Homestead Act of 1862


Also found in: Dictionary, Encyclopedia.

Homestead Act of 1862

The Homestead Act of 1862 was a landmark in the evolution of federal agriculture law. Passed by Congress during the Civil War, it had an idealistic goal: it sought to shape the U.S. West by populating it with farmers. The law's Northern supporters had pursued a vision of taming the rough frontier for several decades, as a means both to create an agrarian base there and to break the institution of Slavery that was entrenched in the South. To achieve this end, they engineered a vast giveaway of public lands. The Homestead Act provided 160 acres of land for a small filing fee and a modest investment of time and effort. The overly optimistic law failed in several ways. Most important, it was exploited by railroads and other powerful interests for profit. After making basic changes to it Congress finally repealed the law in 1977.

The Homestead Act arose from the struggle between the North and the South that culminated in the Civil War (1861–65). During this struggle, the nation followed two competing paths of agricultural development: the industrialized North favored giving public lands to individual settlers, while the South clung to its tradition of slave labor. From the early 1830s, Northern proponents of the free distribution of public land, organized around the Free-Soil party and later in the Republican Party, had their ideas blocked by Southern opponents. The secession of Southern states in 1861 cleared the way for passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, against a backdrop of other important legislation that would define national agriculture policy for the next century: the Morrill Land-Grant College Act, the Pacific Railroad Act, and the creation of the Agriculture Department. The Homestead Act went into effect on January 1, 1863, just as President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves.

In this context of controversy and war, the Homestead Act offered a simple plan to achieve the goals of the North. As yet not fully settled, western states would be populated with a flood of homesteaders—individual farmers whose hard work would create a new agricultural industry. On its face, the law was generous. Anyone who was at least twenty-one years of age, the head of a family, or a military veteran was qualified to claim land; moreover, citizens and immigrants alike were entitled to participate. They paid a small filing fee in return for the temporary right to occupy and farm 160 acres. The land did not become theirs immediately; the law stipulated that it had to be improved, and only after living on and maintaining it for five years would the homesteader gain ownership Proponents viewed the law with an almost utopian fondness: through the federal government's largesse, a new West would be created.

In actual application, the act did not achieve this happy outcome. Although the East offered sufficient rainfall, the West was unforgiving. There, harsh land and arid conditions made farming 160 acres a dismal prospect for the settlers, who lived in houses usually made of sod. Often, they simply needed more acreage in order to succeed. In addition, homesteaders seldom had the best land. By bribing residents who bought the land for them, or simply by filing fraudulent claims, speculators managed to reap the lion's share of land at public expense. It is estimated that only a quarter of the trillion acres made available through the Homestead Act ever served their intended purpose. The bulk of this land went to corporate interests, particularly in the railroad and timber industries, rather than individual settlers.

The Homestead Act left a complicated legacy to U.S. law. Its passage was a triumph for Northern states in their decades-long battle to control the destiny of national agricultural policy. But its limitations and its exploitation meant that the vision of those states could scarcely be realized. Congress made changes to the law during its 105-year history—chiefly, modifying the limits on acreage that it made available—but these amendments did little to alter the act's net effect on the course of national agricultural policy. The law was finally repealed in 1977. Popularly romanticized during the nineteenth century and even into the twentieth, the Homestead Act is now widely viewed by scholars as a failed experiment and a lesson in the contrasts between the intentions and outcomes of law.

Further readings

Buckley, F.H. "The American Fresh Start." 1995. Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal (fall).

Chen, Jim. "Of Agriculture's First Disobedience and Its Fruit." 1995. Vanderbilt Law Review (October).

Nore, Michael J. "'Burn This without Fail': The Downfall of Oregon's Sen. John H. Mitchell." 1995. Oregon State Bar Bulletin (October).

Cross-references

Agricultural Law; Railroad.

Mentioned in ?
References in periodicals archive ?
See supra note 56 and accompanying text (noting that the Act of May 14, 1898 applied the Homestead Act of 1862 to Alaska but limited claims to eighty acres).
Congress complicated the matter, however, when it enacted the Homestead Act of 1862.
This long and rich history includes the Homestead Act of 1862 and the land-grant colleges of the 19th century, Federal Housing Administration loans, Social Security, and the GI Bill, as well as the continuous benefits of tax codes that subsidize homeownership, property, and wealth.
The subject of the conference is "Homesteading Reconsidered," dating from the Homestead Act of 1862 in the United States and the Dominion Lands Act of 1872 in Canada.
Using this model, we reviewed concepts and relationships related to the history, geography, economics, and civics of our pioneer community, We also talked about some of the ways in which the diorama project was similar but not identical to the actual Homestead Act of 1862.
Our federal government--just as it did with the Homestead Act of 1862, offering 160 acres of land to every American who'd farm it for five years, or the G.
The main aspect of the program is interactive equipment that allows students to experience almost all of the features of the park site, which tells the story of ramifications of the Homestead Act of 1862.
In these books, Micheaux brings to the Great Plains the ideals of homesteading as cemented in the Homestead Act of 1862 (1) and the Frontier Thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner.