Lincoln Signs the Homestead Act

Passed by the U.S. Congress in response to the growing demand for land in the West, the Homestead Act greatly stimulated settlement of vast territories by making it possible for thousands of families to obtain land for free.

Summary of Event

The United States grew enormously between 1840 and 1860, and reached its full continental limits in 1854, through the acquisition of Mexican territory ceded in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) and the Gadsden Purchase (1853). At the same time, its population continued its upward spiral, rising from slightly more than seventeen million people in 1840 to more than thirty million in 1860. Meanwhile, new canals, steamboat companies, turnpikes, and railroads were knotting the nation together into an integrated economic unit. Hundreds of thousands of Europeans crossed the Atlantic to take up residence in the dynamic new nation, while other hundreds of thousands moved into the western regions of the country. Homestead Act of 1862
Land policy, U.S.;Homestead Act of 1862
Congress, U.S.;Homestead Act of 1862
[kw]Lincoln Signs the Homestead Act (May 20, 1862)
[kw]Signs the Homestead Act, Lincoln (May 20, 1862)
[kw]Homestead Act, Lincoln Signs the (May 20, 1862)
[kw]Act, Lincoln Signs the Homestead (May 20, 1862)
Homestead Act of 1862
Land policy, U.S.;Homestead Act of 1862
Congress, U.S.;Homestead Act of 1862
[g]United States;May 20, 1862: Lincoln Signs the Homestead Act[3540]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 20, 1862: Lincoln Signs the Homestead Act[3540]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;May 20, 1862: Lincoln Signs the Homestead Act[3540]
Benton, Thomas Hart
[p]Benton, Thomas Hart;and Homestead Act[Homestead Act]
Evans, George H.
Greeley, Horace
[p]Greeley, Horace;and Homestead Act[Homestead Act]
Johnson, Andrew
[p]Johnson, Andrew;and Homestead Act[Homestead Act]

The growth of the West was especially marked. While the population of all sections grew, the North and the South experienced less relative growth during these two decades than did the West. As the West approached a position of equality with the older sections, it became more insistent in its demands upon the federal government. At the same time, the intensification of sectional antagonisms engendered by the controversy over slavery and its future in the nation fatally obstructed efforts at the national level to provide guidelines and incentives for growth.

By 1840, sectional lines had hardened. Southern majorities in Congress consistently blocked legislation introduced by legislators from the other sections of the country. This was true in debates over tariffs, internal improvements, central banking, and land policy. However, the West won a significant victory in the congressional debate over the disposition of the public domain with the passage of the Preemption Act of 1841, Preemption Act of 1841 which gave squatters the right to purchase up to 160 acres of land that they had settled and improved for only $1.25 per acre. The next logical step for westerners was for the government to provide completely free land as an incentive to settle and develop new territories.

The campaign to achieve free land was waged on two fronts. Westerners, such as Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton Benton, Thomas Hart
[p]Benton, Thomas Hart;and Homestead Act[Homestead Act] , consistently pushed for free-land legislation and were joined by increasing numbers of other westerners committed to the free-soil idea. The slavery controversy erupted vigorously during the Mexican War, with efforts by free-soil Whigs to pass the Wilmot Proviso, which would have permanently forbidden slavery in the new lands conquered from Mexico.

It was obvious that the idea of free homesteads would work to the advantage of free-soil groups by attracting into the newly won territories settlers from the North, who, being slaveless, were more mobile. Therefore, the Free-Soil Party Free-Soil Party[Free Soil Party] made homestead legislation part of its platform for the 1848 campaign. By the 1850’s, most northerners accepted the idea that the western land should be settled as rapidly as possible in order to bring it into production and to provide a stable population that would serve as a market for the industrial centers in the East. The eastern-based Land Reform movement, led by George H. Evans Evans, George H. and supported by Horace Greeley Greeley, Horace
[p]Greeley, Horace;and Homestead Act[Homestead Act] and his New York Tribune
New York Tribune , rounded out the alliance.

A struggle for homestead legislation was waged in Congress through the 1850’s. The congressional sessions of 1851, 1852, and 1854 devoted much time to such proposals. Southerners were opposed to the concept and argued that no benefits would accrue to their section. In spite of the leadership of Andrew Johnson Johnson, Andrew
[p]Johnson, Andrew;and Homestead Act[Homestead Act] of Tennessee, the Senate, dominated by the southern wing of the Democratic Party, managed to block passage of several bills that passed the House of Representatives. When the Senate finally did pass a homestead bill in 1860, it was vetoed by President James Buchanan Buchanan, James
[p]Buchanan, James;and Homestead Act[Homestead Act] . The Republican Party committed itself to this policy and incorporated a homestead plank in its platform of 1860.

The election of Republican Abraham Lincoln Lincoln, Abraham
[p]Lincoln, Abraham;and Homestead Act[Homestead Act] in 1860 did not guarantee the passage of homestead legislation, because the South still controlled the Senate. However, the secession of the southern states finally made passage of the legislation possible. During the special session of Congress in 1861, a bill was introduced into the House and passed in February, 1862. It passed the Senate in May and was signed by President Lincoln on May 20.

Under the provisions of the bill, which was to go into effect January 1, 1863, settlers twenty-one years of age or older who were, or intended to become, citizens and who acted as the heads of households could acquire tracts of 160 acres of surveyed public land free of all but ten-dollar registration payments. Titles to the land went to the settlers after five years of continuous residence. Alternatively, after only six months, the claimants could purchase the land for $1.25 per acre. Over the years, amendments and extensions of the act made it applicable to forest land and grazing land and enlarged the maximum acreage tract that individual settlers could acquire.

In 1873, the Timber Culture Act Timber Culture Act of 1873 adjusted the original act so that in arid western regions homesteaders could obtain 160 additional acres on which they would agree to plant at least forty acres—a figure later reduced to ten acres—of trees. The Desert Land Act of 1877 Desert Land Act of 1877 allowed western ranchers to homestead up to one square mile, or 640 acres, of ranch land in certain areas. During the 1930’s, executive decisions by President Franklin D. Roosevelt Roosevelt, Franklin D.
[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;and public lands[Public lands] and the Taylor Grazing Act withdrew the remainder of the public domain from private entry. By then, 285 million acres had been homesteaded in the United States.


The Homestead Act was not the complete success its supporters hoped it would be. Homesteading never proved attractive to members of the working class and the urban poor in the East. There also were many competing forms of federal land distribution, including purchase by speculators, massive land grants to railroads, sales of dispossessed Native American lands, and Morrill Act Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 lands turned over to states for sale to support public education. Altogether, more than 80 percent of public lands were distributed through means other than homesteading. Moreover, fewer than half of the nearly three million homesteaders who filed claims actually “proved up” and acquired title to their land after five years. The so-called “Southern” Homestead Act of 1866, Homestead Act of 1866 which was designed to provide land to former slaves, was especially disappointing. Never effectively implemented, it was strenuously opposed by southern whites. Nevertheless, despite their failings, the Homestead Acts helped several million families to obtain land and settle in the West, and it became an important symbol of the effort to create an egalitarian, middle-class, agrarian society in the United States during the nineteenth century.

Further Reading

  • Diamond, Henry L., and Patrick F. Noonan, eds. Land Use in America. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1996. Collection of articles on a wide variety of topics relating to land use in the United States. The general emphasis is on contemporary issues, but many of the essays touch on historical issues, including the Homestead Act.
  • Fite, Gilbert C. The Farmers’ Frontier, 1865-1900. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966. Basic survey of western agriculture during the nineteenth century with an especially strong treatment of the Homestead Act.
  • Gates, Paul Wallace. History of Public Land Law Development. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1968. Summary of the work of one of the foremost scholars of the Homestead Act and public land law.
  • Lanza, Michael L. Agrarianism and Reconstruction Politics: The Southern Homestead Act. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990. The only extensive treatment of this neglected aspect of homestead legislation.
  • Layton, Stanford J. To No Privileged Class: The Rationalization of Homesteading and Rural Life in the Early Twentieth-Century American West. Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1988. Brief work that focuses on the cultural and intellectual aspects of the homestead movement.
  • Richardson, Heather Cox. The Greatest Nation on Earth: Republican Economic Policies During the Civil War. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. Examination of the domestic policy agenda in the United States during and following the Civil War.
  • Shannon, Fred A. The Farmer’s Last Frontier: Agriculture, 1860-1897. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1945. An older but detailed and still important standard work on nineteenth century agriculture in the West.
  • Stratton, Joanna. Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981. Documents women’s perspectives on homesteading.
  • Tilghman, Wendy B. The Great Plains Experience. Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Mid-America, 1981. Companion volume to the documentary series of the same title. One segment, “The Settling of the Plains,” chronicles the settlement of Custer County, Nebraska, from 1865 to 1900.

Westward American Migration Begins

Congress Passes Land Act of 1820

Congress Passes Preemption Act of 1841

Gadsden Purchase Completes the U.S.-Mexican Border

Apache and Navajo War

Lincoln Signs the Morrill Land Grant Act

Congress Creates the Freedmen’s Bureau

Dominion Lands Act Fosters Canadian Settlement

Powell Publishes His Report on the American West

General Allotment Act Erodes Indian Tribal Unity

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