Hours before President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, Daniel Freeman, a fellow Illinoisan, walked into the land office in Brownville, Nebraska, and filed a claim for  160 acres of public land. Reputedly, Freeman appeared at the office 10 minutes after midnight, paid the required fees and became one of the first citizens to secure his quarter-section of land under the provisions of the Homestead Act of 1862. Freeman and other early claimants made up the small vanguard of a future host of Americans.

The disposition of government-owned land had been a controversial issue since the republic’s founding. Revolutionary War veterans received land bounties for their service. In 1785 and 1787, Congress authorized the surveying of public lands into sections of 640 acres and established requirements for the organization of territories and admission of new states.

As time passed, the sale of land by the federal government provided it with one of its major sources of revenue. Prices generally varied between $1 and $1.25 an acre. Speculators acquired large tracts of land, raised the price and sold them to the flood of settlers into the territories. In 1841 Congress passed the Preemption Act, which allowed squatters to stake a claim to 160 acres, to reside on it for 14 months and then to purchase it for $1.25 an acre.

The Mexican War added millions of acres to the public domain, with the vast majority of the government’s land lying west of the Mississippi River. Except for trading posts and Army forts, the Great Plains remained largely uninhabited except for the nomadic Indian tribes. Early American mapmakers had designated the region as the “Great American Desert.” In the East, however, several newspaper editors and other influential voices viewed the region as an agrarian utopia, where thousands of urban poor and the unemployed could become landowners and farmers. It was a vision that harkened back to Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of a democratic republic of yeoman farmers.

By the 1850s, however, the subject of government land had become entangled with the politics of slavery and its expansion. The Free Soil Party advocated a homestead act, which would allow citizens to secure 160 acres for a nominal fee. The Republican Party adopted the idea in its platform and sought passage of the act. During that decade, the House of Representatives enacted the legislation, only to have it rejected by the Senate. Southerners saw it as a Northern plot to create more free states, leading to an increase in free-state representation in Congress. At one point a Mississippian exclaimed, “Better for us that these territories should remain a waste, a howling wilderness, trod only by the red hunters than be so settled.”

The secession of the Southern states removed the major opponents to the legislation in Congress. When the second session of the 37th Congress convened in December 1861, Republican members introduced the Homestead Act. Key Northern newspapers endorsed the legislation. Both houses of Congress passed the act in May 1862, and Lincoln signed it into law on May 20. It would go into effect on January 1, 1863.

The Homestead Act contained eight sections. The law granted to a citizen or an immigrant who “is the head of a family, or is twenty-one years or more of age, or shall have performed service in the Army or Navy of the United States,” a “patent” to 160 acres of land. The claimant, or patent holder, was required to build a home, make improvements and farm the land for five years. By complying with the terms and paying the total fee of $18, the homesteader or his or her heirs secured title to the land.

Before the end of the Civil War, 25,000 individuals had claimed more than 3 million acres of land. Future sessions of Congress broadened the original law and extended its terms. In time, an estimated half-million farm families settled 80 million acres of homestead land. They filed claims in all five states of the Northwest Territory, in several southeastern states, and in every state, except Texas, west of the Mississippi River—affecting 30 of today’s 50 states. More than 270 million acres passed into private hands under homestead provisions.

Historians and economists have debated the merits of the law. Speculators and transcontinental railroad companies gobbled up huge swaths of land, selling them to settlers at higher prices. The homesteaded land never became an agrarian utopia as envisioned by idealists. The arrival of settlers also brought bloodshed between them and Native Americans, whose cultures were doomed by the massive migrations. But the 37th Congress, burdened by the demands of civil war, enacted a seminal piece of legislation. The Homestead Act of 1862 was a turning point in the social, economic and political history of the country.


Originally published in the April 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here