The Homestead Act of 1862, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, allowed for anyone above the age of 21 years old to claim up to 160 acres. This meant that potential land ownership was available even to marginalized groups including single women, freed slaves, and immigrants. The act was open to thirty states, including California, between 1863 and 1976. (Alaska was granted a ten-year extension.) In order for a homesteader to receive a land patent, the individual would have to establish a sustained development for five years. Veterans only had to “prove-up” for three years. When the establishment period was over, the homesteader had to have two friends or neighbors vouch in a local newspaper. Afterwards, the patent for the land was granted to the homesteader. In total, 270 million acres, or 10% of all land in the United States, were settled under the Homestead Act.
Several wet years beginning in 1912 provided for crops good enough to attract people to the area. Veterans of World War I, suffering the effects of mustard gas, came hoping to benefit from the dry desert climate. Later, because of the hard times created by the depression, some people sought out a rural lifestyle where they could raise their own food without relying on unstable markets and inflated prices.
But the rains didn’t last. Several years passed with little or no rainfall and the crops failed. Homesteaders drilled water wells, but most were unsuccessful. In many cases, water had to be hauled several miles even for household purposes. Conflicts between homesteaders and ranchers over water rights became common.
Life in the desert presented other challenges: Summers were extreme for those used to more temperate climates; the work was hard and neighbors far away. Few homesteaders met the challenge. Many farms and small homesteads were abandoned, leaving behind the tiny cabins which still litter the desert in some places.
One family that not only survived but thrived in the desert was that of Bill and Frances Keys. For more information about them, take a guided tour of their ranch.
Last updated: December 28, 2020