be claimed and settled by private citizens.
Purpose of the Homestead Act of 1862
The purpose of the Homestead Act of 1862 was to shape the future of the Western regions of the United States by taming the region by populating the area with farmers. The Homestead Act of 1862 virtually gave away public lands to farmers and settlers.
What did the Homestead Act do?
The provisions of the Homestead Act of 1862 were:
To provide 160 acres of land in exchange for a small filing fee and the time and the effort of the farmer
Under the terms of the Act anyone over the age of 21 years, the head of a family or a military veteran was able to claim land
Established American citizens and immigrants were able to make a claim which gave them the temporary right to occupy and farm the land
After farming and occupying the land for a period of five years the 'homesteader' would gain full ownership
The Homestead Act gave away 270 millions acres of public land to private citizens
This was equivalent to 10% of the total area of the United States in 1862
Reason for the Homestead Act of 1862
The reasons for the Homestead Act of 1862 were:
Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans and the Free Soilers in the North wanted to establish a national agricultural policy
The North favored giving land to farmers and settlers. The South wanted to retain the system of slave labor
By creating an agrarian base, as part of a social movement to cultivate the land, the Northern advocates of the Homestead Act believed they could destroy the practice and institution of slavery
Southern politicians had therefore long opposed the passing of such a law. The succession of the Southern States provided a clear path for passing the Homestead Act
The law was also seen as a way of taming the frontier lands of the west fuelled by the belief in the Manifest Destiny of America and the drive for Westward Expansion
Effects of the Homestead Act of 1862
The effects of the Homestead Act of 1862 produced unexpected results and destroyed much of the purpose of the law.
Unscrupulous speculators used bribery and corruption to obtain the best lands
The law was particularly exploited by the railroads
Large corporations, many operating the timber industries, acquired a large proportion of the lands
Many of the 'Homesteaders' failed in their attempts to farm the land they had been allocated due to dry, barren soil and insufficient rainfall. The Homesteaders also found it difficult to endure the harsh living conditions, living in makeshift accommodation called sod houses (soddies)
Significance of the Homestead Act of 1862: Additional Homestead Acts
The significance of the Homestead Act was that the Agriculture Department was created in May 15, 1862. The limitations, exploitations and additional requirements of the law were addressed by the passing of additional Homestead Acts including:
1866 Southern Homestead Act which allowed poor tenant farmers and sharecroppers in the south to become land owners during reconstruction
1873 Timber Culture Act allowed homesteader additional land (320 acres) if they planted 40 trees
1904 Kinkaid Amendment granted larger homestead tracts, up to 640 acres, to homesteaders in western Nebraska
1909 Enlarged Homestead Act increased the number of acres for a homesteader to 320 acres in dry lands such as those in the Great Plains
1916 Stock-Raising Homestead Act
1916 Stock-Raising Homestead Act was passed allowing 640 acres for ranching purposes
1930 Subsistence Homesteads provisions under the New Deal