Homestead Act

The Homestead Act was a United States Federal law that gave freehold title to 160 acres (one quarter section or about 65 hectares) of undeveloped land in the American West. The person to whom title was granted had to be at least 21 years of age, and to have built on the section, and lived in for 5 years, a house that was at least 12 by 14 feet (3.6 x 4.3 m) in size. The Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862.

Background

The act was intended to liberalize the homesteading requirements of the Preemption Act of 1841. The "yeoman farmer" ideal was powerful in American political history, and plans for expanding their numbers through a homestead act were rooted in the 1850s. The South resisted, fearing the increase in free farmers would threaten plantation slavery.[1] Two men stand out as greatly responsible for the passage of the Homestead Act: George Henry Evans and Horace Greeley. Agitation for free land started in 1844, when several bills began to be introduced unsuccessfully until 1862. After the South seceded and their delegations left Congress in 1861, the path was clear of obstacles, and the act was passed. Sadly, it took lands away from thousands of Native American Groups.

The end of homesteading

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 ended homesteading; the government believed that the best use of public lands was for them to remain in government control. The only exception to this new policy was in Alaska, for which the law allowed homesteading until 1986.

The last claim under the Homestead Act was made by Kenneth Deardorff for 80 acres (32 hectares) of land on the Stony River in southwestern Alaska. He fulfilled all requirements of the Homestead Act in 1979, but he did not actually receive his deed until May 1988. Therefore, he is the last person to receive the title to land claimed under the provisions of the Homestead Act.

Fraud and corporate use

The intent of the Homestead Act was to grant land for agriculture. However, in the arid areas west of the Rocky Mountains, 640 acres was generally too little land for a viable farm (at least prior to major public investments in irrigation projects). In these areas, homesteads were instead used to control resources, especially water. A common scheme was for an individual acting as a front for a large cattle operation to file for a homestead surrounding a water source under the pretense that the land was being used as a farm. Once granted, use of that water source would be denied to other cattle ranchers, effectively closing off the adjacent public land to competition. This method could also be used to gain ownership of timber and oil-producing land, as the Federal government charged royalties for extraction of these resources from public lands. On the other hand, homesteading schemes were generally pointless for land containing "locatable minerals", such as gold and silver, which could be controlled through mining claims and for which the Federal government did not charge royalties.

There was no systematic method used to evaluate claims under the Homestead Act. Land offices would rely on affidavits from witnesses that the claimant had lived on the land for the required period of time and made the required improvements. In practice, some of these witnesses were bribed or otherwise collaborated with the claimant. In any case the land was turned into farms.

Related acts in other countries

The act was later imitated with some modifications by Canada in the form of the Dominion Lands Act. Similar acts—usually termed the Selection Acts—were passed in the various Australian colonies in the 1860s, beginning in 1861 in New South Wales.

Popular culture

See also

Further reading

  • Dick, Everett, 1970. The Lure of the Land: A Social History of the Public Lands from the Articles of Confederation to the New Deal.
  • Gates, Paul W., 1996. The Jeffersonian Dream: Studies in the History of American Land Policy and Development.
  • Hyman, Harold M., 1986. American Singularity: The 1787 Northwest Ordinance, the 1862 Homestead and Morrill Acts, and the 1944 G.I. Bill.
  • Lause, Mark A., 2005. Young America: Land, Labor, and the Republican Community.
  • Phillips, Sarah T., 2000, "Antebellum Agricultural Reform, Republican Ideology, and Sectional Tension." Agricultural History 74(4): 799-822. ISSN 0002-1482
  • Richardson, Heather Cox, 1997. The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies during the Civil War.
  • Robbins, Roy M., 1942. Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776-1936.

External links

References

1. ^ Phillips, 2000
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