We often think of law as a specialized, exotic creature, published in heavy tomes and largely inaccessible to laymen. But through my early childhood reading, I was introduced to one of the most important laws of the 19th century, which helped drive the westward expansion of this country.
Like many children who read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, I was unwittingly introduced to the 1862 Homestead Act and the requirements of this law for establishing a homestead claim. It was this law that allowed Pa Ingalls to acquire a homestead in South Dakota near the town of DeSmet. The 1862 Homestead Act allowed for settlers to lay claim to 160 acre lots of public land which had been surveyed by the Federal government. Settlers had to be at least 21 years of age or the head of a family, a citizen by birth or naturalization, and had “never borne arms against the United States Government” in order to qualify. Interestingly enough, the Homestead Act recognized that women might be the head of a family, “that he or she is the head of a family.” A settler had to file an application at the local Land Office and improve the property during the first five years by building a dwelling and raising crops. At the end of five years, settlers could file for a patent (otherwise known as a title deed) by submitting proof they had fulfilled the requirements of the law and take ownership of the land.
The 1872 Mining Act forms an interesting parallel to the 1862 Homestead Act. The Mining Act allowed prospectors to survey and claim public lands in the western states. The stated purpose of this law was to open the mineral claims in the public lands of the United States to exploration and purchase. The law declared that all citizens of the United States, “and those who have declared their intention to become such,” were eligible to register a mining claim. As with the Homestead Act, after a claim was made, and until a patent was issued for the claim, the owner must perform $100 worth of labor each year. However, unlike the Homestead Act, this law recognized that several people might band together and become co-owners of a mining claim. Should one of the co-owners fail to contribute to annual improvements of the claim upon notice, his stake would revert to the other co-owners.
The conditions for filing a patent to a mining claim were somewhat more convoluted than those laid out in the Homestead Act. The main requirement was that the claimant should have invested $500 worth of labor in the claim before filing the patent, with the implication that most claimants would need to hold and work the claim for five years before being eligible to file for a patent. Those filing a patent claim could also apply for a patent of up to five acres of non-mineral land used for mining or milling purposes, even if such land was not adjacent to the mining claim. The 1872 Mining Act was subsequently amended and can be found today in the United States Code Title 30, section 29. Claims filed today are overseen and managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
These laws helped inform the lives of many 19th century Americans–providing them with opportunities to claim farmland and benefit from the rich mineral resources found throughout the public lands of the United States.