Evolution of Homestead Laws: 
When did Homestead laws first begin changing and why?

Less than two years after its passage, the first amendment to the 1862 Homestead Act was passed on March 21, 1864. It benefitted men who had filed for homesteads but who were serving in the Civil War.   It helped these soldier homesteaders in meeting some of the requirements for patenting their homesteads. 

Other amendments followed over the decades. Congress also passed other homesteading laws. Some had the effect of being amendments in that they changed requirements of the original 1862 Act. Others addressed special circumstances. One of the earliest new laws involving homesteading was one passed on March 3, 1865. It was part of an appropriations bill for the Indian Department. It allowed members of the Stockbridge Munsee Tribes of Indiana to file for homesteads on their own lands. This was the earliest United States law allowing Indians to have homesteads. It predated by a decade the 1875 Indian Homestead Act. That act extended homesteading more broadly to Indians, though still with conditions and limitations.

By the mid-1870s, Congress had passed many laws involving homesteading. When the Revised Statutes of 1878 was printed, it cited eighteen additional homesteading laws. These included laws that amended prior homesteading laws and amendments. Thus, not only were the requirements for homesteading evolving, but they were also getting more specific and detailed. Congress passed some homestead laws for specific groups of people or for specific areas. In the years to follow the 1870s, this happened repeatedly. 

The homestead laws changed and adapted to both the physical and political landscapes of America. As homesteaders entered lands on the Great Plains west of the 100th meridian, they found dryer conditions that made farming often unreliable. Lower precipitation led to low crop yields. 160 acres seemed insufficient to support a farmer in such areas. One solution was to increase the number of acres allowed for homesteads. Several laws experimented in trying to find the best size homestead for certain areas. Other changes to the homestead acts modified the time required to stay on a claim. This enabled the homesteader to earn money from a job elsewhere to support farming. 

Other homestead laws were more politically driven. In several places where timber harvesting was sought, homesteading was allowed. In other places, homestead laws allowed stock raisers to obtain large quantities of land for grazing. Both departed from the original intent of the 1862 Homestead Act.

The history of homesteading in Alaska illustrates the overall evolution of homesteading in America. Over the years, Congress passed a succession of special homestead laws just for Alaska. These laws tailored homesteading not only to Alaska’s special physical landscape and climate, but also to its changing politics. 

Homesteading began in Alaska in 1898. The 1898 law extended most of the general homestead laws for the Lower 48 to Alaska.  Alaska was also the last place where people could file for homesteads. A 1976 law ended homesteading nationally, except for Alaska. Homesteading in Alaska continued until 1986. 

There are several reasons for the extension for Alaska. First, the lands were subject to a series of legal actions that prevented much homesteading since the 1960s. Second, these actions stopped the momentum of the post World War II boom in Alaska homesteading. If the boom had continued it might have brought more people to the Last Frontier state. The boom might have privatized more federal land. For the State of Alaska that meant fewer tax revenues.  By allowing homesteading opportunities to continue for ten more years, Congress hoped to remedy the situation in Alaska.

For additional information about the evolution of homesteading laws see 1913: the Peak Year for Homesteding.