150th Anniversary of Homestead Act

If you live by a river or creek, chances are pretty good that your property was once part of the 1862 Homestead Act. According to 2007 statistics, there are more than 93 million descendants of homesteaders in the U.S. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the 1862 Act which was passed by Congress during the Civil War. They voted to provide 160 acres of free land. In exchange, homesteaders were required to build a 10’x12’ cabin to ‘prove’ their claim, live on the land for five years, and plant crops. 

Lincoln’s signing of the Homestead Act transformed the U.S. and the world as millions of lives were impacted by the government’s free land distribution. A unique feature of the Act was its openness—the law did not require that homesteaders be U.S. citizens, or even men. Therefore, many single mothers tried their hand at homesteading. Under the Act, homesteaders claimed and settled over 270 million acres, or 10 percent of the area of the United States.

According to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), since much of the prime low-lying alluvial land along rivers had been homesteaded by the turn of the twentieth century, a major update called the Enlarged Homestead Act was passed in 1909. It targeted land suitable for dryland farming, increasing the number of acres to 320. In 1916, the Stock-Raising Homestead Act targeted settlers seeking 640 acres of public land for ranching purposes. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, however, substantially decreased the amount of land available to homesteaders in the West. The intent of this 1934 Act was to "stop injury to the public grazing lands [excluding Alaska] by preventing overgrazing and soil deterioration; to provide for their orderly use, improvement, and development; and to stabilize the livestock industry dependent upon the public range" (BLM, 2011, ¶1).