The Homestead Act of 1862

Part 2: The Reality

On paper, this seemed to many people like an excellent opportunity for people to move up in the world. That certainly was the case for a great many settlers who moved west and endured the hardships required to complete the five-year residency requirement. However, the means to settle such land and also to provide for oneself and one's family were beyond many people. It still cost time and money to build a house and farm the land and rear animals.

Those who did have the means, either significantly or only just, still had to overcome significant challenges. For a start, many plots of land had very little surrounding forest land, so homesteaders had to construct their homes out of sod. As well, the terrain and climate of some locations were not entirely hospitable to easy living. Rainfall was sparse in some regions; rocky soil was the norm in other regions. Still other regions had little access to water at all. With only an infrastructure consisting of fellow settlers (unlike the relatively metropolitan environments of the Eastern Seaboard), many land-workers found themselves very much on their own; they were very much following in the footsteps of their ancestors who first settled the 13 Colonies.

The playing field was level as far as price went. A chaotic system of land allocation was stabilized by the Land Ordinance of 1785, which had set up a system for settlement that began with a 6-mile square plot of land called a township, which was divided into 36 sections, each of which measured 1 square mile (or 640 acres). The price was standardized at $1 an acre; the catch was that a settler had to buy an entire square mile, which was 640 acres, which cost $640.

Those who could afford to buy land set up a settlement did so and in large numbers. The growth of canals and roads connecting East to West helped spur growth in the newly settled lands.

Two developments aided settlement as well. By 1800, the U.S. Government had reduced the minimum lot that a settler had to buy to 320 acres; the acre price had gone up, however, to $1.25. Still, $400 was less than $640, and so more people could afford to buy land. That $1.25-an-acre price was also what a settler could pay after 6 months; rather than waiting for five years, a settler could buy early, at a higher price.

Also helpful to many settlers was the adoption of the policy of "preemption," whereby a settler could take possession of the land while agreeing to pay later, in installments. This was an early form of credit.

Another element along these lines was the Preemption Act of 1841, which permitted "squatters," people already living on land in the Kansas Territory and the Nebraska Territory and other points West to buy up to 160 acres of land at the $1.25-an-acre price, provided that that person had lived on the land for at least 14 months. Residential improvements were required, and the requirements of an applicant were otherwise the same as the Homestead Act.

The Homestead Act of 1862 standardized the various systems, fixing the price at $1.25 an acre for up to 160 acres (while also offering an 80-acre option, provided that the applicant paid $2.50 an acre). The Act went into effect on January 1, 1863.

Most sources say that Daniel Freeman was the first to lay a claim under the Homestead Act because he convinced a claims officer to open the office just after midnight. Records show that 417 other people filed claimed on that first day. By the end of the Civil War, just three years later, the Government had processed 15,000 homestead claims. A generation later, the urge to settle out West led to the Oklahoma Land Rush.

Freeman made good on his promise, and his homestead near Beatrice, Neb., is now the Homestead National Monument. Many, many other applicants made good on their promise as well. The Government processed more than 1.6 million homestead applications, covering more than 270 million acres, before a subsequent land management act repealed the Homestead Act in 1976. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, however, granted a 10-year extension on claims in Alaska, and so it was that the last claim approved under the 1862 Homestead Act was in 1988, for 80 acres in the southeastern part of the state.

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