Today, May 20, 1862: Lincoln Signs Act to Further U.S. Expansion [VIDEO]

When the first settlers arrived along the eastern seaboard of America, they not only sought religious and political freedom, but many of them longed to acquire land on which they could support their family in the new world. At first, it was easy to mark off whose land was whose, but as more people arrived, boundary disputes became more common. Many land claims were made using certain landmarks or by pacing off the land, but everyone measures off paces differently.

In 1785, the Congress of the Confederation, passed the Land Ordinance Act of 1785. The law required that lands be surveyed and divided into townships measuring 6 miles by 6 miles. Each township was then divided into 36 sections, each a mile square. Each section consisted of 640 acres. The law also set the minimum land purchase of 1 section at the cost of $1 per acre. Few at the time could afford to pay $640 for a section of land. In comparison, that’s about $16,000 today. Between the price and the amount of work required to tend a square mile of land proved to be a large obstacle to the vast majority of people.

Shortly before 1800, the minimum amount of land available for purchase was reduced to 320 acres which was 1 mile by half a mile. The minimum acreage was decreased but the price increased to $1.25 per acre. However, the purchase could be paid for in 4 installments.

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In 1854, the federal government eliminated the fixed land price. The price per acre was now based upon the desirability of the land. If a piece of land had been available for more than 30 years, the price could be dropped to as low as 12.5¢ per acre. Veterans were also given a bonus or financial incentive to encourage them to purchase land. This all sounded nice, but purchasing land was still out of reach for many Americans.

Congress began debating the possibility of some type of homestead legislation, but the issue of slavery kept any bill from being seriously considered. Many northerners believed that the idea of free land out west would lower overall property values in their areas as well. Additionally, they feared that the lure of free land would diminish the labor force that they relied on. Southerners feared that free land would lead to more free territories or states.

With the onset of the Civil War in 1861, Congress no longer was faced with the objections of southern members of Congress so they moved forward with a homestead act.

On February 28, 1862, the House of Representatives voted 107 to 16 in favor the Homestead Act.

On May 6, 1862, the Senate voted 33 to 7 in favor of the Homestead Act.

On this day, May 20, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law.

The newly passed Homestead Act opened up millions of acres in the western United States. Any US citizen 21-years-old or older could pay a $10 filing fee to claim a homestead of 160 acres (1/2 mile by 1/2 mile). If they lived on the property for five years, they would own the land free and clear and be eligible to obtain more land to add to it.

Some sources claim that a man named Daniel Freeman was the first person to claim a homestead under the new law. Supposedly, Freeman filed his claim on January 1, 1863 for a homestead in the Nebraska Territory.

Regardless who was the first to file, by 1900, 600,000 homestead claims had been filed for a total of 80 million acres. The largest majority of homestead claims centered on the plains of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming.

With a rapidly growing population, many homesteaders turned to raising cattle to help feed the population. By 1880, the number of cattle being raised in the Plains States had increased from around 300,000 before the Homestead Act to 4.5 million.

In 1976, Congress repealed the Homestead Act, however one last homestead claim was granted to Kenneth Deardroff in 1979 for 80 acres in Alaska.



Sources for the above includes: Homestead Act; Homestead Act; The Homestead Act Went Into Effect May 20, 1862; Lincoln Signs Homestead Act; Union Congress passes the Homestead Act; Teaching With Documents: The Homestead Act of 1862; Homestead Act (1862);


Dave Jolly

R.L. David Jolly holds a B.S. in Wildlife Biology and an M.S. in Biology – Population Genetics. He has worked in a number of fields, giving him a broad perspective on life, business, economics and politics. He is a very conservative Christian, husband, father and grandfather who cares deeply for his Savior, family and the future of our troubled nation.

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