On May 20, 1862, President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, which opened millions of acres of government-owned land in the American West to “homesteaders,” who could acquire up to 160 acres by living on the land and cultivating it for five years, paying just $1.25 per acre. The passing of this Act was an effort to settle an 80-year debate regarding the disbursement of America’s public lands.
While the intentions of the Act were good, the actual implementation of the Act was fraught with issues.
People were enthusiastic about the new opportunities awaiting them in the West; within the first nine months of the law’s passing, over 1,450,000 acres were filed as homestead claims. However, homesteading required a lot of determination and grit, not just to farm the land, but to stay on the land. Well-watered parts of the country, such as Iowa, were easier to farm than drier regions like Montana, but weather could make or break farmers and varied widely by region. It was not unusual to face windstorms, drought, hailstorms and extremes of both heat and cold --- and that’s not including the waves of pests that could engulf the land. The need to plant and sometimes re-plant, as well as building a home and acclimate (and often endure) to the surroundings meant financial hardship, as well. People who filed claims would sometimes encounter claim-jumpers, trying to seize the land from them. It could be a dangerous, difficult life if you wanted to make a life for yourself out West.
The influx of homesteaders into the West also meant the dispossession of Indian lands. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 had ordered Indians to move off their lands onto reservations, and the Homestead Act pushed Indians even further from their homes. The impact of the Homestead Act extended far past the 1860s, as more and more people moved out West to find opportunities. As more people farmed and ranched, over-farming and over-grazing damaged parts of the land. Combined with the seasonal droughts in parts of the country, these conditions eventually contributed to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
Homesteading was not all hardship, however; forty percent of homesteaders were successful and the Homestead Act helped provide roads, railroads, towns, and development across the West. Westward expansion and the Homestead Act are tied to U.S. history and did offer millions of people an opportunity to make a better life for themselves. However, at the same time, they contributed to the erosion of American Indian cultures that had once thrived in the West. For many, this part of history reflects pride and patriotism, even as it also reflects sadness, ignorance and dishonor.
While you might think homesteading stopped by the Dust Bowl years, it actually spanned a period of 123 years, with the last person being recognized as a homesteader in June of 2001. The Homestead National Monument in Beatrice, Nebraska was established in 1936 and has now expanded to 220 acres.
If you would like to read more about the Homestead Act, our Explora database contains full text of the Act, as well as many perspectives on the Act and homesteading. We also have many accounts of homesteading, including Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser, African American Women Confront the West, 1600-2000, and The Black West: A Documentary and Pictorial History of the African American Role in the Westward Expansion of the United States by William Katz and many more.