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Celebrations Mark 150 Years of Homesteading
May 21, 2012

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Representatives from 30 states took part in a giant ceremony to mark the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Homestead Act of 1862.

The ceremony, featuring flag-bearers from among descendants of Homesteaders, took place in Beatrice, Neb., home of Daniel Freeman, a Union Army scout who filed the country's first land claim under the Act, on January 1, 1863. The Act, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, enabled people eventually to get 160 acres of land absolutely free, provided that they agreed to work and live on the land.

align="right">It wasn't only white men who were eligible, either. Against the backdrop of the Civil War, which was still tearing the country apart, the Homestead Act provided for land ownership by men and women, including immigrants and former slaves. The only restriction was that the person had to be 21 or older and be the head of a family.

In order to receive the deed to the land, each Homesteader had to work and live on the land for five years, showing improvement to the land along the way. The opportunity to settle new territory provided irresistible for a great many people, and 1.6 million people in the end lasted the full five years and got their ownership deed, accounting for more than 270 million acres, 10 percent of all lands in the country. From these settlements came schools and towns and villages and cities and, eventually, states. Six months after the Homestead Act became law, the U.S. Government enacted the Railroad Act. By the time the Golden Spike was driven in 1869, settlement of the West was well under way.

Freeman was one of 418 people who filed claims on that day. Slowly and steadily, these people moved into the land west of the Mississippi River, setting up farms and livelihoods. Because Freeman was the first, he is recognized with a monument on his original homestead.

The Homestead Act endured in American law for 123 years, ending in the continental U.S. in 1976 and Alaska in 1986. Today, nearly 40 million people can claim lineage to Homesteaders.

The ceremony was part of a five-day celebration called Chautauqua at Homestead, including talks, demonstrations, music, and a laser light show.

 
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