The Homestead Act of 1862

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The 19th Century

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Part 1: Background

The Homestead Act was a big leap forward for settlers who dreamed of having their own land to look after; the Act was also yet another sectional conflict that necessitated a war to succeed.

As the population of the United States grew, so did the hunger for heading west to explore new lands, find new homes, and pursue freedoms–from religion persecution or economic discrimination or ethnic or racial discrimination. Since the early days of the U.S., people wanted to stake out their own claims and look after their own interests. Many people were prevented from doing that by their circumstances: Many people were poor, many were unwelcome immigrants, many were freed (or even runaway) slaves.

Southern states were suspicious of efforts to increase the political influence of non-southerners. The Missouri Compromise had set a precedent of keeping some sort of balance between "slave states" and "free states." Any sort of concerted effort to encourage settlement of the West, as a homestead act would naturally produce, had the potential to upset that "slave" or "free" balance, and so southern interests were firmly in the mind to disapprove of homesteading acts.

Proponents of homesteading kept up the pursuit, and the House of Representatives passed such a bill in 1858; the Senate, defeated the bill, by one vote. A similar bill in 1859 passed both houses of Congress but met the veto of President James Buchanan. It took the election of a new President and the secession of the South to create favorable conditions for a homesteading bill that would become law.

And so it was that both house of Congress (minus the Southern states, of course, who had seceded by this time) approved the Homestead Act on May 17, 1862; three days later, President Abraham Lincoln signed it into law.

The Homestead Act of 1862 provided for a claim for up to 160 acres of federal land. The land was free, and it was open to any adult citizen, including freed slaves, who was head of a family, was at least 21 years old, and had never taken up arms against the Government. (This did not preclude single women because they could qualify as head of a household.)

The applicant had to pay a small registration fee and promise to live on the land for five years straight. After that five years was up, the land-worker had first right to buy the land. Such an application, to the General Land Office, was looked on much more favorably if the applicant had improved the land by growing crops and building a house, which had to be of a livable size. Some sources say that the minimum size was 12 feet by 14 feet.

Part 2: The Reality

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