The Top 10 Myths about Homesteading
#1 Most people who homesteaded were successful at it.
Truth: Researchers think the homestead success rate is only around 40%. They get this number by comparing two figures. The number of people who applied for homesteads and those people who actually got patent to the lands for which they applied. Now, the Homestead National Monument and University of Nebraska are conducting new research on success rate of homesteads. Their research helps us better understand the accuracy of this number. They think between 2 and 4 million people applied for homesteads. The research gives us a better idea about that figure as well.
#2 Homesteading only took place in the West.
Truth: Homesteading took place in 30 states. It includes states as different as Florida, Ohio, and Alaska.
#3 Land can still be homesteaded today.
Truth: Homesteading can no longer be done under the suite of federal homestead laws that began in 1862. These laws were all repealed in 1976. However, claims could happen under the 1877 Desert Land Act that was never repealed. Some people sometimes view that law as related to homesteading. Learn More about the Desert Land Act >>
#4 Homesteading was easy.
Truth: Homesteading may have been relatively easy for some people. It was much less so in more marginal, dryer lands. The success rate of homesteads also indicates that homesteading overall was probably not easy. Only about 40% of all homesteads were patented.
#5 Only men could homestead.
Truth: Researchers estimate that around 10 – 12% of all homesteaders were women. The original 1862 Homestead Act allowed single women to homestead if they were the head of a household.
#6 People always had to farm to get a homestead.
Truth: Surprisingly, this is not true for at least two situations. One exception was the Stock Raising Homestead Act of 1916. A settler could get a homestead for making improvements related only to raising stock.
The other was in Alaska for a few years after World War II and prior to June 18, 1954. World War II veterans who had over 19 months of combat service and could otherwise prove up on their homesteads after a year didn’t have to perform cultivation on any of the land. The law also allowed them to take advantage of their time in service to count for all but a year of residency on their homesteads.
#7 Homesteading never occurred in Texas because it was not a Public Land state when it entered the union as a former republic and had its lands reserved to the state.
Truth: When it entered the union in 1845 as a state, Texas had land claims for about 50% more land than its current size. These included parts of what later became five states. These were Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. Under the Compromise of 1850, Texas sold those claims to the United States. Subsequently, a lot of the lands formerly claimed by the State of Texas during 1845-50 were later homesteaded, although not as a part of the state of Texas. Texas also had its own state homestead program created under Texas state law.
#8 Homesteading ended in 1976.
Truth: The law that ended homesteading in 1976 in the Lower 48 states allowed it to continue for another 10 years in Alaska. The most recent homestead claim for which a homestead patent was given was in Alaska. It was filed in 1980. The 1976 law was the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.
#9 We know the number of people who homesteaded and the amount of land they claimed.
Truth: Right now, we can only estimate the numbers. The real numbers exist but it will take a lot of work to develop precise answers. Doing this will entail a close look at individual homestead case files that are mostly in the National Archives. Some are located in Alaska and possibly elsewhere.
#10 Statistics based on homestead records that have been abstracted by the BLM are reliable.
Truth: While this is mostly true, it is not 100% true. In Alaska, for example, when homestead records were first computerized, the work sometimes did not correctly summarize all the facts of each case. For instance, the law under which the patent was granted was sometimes misstated. Sometimes that was due to errors on the original patent document. Also, not all homestead records are yet listed on the BLM-GLO records website. Records of homestead application by persons who never received patents to their homestead claims are entirely missing.
And a bonus:
#11 Homestead patents were signed by presidents.
Truth: Many people believe this because the name of the then-current president is listed as “signing” a homestead patent. However, it is wishful thinking. A closer look reveals that a secretary or some other person authorized to sign for the president signed homestead patents from the 1860s through mid-1948. After that, the president’s name no longer even was listed on homestead patents.
Before homesteading started in the 1860s, presidents did sign some patent documents. But this practice began changing in the early 1800s when President James Monroe sometimes had other people sign for him. By the mid-1830s, presidents had other people sign such documents for them with no attempt to make the signature resemble that of the president.