Today marks the 157th anniversary of the Homestead Act becoming law. For a number of years before the Civil War, there had been interest in allocating public lands in the trans-Mississippi west to individual settlers, but for a variety of reasons, including arguments over the status of slavery in the territories and concerns by Northern business interests that making cheap public lands available would lead to a shortage in labor, Congress had deadlocked over proposed legislation. In 1860, towards the end of the 36th Congress, both the House and the Senate finally agreed on legislation, only to have it vetoed by President Buchanan.
The Republican Party Platform of 1860 included a demand for
…the passage by Congress of the complete and satisfactory homestead measure which has already passed the House.
In the 37th Congress, after the departure of most of the representatives and senators from the seceding states, it became much easier for the House and the Senate to agree on language. And with Abraham Lincoln, a Westerner, as president, approval was assured.
The bill was originally introduced on July 8, 1861, by Representative Cyrus Aldrich of Minnesota in the Special Session of the 37th Congress that met from July 4 to August 6, 1861. This bill was not considered, but when Congress met again in December 1861, Representative John Potter of Wisconsin, as chairman of the Committee on Public Lands, introduced H.R. 125. This bill was passed by the House on February 28, 1862. The Senate took up the bill in late April of that year and passed an amended version on May 6, 1862. A House-Senate conference committee worked out the differences between the two versions, and the bill was approved by both chambers on May 15, 1862. Over the next 100 years, the idea of the law would be incorporated in subsequent legislation that would include timber lands, lands that required dry farming techniques, and range lands.
Land became available under the act on January 1, 1863, with Daniel Freeman filing one of the first claims on that day. By 1900, 80 million acres of land would be patented by claimants though the act. Before the act expired, over 270 million acres would be granted, although not all of this was granted to individuals. The law was repealed for most of the country by section 702 of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, but a ten year extension was retained for Alaska.
To perfect a claim, a settler had to farm a percentage of the acreage within five years of entry. The settler also had to build a dwelling and live on the claim for a certain period of time. Life for homesteaders was often very challenging, especially on the high plains where scarce water and wood made it difficult to grow crops and build a dwelling.