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The Homestead Act
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The Homestead Act: 
Its Origins and Place in American History

By the mid-19th century, there was growing support for the notion of the federal government providing free land to Americans. This included land for immigrants who wanted to become Americans. In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, Congress passed a bill for homesteading. President Lincoln signed it and the 1862 Homestead Act was law.

Homesteading refers to establishing a homestead or living on it and (hopefully) making a living off of it. The 1862 Homestead Act and other laws gave “Homesteading the Land” a special meaning. People had to fulfill the legal requirements of the acts in order to be awarded the land. Once they met the requirements, the federal government granted them a patent of ownership for their land.

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Origins of Homesteading: A Video with BLM Archaeologist Robert King

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Building a Home on the Frontier: A Video with BLM Archaeologist Robert King

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Homesteading Questions and Answers

Homesteading Facts and Figures

Homesteading and Native Americans

On March 3, 1865, Congress passed homesteading legislation (13 Stat. 541) for the Stockbridge Munsee tribes of Indiana. They resided in Shawano County, Wisconsin. The law allowed them to claim homesteads under the 1862 Homestead Act. It also gave them the right to become US citizens. Citizenship was required to receive a homestead patent. (All Native Americans were finally granted citizenship in 1924.) However, homesteading meant they had to give up their traditional way of life.

Later, citizens clamored to open Indian Territory to non-Indians. On July 1, 1902, Congress passed legislation (32 Stat. 716) to dissolve the lands of the Cherokee Nation. Under that law, tribal lands were allotted to individual Cherokees under the principle of the 1887 Dawes Act. Each member received 40 acres of land under a special “Homestead Deed. “ The Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation and a clerk for the Secretary of the Interior signed the deeds. This and several other similar acts took tribal lands for homesteading. 

Native Alaskan Homesteaders

How much cultivation did a homesteader have to do on a homestead claim to meet farming requirements?

When the 1862 Homestead Act was passed, two places in Section 2 mentioned agricultural use of homesteads. First, the claimed land would be “for the purpose of actual settlement and cultivation.” Second, proving up on the claim would require “two credible witnesses that he, she, or they have resided upon or cultivated the same for the term of five years immediately succeeding the time of filing.” There are no requirements for a specific number of acres or percentage of the homestead to be cultivated. That would remain the case for many years.
This left individual land offices to interpret homestead law. Eventually, the General Land Office wrote guidance and instruction for the land offices to use. During the first few years, land offices may have interpreted the wording in the 1862 Homestead Act differently. Some may have thought that residence or cultivation, but not necessarily both, was sufficient to prove up on a homestead. But was that what Congress intended when it passed the Homestead Act?  It's not entirely clear.

Postcard Showing a Homestead

Postcard Showing a Homestead From Western Nebraska