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What Was the Homestead Act?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Homestead Act was a piece of legislation passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. Under the law, people could lay rightful claim to a set amount of land if they lived on it for five years while also farming it. At one point, an estimated 10% of the land in the United States was owned through homestead claims, and the act contributed significantly to westward expansion in North America, encouraging people to establish footholds well outside the original 13 colonies.

Several attempts at writing and passing a homesteading act were made before 1862, but these attempts were vigorously opposed by the Southern states. These states feared that homesteading would create more free states and territories, creating a voting bloc that could be used to outlaw or severely curtail the practice of slavery in the American South. These early attempts were also confounded by a debate over land use and land rights. After the South seceded in 1861, however, the path was cleared.

Under the Homestead Act, the head of a family could lay claim to up to 160 acres (65 hectares). He didn't need to be a citizen; the only requirement was the ability to pay a small registration fee and to occupy the land for the required amount of time. For those in a hurry, the land could be purchased for $1.25 US Dollars (USD) an acre after six months. Many freed and escaped slaves took advantage of the law, as did Civil War veterans.

The goal of the act was to get immigrants and poor urban Americans out into the countryside to farm and expand the country. Most people who claimed land under the Homestead Act were farmers and their children, however, because they had the skills needed to improve the land, while immigrants flocked to cities to ply the skills they already had. Some claims were also spurious, used to control things like water and timber rights for a profit.

In 1976, the Homestead Act in the continental United States was repealed; Alaska followed suit a decade later. The last deed of title turned over to someone under the law was dated 1988, bringing about the end of an era in American history. Many of the areas claimed continue to be farmed today, albeit as part of large corporations, rather than small, family-owned operations.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon930805 — On Feb 06, 2014

I did not know that the homestead Act did so many bad things to the Indians.

By anon238664 — On Jan 04, 2012

I am researching African Americans and what the effects of the Homestead Acts were to their specific race. It is fascinating, and very eye-opening.

I have to write a paragraph on the Homestead Act from their point of view, and it is very difficult, though that is beside the point. I want to say that, although this is a part of our history that was very beneficial to the expansion of the United States, I feel like Manifest Destiny is one of our darkest moments as a nation because of what we did to the Native Americans, and not only that, but having the gall to say that our hypocrisy was blessed by God.

By FootballKing — On Sep 23, 2010

In the end, millions of Native Americans were either killed, diseased or uprooted from their homes because of the white man's westward progression. I find it sick and something that must be remembered when talking about how wondrous free land was because of the Homestead Act of the 19th century.

By JoseJames — On Sep 23, 2010

At the same time, many acres of the land that GraniteChief speaks of was fairly traded and negotiated in a variety of ways. Much of the land was also not taken by American's directly but rather the imperialist states that founded colonies in the new world.

The Louisiana Purchase is a prime example of how American's actually purchased large areas of land with out doing so directly from Natives.

By GraniteChief — On Sep 23, 2010

It is sad to think that the days of our ancestors being able to claim their own chunk of America has come to an end. The possibilities of expanding the home ownership rate and reducing homelessness could be affected in a very positive way.

At the same time there are some sad truths that are ignored by the author of this post. Native American settlements and families were often run-off or forced out of the land that they had know for all of history.

These natural settlers were perhaps the first on the land but when American's came along to settle, their rights were ignored. I wonder how many natives were killed because a western man thought he had his government's approval to take over.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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