Homestead Act of 1862

The Homestead Act encouraged the development of small family farms as important components of agricultural commerce in the still undeveloped American territories. Although East Coast industrial interests expressed concerns that the act would deplete low-cost labor from factories, most of those who took advantage of the free land were already farmers.

The Homestead Act of 1862 was one of a series of laws passed by the federal government during the nineteenth century to encourage the settlement and development of the American West. Previous policies concerning Public lands;disposition ofpublic land distribution required settlers to pay for property that they received from the government. The Homestead Act made a fundamental break with these policies because settlers were provided with up to 160 acres of free land if they agreed to reside there for five years and make improvements to the property.Homestead Act of 1862

The passage of the Homestead Act was delayed by two significant business forces. Southern states, representing their constituent slave holders, were concerned that free land would encourage the expansion of nonslave labor and agriculture into the west. Northern industrial interests were concerned about loss of labor and increased costs as workers moved west. Opposition from these business interests dissipated once the South seceded and the U.S. Civil War became the primary concern of the American public. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law in May, 1862.

The Homestead Act did not lead to a mass migration of urban labor from industrial businesses in the East. Most people taking advantage of the offer of free land were already farmers, many of whom were searching for additional land on behalf of their children. In addition to the costs of moving a family west, many potential homesteaders did not take advantage of the act because they had little money or credit that would allow them to improve and plant on their new land.

The lands available under the Homestead Act were not the most desirable from a business perspective. Farmers who wanted easier access to markets were forced to pay for land that was near railroads, which were given their own land grants from the federal government.

The free-land policy of the Homestead Act lasted approximately seventy-five years and distributed about 30 percent of the public lands in the West. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ended the policy during the mid-1930’s by ordering that remaining public lands be permanently retained by the government on behalf of the citizens of the United States.

Further Reading

  • Dick, Everett. The Lure of the Land: A Social History of the Public Lands from the Articles of Confederation to the New Deal. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970.
  • Porterfield, Jason. The Homestead Act of 1862: A Primary Source History of the Settlement of the American Heartland in the Late Nineteenth Century. New York: Rosen Publishing Group, 2005.
  • Shanks, Trina Williams. “The Homestead Act: A Major Asset-Building Policy in American History.” In Inclusion in the American Dream: Assets, Poverty and Public Policy, edited by Michael Sherraden. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.


U.S. Department of Agriculture

U.S. Congress


Land laws