The Homestead Act 1862-2012
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1913: Peak Year of Homesteading 

The year 1913 was a record-breaking year in the history of homesteading. 1913 saw the largest amount of federal public land patented to the largest number of homesteaders.

  • 59,363 individuals received ownership to 10,884,822 acres.
  • Both were greater than any other any year in the history of homesteading.
  • All of those people had proved up on their land under the homestead laws.
  • It was the only year in which more than 54,000 people proved up on their free homestead land. 
  • The amount of land was nearly equal in size to Massachusetts and New Hampshire combined.
  • 1913 was the only year to see more than 10 million acres become private land under homestead laws.


Why did this happen in 1913? What was so special about that year? 

The reason for the record numbers in 1913 was the passage of new homestead laws in 1909, 1910, and 1912. These laws changed two very significant requirements of the original 1862 Homestead Act. They allowed a homesteader to get more land and to get it faster. 

The Enlarged Homestead law of 1909

  • Increased the maximum amount of land from 160 to 320 acres.
  • It applied to seven states and two territories. These were Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming, plus Arizona and New Mexico Territories. 
  • In 1910, Congress added Idaho to the list. 

The Three-Year Homestead Law of 1912

  • The required time to live on the land was reduced to three years from the original five years. 
  • The law applied retroactively. 
  • Suddenly there were many more homesteaders ready to prove-up and get their land for free in 1913.
Are there other important years? 

Patents Filed
Filed or Claimed
Most applications filed.
Most acres filed.
Second most applications.
Follows 1909 Enlarged Homestead Act
Most patents.
Most acres claimed.
Follows 1912 Three-Year Homestead Law
2nd most patents filed.
2nd most acres claimed.
(Source of statistics: Paul W. Gates, History of Public Land Law Development, Nov. 1968, Appendix A. His main sources were annual federal reports including “Public Land Statistics.”)

What factors helped make 1913 the Peak Year of Homesteading?

First, homestead laws changed during the early part of the twentieth century. The yearly amount of homestead land patented usually increased during this time. From 1908-1912, this amount was over 6 million acres yearly. It was nearly double the acreage awarded on average in the 1890s.

Another factor was improved transportation that made it easier to access the public lands. More and more railroads appeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. More people owned and used automobiles in the early 1900s. It became easier and perhaps even cheaper to “go out West” and homestead. People could book train passage to many areas in the West where land open to homesteading was nearby. 

Also, in the early 1900s, wetter than normal conditions prevailed in the northern Great Plains states. The same was true in some of the normally dryer parts of the Pacific Northwest. These areas included the Big Bend country of eastern Washington and much of central and southern Oregon. But in the second half of the 1910s, dryer conditions set in. Making a living on some homesteads became much harder. Increasing drought conditions made it very hard, if not impossible, for some homesteaders to prove up because of crop failures. These drought conditions lasted into the 1930s in some areas. Today, the BLM in Montana and elsewhere manages public lands where homesteaders filed claims and built cabins but later abandoned the land due to the unfavorable weather shifts in the early 20th century. 

Last updated: 03-07-2012