The Homestead Act of 1862

Poster advertising land in Iowa and Nebraska

Poster advertising land in Iowa and Nebraska

The West held the promise of a better life for migrants, and they talked of little else.   A popular saying joked that “If hell lay to the west, Americans would cross heaven to get there.”  This sentiment was shared by Americans and immigrants, all searching for the opportunities possible in the region.  

The government encouraged migration west beginning in 1862 when it passed the Homestead Act.  The law allowed any citizen, or even an immigrant who had initiated the citizenship process, to claim 160 acres of land simply by paying a fee of $10.  If the citizen “lived upon or cultivated” the land for five years it was his for free, or he could get title to the land after six months if he paid $1.25 per acre.

Why did the government encourage migration west by tempting Americans with such cheap land?  The Republicans in power believed that free land in the West would encourage Americans to carve out small family farms, farms that would ensure a form of independence.  The opportunity for individuals to own and farm land, argued Congress, would free the country from a dependency on industrialism or slavery.  Proponents of the bill declared it one of the greatest democratic achievements in American History, believing that the citizens who claimed land would form the political and social backbone of the nation. 

In Line At The land Office, Perry, Sept. 23, 1893. “9 o'clock a.m. , waiting to file."

In Line At The land Office, Perry, Sept. 23, 1893. “9 o'clock a.m. , waiting to file."

The Homestead Act played an important role in settling the West but it never achieved its framers’ intention of creating a prosperous class of independent farmers.  Instead, the legislation allowed speculators to acquire vast tracts of land by hiring men to stake out claims and then deeding the land over to their employers.  Homesteading was expensive, and few poor or even average Americans could afford the machinery and items needed to start a farm.  Additionally, while 160 acres was an ideal farm size in the East, it was too small in the West for grazing livestock and too large for irrigated farming. 

Congress continued to pass measures to encourage western migration, but in each case the laws helped land speculators more than independent farmers. 

Despite the many difficulties, families did establish homesteads in the West.  For example, more than 430,000 settlers filed claims in Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas by 1895.   

Public Lands to Homesteads

Pioneer family in Loup Valley, Nebraska, circa 1886

Pioneer family in Loup Valley, Nebraska, circa 1886

The federal government exercised greater direct control of the “West” than it had any other previously organized area.  As new lands opened to settlement, the government organized them into territories under the control of Congress and the President.  The President selected the territory governors and judges while Congress set budgets and oversaw the territorial governments.  Qualifications often did not matter as much as political connections when it came to making appointments. 

Congress also determined the procedure by which a territory became a state.  Once 60,000 white, male, voting residents over age 21 had signed a petition, Congress established the boundaries of the proposed state and authorized an election of delegates to a state constitutional convention.  Once the constitution was ratified by popular vote, the territory could apply for statehood.  Match the territory with the date it became a state on the following drag-and-drop interaction.