Student Activities

Homesteading by the Numbers

Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade

In "Homesteading by the Numbers," students utilize statistics to discover the impacts of the Homestead Act of 1862. 

Guiding Question:
What impacts did the Homestead Act of 1862 have on westward expansion, the nation, and the world?


President Abraham Lincoln made the Homestead Act a law by signing it on May 20, 1862. This law gave 160 acres of land away to individuals who met certain requirements. In order to file a claim, an individual had to be at least 21 years of age or be the head of household. This law allowed women to file claims and own land. The act also required a person to be a citizen of the United States or declare intention to gain citizenship. This allowed many European immigrants, African-Americans and others to stake claims as well. Many railroads and western towns sent representatives to European countries to entice people to move to the United States. These representatives showed pictures of beautiful towns with tree-lined streets and rich soil for farming.

The applicant of a claim had to file an affidavit with the local land office stating they met the conditions required by the law. At this time, the claimant would pay a fee of $12 for filing the paperwork.

Once the filing was complete, there were additional requirements to meet in order to receive the patent and title to the land. A person had to build a home, live on the land, make the land his/her permanent residence, and work the land for a period of 5 years.

Many people who came to claim land paid for the services of a locator. This person would assist them in finding an unclaimed tract of land. Many locators showed individuals land near their own claim in order to "settle" the country and have neighbors nearby.

After living on the land, building a home, and farming the land for 5 years, it was time to "prove up." This simply required the homesteader to find two individuals who would serve as witnesses. These witnesses had to state they had known the homesteader for 5 years, knew the claimant had tilled the land and grown crops. With witnesses in tow, a claimant would proceed to the land office to "prove up," paying another small filing fee of $6 and having both witnesses sign the final documents. Afterwards, the claimant would receive a final certificate or patent to the land, having met all the conditions.

Homesteading by the Numbers

10 Percent of U.S. land given away under the Homestead Act.

30 Number of states in which homestead lands were located.

123 Years the Homestead Act was in effect.

160 Acres in a typical homestead claim.

4,000,000 Approximate number of claims made under the Homestead Act.

27,000,000 Total number of acres distributed by the Homestead Act.


Ask students to brainstorm laws that they know have changed or influenced American history. Students are then to describe how those laws impacted the nation. Explain that students will learn today how the Homestead Act of 1862 influenced the nation. This assignment could be used as group or all-class activity.

Bring students back together and have them discuss as a class the information that they have reviewed and how the Homestead Act influenced the nation as a whole.

While Homesteading offered millions of acres of land for settlement, Homesteaders were not the largest recipients of western lands. Millions of acres of land were offered to the railroads for sale and use in building rail lines and communities. Research the role that the railroads played in the settlement of the west and write a comparative essay between the railroads and homesteaders.

Additional ONLINE resources

The Homestead Act of 1862
Students will examine congressional laws and homesteading records while searching for clues as to what order to put them in. The documents used in the activity should be examined carefully as to their correct order. The names and dates are of no significance. It is the type of document that is significant and what order they would have been done to claim land under the Homestead Act of 1862.

Beginning of a Dream, Homestead Act Made Law Part 1
Beginning of a Dream, Homestead Act Made Law Part 2
Students will examine primary sources to help them understand relationships among events. After each document or set of documents students will be asked to make the connection between the documents.




Last updated: November 11, 2023