The Homestead Act 1862-2012
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Homesteading as a Spark to the Settlement of New Areas and Economic Growth 

The opportunities that homesteading gave to people were remarkably broad for its time.   People from all walks of life had the ability to obtain free land from which they could reap continuing economic benefits, thereby having permanent means to improve their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren. Thus, homesteading provided a pathway for success in America that required only hard work and dedication to succeed. And in the playing out of homesteading, the nation itself would be benefitted by the promotion of new settlements and the economic benefits that would arise from them. 

Yet even before passage of the 1862 Homestead Act, certain earlier legislation allowed early settlers to obtain free land in Oregon, and later, in the Washington Territories. In that case, it was partly designed to entice people to stay in frontier regions as a way of retaining more United States presence to counter British claims. 

Although homesteads could not be patented until they were surveyed, those wanting homesteads were in most cases given preference rights to lands on which they previously “squatted” without legal rights or before making a formal homestead application. (Some exception to this principle of “squatters’ rights” came during homesteading parts of what is now Oklahoma. During the land rushes of the 1880s and 1890s, no early settlement was allowed.) 

As the very best lands were claimed, homesteaders pushed on to more distant lands, including those in dryer areas. In the early 1900s, many parts of the north and northwestern areas of the country were experiencing higher than normal rainfall that would end in the second half of the 1910s. Prior to the mid-1910s, many homesteaders unknowingly settled in the then-unusually wet areas of the western Dakotas, Montana, as well as parts of Idaho, Washington, and Montana. As those areas increasingly dried out in the later 1910s, 1920s, and into the 1930s, many homesteaders found it impossible to grow crops. Many left their homestead (if not yet patented) leaving it in federal ownership, or later bought back into federal ownership following special legislation during the New Deal era of the later 1930s. In other cases, those homesteaders who remained, bought out their neighbors' failed ventures, and thus expanded to create larger, more economically viable farms in now-dryer areas. The results today are that some parts of the country are actually less densely settled than they were in the early 1900s.

But elsewhere, settlements by homesteaders did lead to the rise of communities and towns that are still thriving today. Many towns and cities in the western half of the United States trace back to land that was first homesteaded. And in the case of some cities, there were even very deliberate attempts by the first homesteaders to create towns where they could then sell off parts of their farm land as more expensive city lots. Such an example is Pullman, Washington. In 1881, two adjoining homesteaders sold a small amount of their land to a man from Oregon willing to establish the first store. This was soon after word reached the settlers of a future railroad being built through the area. By the mid-1880s, after two railroads were eventually built through the settlement, the town experienced continual growth. Later, in 1890, when it was selected by the state legislature to receive a land-grant college, the town was poised for even further expansion. Today, the town’s population is over 30,000 and still growing with Washington State University enrollment of around 20,000 students.

Similar to Pullman, numerous other towns and cities of the west also began on homesteads, with histories of places like Lincoln, Nebraska and Homestead, Florida each filled with stories that connect them to the early homesteaders who first settled the land.

Last updated: 03-07-2012