What was the Homestead Act?
The Homestead Act of 1862 has been called one of the most important pieces of Legislation in the history of the United States. Signed into law in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln after the secession of southern states, this Act turned over vast amounts of the public domain to private citizens. 270 millions acres, or 10% of the area of the United States was claimed and settled under this act.
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A homesteader had only to be the head of a household or at least 21 years of age to claim a 160 acre parcel of land. Settlers from all walks of life including newly arrived immigrants, farmers without land of their own from the East, single women and formerly enslaved people worked to meet the challenge of "proving up" and keeping this "free land". Each homesteader had to live on the land, build a home, make improvements and farm for 5 years before they were eligible to "prove up". A total filing fee of $18 was the only money required, but sacrifice and hard work exacted a different price from the hopeful settlers.
With application and receipt in hand, the homesteader then returned to the land to begin the process of building a home and farming the land, both requirements for "proving" up at the end of five years. When all requirements had been completed and the homesteader was ready the take legal possession, the homesteader found two neighbors or friends willing to vouch for the truth of his or her statements about the land's improvements and sign the "proof" document.
The Homestead Act remained in effect until it was repealed in 1976, with provisions for homesteading in Alaska until 1986. Alaska was one of the last places in the country where homesteading remained a viable option into the latter part of the 1900s. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 substantially decreased the amount of land available to homesteaders in the West. Because much of the prime land had been homesteaded decades earlier, successful Homestead claims dropped sharply after this time.
The Homestead Act of 1862 is recognized as one of the most revolutionary concepts for distributing public land in American history. Repercussions of this monumental piece of legislation can be detected throughout America today, decades after the cry of "Free Land!" has faded away.
On March 16, 1936 Congress passed Public Law 480 of the 74th Congress created a new unit in the National Park System on the site of the Daniel Freeman homestead. On March 19, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the law and Homestead National Monument of America "as an appropriate monument to retain for posterity a proper memorial emblematical of the hardships and the pioneer life through which the early settlers passed in the settlement, cultivation and civilization of the Great West."
Learn more about the creation of Homestead National Monument of America.
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Last updated: September 20, 2019