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How the West Was Settled: Remembering the Homestead Act

May 21, 2020

by Sarah Morgan Smith

The first homestead in the United States, U.S.A. Nebraska, 1904. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2012646764/.

On May 20, 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act. This piece of legislation had been part of the Republican Party’s platform in 1860: supporters of the party were said to favor “free soil, free labor, and free men.” Much attention is given to the latter two-thirds of the party’s ideology, but often, the first element, the promise of “free soil” is neglected. Yet the Homestead Act led to the distribution of 80 million acres of public land by 1900, and amendments and variations on the law applying to new territories such as Alaska remained in place until the 1980s.

As part of our Core Document Collections, Teaching American History plans to publish a volume of documents related to Westward Expansion later this year to provide additional resources to help fill in the story of the “free soilers” and their legacy in settling the American West. Until then, enjoy the following document excerpts as a preview.

The Homestead Act

APPROVED, May 20, 1862.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such, as required by the naturalization laws of the United States, and who has never borne arms against the United States Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies, shall, from and after the first January, eighteen hundred and. sixty-three, be entitled to enter one quarter section or a less quantity of unappropriated public lands, upon which said person may have filed a preemption claim, or which may, at the time the application is made, be subject to preemption at one dollar and twenty-five cents, or less, per acre; or eighty acres or less of such unappropriated lands, at two dollars and fifty cents per acre, to be located in a body, in conformity to the legal subdivisions of the public lands, and after the same shall have been surveyed: Provided, That any person owning and residing on land may, under the provisions of this act, enter other land lying contiguous to his or her said land, which shall not, with the land so already owned and occupied, exceed in the aggregate one hundred and sixty acres.

Daniel Freeman standing, holding gun, with hatchet tucked in belt. Beatrice Nebraska, ca. 1904. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/91783897/.

SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That the person applying for the benefit of this act shall, upon application to the register of the land office in which he or she is about to make such entry, make affidavit before the said register or receiver that he or she is the head of a family, or is twenty-one years or more of age, or shall have performed service in the army or navy of the United States, and that he has never borne arms against the Government of the United States or given aid and comfort to its enemies, and that such application is made for his or her exclusive use and benefit, and that said entry is made for the purpose of actual settlement and cultivation, and not either directly or indirectly for the use or benefit of any other person or persons whomsoever; and upon filing the said affidavit with the register or receiver, and on payment of ten dollars, he or she shall thereupon be permitted to enter the quantity of land specified: Provided, however, That no certificate shall be given or patent issued therefor until the expiration of five years from the date of such entry ….

 

 

Rachel Calof Describes the Terms of the Homestead Act

Source: Rachel Calof, Rachel Calof’s Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains, J. Sanford Rikoon, volume editor (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 23.

Lee, Russell, photographer. Mr. Leatherman, homesteader, coming out of his dugout home, Pie Town, New Mexico. New Mexico Pie Town United States, 1940. Oct. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017877753/.

Each of these three shanties was twelve by fourteen feet, I was told, with dirt floors. They could be moved from place to place if needed, and in times to come such mobility became necessary. Each shack was located on the land which each family intended to file on as a homestead. The government offered a quarter section of land to any adult who would cultivate the ground. Each quarter consisted of one hundred and sixty acres. The land had to be satisfactorily cultivated within fourteen months; if not, the homesteader, if he wished to remain on the land, had to buy it at one dollar and twenty-five cents per acre. If the government was satisfied with the development of the quarter section, the homesteader would receive title to one hundred and sixty acres at the end of five years. At the end of the five-year period, if it was found that the homesteader had farmed more than the original quarter section, he would have to wait an additional six weeks for title to his one hundred and sixty acres and pay a twenty dollar penalty. Single women were permitted the same homestead rights as men but married women did not have such entitlement. Of course all engaged girls in this territory filed claims before marriage. . . .

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