The urge to expand and migrate west began almost as soon as the first Europeans arrived on the eastern shore of North America. As the population grew over the decades, the demand for lands owned by the government grew exponentially. While the government wanted to distribute land (seen as a form of raising revenue), there was much confusion over the methods used for land measurement, leading to property disputes. In 1785, the Land Ordinance went into effect to standardize land measurement, dividing 6 mile square plots into "Townships" and each township into 36 equal sections of 1 square mile, or 640 acres. At that point, settlers could buy 640 acres of land with certain requirements for purchasing such as improvements, plowing, etc. By the early 1800's, the requirement for purchased was lowered to 320 acres.
The Homestead Act of 1862 was signed into law 146 years ago today, May 20, 1862, by president Abraham Lincoln. The law which went into effect on January 1, 1863 opened the floodgates to "settlement" of the American West and forever changed the country.
But with the coming of rapid expansion in the population and change in demographics in the 1840's, more action was required to provide more opportunity for farmers. Crop prices were rising, modernization was taking place, huge farms were pushing out smaller farmers in the east and the south, and the political climate was changing. Various attempts at providing government lands in the West were met with stiff resistance from Southern politicians who feared that opening lands in the West would limit the spread of slavery.
Finally with the onset of the Civil War and the secession of the South, the Federal Government took action. The passage and signing into law of the Homestead Act of 1862 provided government land of 160 acres to any man (who had never fought against the government) with the stipulation that some crops be planted, the person had to live on the land for 5 years, and that a small structure be built. After 5 years, the person could buy the land for around $1.25 per acre.
Depending on one's point of view, the Homestead Act was a boon or a disaster. It was fantastic for people who wanted their own land and to carve out a new life in the frontier. It was a disaster for the Native Americans, who were pushed further and further west into a life of disease and poverty on reservations.
Eventually, huge agribusinesses (industrial farms) pushed out these farmers and the act was repealed in 1977. Today there is no such thing as being able to settle on government land for five years and then purchasing it for next-to-nothing.
The original Homestead Act document is currently on display in Bismarck, North Dakota as part of the celebration of the Lincoln birth bicentennial. It will remain on display until February 12, 2009. The permanent home of the document is the National Archives in Washington, D.C. To learn more about the Homestead Act, you may click here.