What were the benefits of homesteading?
Like all other federal land programs before and since the 1862 Homestead Act, its benefits varied by how they are judged today. Two measures of the benefits of homesteading are: 1) how well they met the intent of the program, and 2) how well they met the needs of the people involved.
With about 270 million acres patented under homestead laws, meaning about one-sixth of the nation, that alone argues for at least some success in the goal of settling the nation. Further, the idea of people being able to obtain free federal land to set up and operate farms was enormously enticing to thousands of would-be homesteaders. It was America epitomized: a land of boundless opportunity, where free land combined with one’s own efforts could lead to a better life. And in many cases, homesteading did provide economic opportunities for otherwise largely landless people both already in the United States, and those in other countries where land ownership was limited mostly to upper classes.
Some indeed saw homesteading as a pathway to a better life and a lifelong way to make a living. Others saw it as a way for faster economic gain, sometimes with no real intent of personally settling down and farming the land as a career. To them, homesteading was more of a way to obtain other goals of wealth or control of land for purposes other than farming, such as cattle-raising. Thus, speculators were also involved with homesteading, with fraud sometimes used to gain title to homesteads.