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Homestead Act

Homestead documents are in the National Archives.

Have you ever wondered how the Homestead Act affected the lives of your ancestors? This law had a profound impact on the westward migration of families during the 1800s.

What Is Homesteading?

Homesteading is the act of earning title to a piece of property by improving and living on the land for a set period of time. It has been practiced in various countries and at many times in history, but no homesteading experiment was as successful as the United States Homestead Act. Between 1862 and 1934, this law granted 270,000,000 acres of land to American settlers.

About the Homestead Act

In the middle of the 19th century, there were still vast swatches of the United States that were largely unsettled. Native Americans had populated these areas of the country for centuries, living lightly on the land and moving from place to place. There were few white settlements, no railroads, and very few roads. However, this all changed when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act in 1862.

Getting the law approved had not been a smooth process. Previous homestead laws had made it through the House of Representatives but had been defeated by the Senate. There was significant opposition to the act throughout the country, and in 1860, President Buchanan actually vetoed a version of the bill. In the northern states, factory owners opposed the law because they were concerned about their labor force. In the South, lawmakers and citizens were worried that the small farms created by the law would not need slave labor, leading the new landowners to oppose the practice of slavery.

However, when the southern states seceded from the Union, this reduced opposition. Now lawmakers only had to worry about the concerns of northern factory owners, and President Lincoln signed the bill that would eventually make landowners of middle-class citizens and dramatically transform the country.

Who Could Homestead?

Under the law, farmers could eventually own their land with little personal financial investment. In order to qualify for homestead claims, settlers had to meet the following qualifications:

  • They had to be the head of their households. This meant that single men, married men, and single women could file for homestead claims.
  • They had to be at least 21 years old.
  • They had to be a United States citizen or have filed a declaration of intent to become a citizen.
  • They could not have borne arms against the United States at any point in the past, and they could not have aided enemies of the Unites States.

The Homesteading Process

The Homestead Act laid out a three-step process for earning the title to a quarter-section, or 160 acres, of government land:

  1. The homesteader must officially file a preemption claim on the piece of property at the land office. As part of the filing process, the settler had to swear that he or she met the qualifications for homesteading. There was a $10 filing fee.
  2. Next came the hard part. The homesteader had to continuously reside on the property for a period of five years, farming the land and making improvements to the property. Most estimates indicate that only about 40 percent of settlers were able to successfully "prove up" on their claims.
  3. At the end of the five-year period, the homesteader received the title to the property.

Minorities and Homesteading

Unlike many laws of the time, the Homestead Act allowed free black citizens to file for homestead claims. Women could also file for claims, provided they were single or widowed. The law was beneficial to these underprivileged groups.Native Americans, however, did not fare so well. Before the land could be opened for settlement, it had to be cleared of the native population. Many American Indians were forcibly relocated to reservations to make way for the settlers.

Immigration and Migration for Homesteading

Since the law allowed non-citizens to file homestead claims as long as they intended to become citizens, the Homestead Act had a profound impact on immigration. In many areas of the country, first-generation Americans made up a majority of the population. Homesteaders came from all over the world, hoping for free land and a fresh start.United States citizens also moved as a result of the law. Settlers said farewell to their families and the comforts of home, and endured untold hardships to journey west and create new homes on the wild land.

Did Your Ancestors Homestead?

The Homestead Act is an important part of American history, but it may also be a big part of your family history. There are several ways to find out if your ancestors participated in the homestead movement:

  • Check census records. The census was taken every ten years, allowing you to trace the migration of families. Check the 1860 census to establish a baseline location for your family members, and then check their locations in 1870 and 1880. You may find that they moved west.
  • Look at land records. If your family has lived on a piece of property for generations, check the title history to find out if your ancestors were originally granted the land due to homesteading.
  • Check the homestead land-entry case files. Unfortunately, this is not yet an easy process. The case files, or records of homestead claims, are housed in the National Archives, and these files have not yet been organized or digitized. However, if you know enough about the individual, you may be able to find the record for your ancestor.

Homesteading officially ended in the lower 48 United States in 1976, and Alaskan homesteading ended in 1986. While this process of obtaining free land no longer exists in the United States, it had a profound impact on American culture and American families.

Homestead Act