Homestead Act of 1862

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Homestead Act of 1862


By: Galusha A. Grow

Date: May 20, 1862

Source: National Parks Service. Homestead National Monument. "The Homestead Act of 1862." < f%201862.htm> (accessed June 17, 2006).

About the Author: Galusha A. Grow (1822–1907), a Republican from Pennsylvania, served as the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1861 to 1863.


The Homestead Act of 1862 helped settle the West by encouraging the westward migration of whites. Under the legislation, the government offered 160 acres of public land to settlers who would live and labor on it. Many people took the offer and settled in the Great Plains.

Since the day that whites first landed in the New World, land ownership had been the key to a prosperous future. Pioneers had a tendency to settle past areas that had been surveyed and announced for sale. As the West became more settled, this tendency to pick a tract in an unopened area increased. Squatters were pioneers who found and claimed choice land before it was marked for sale.

The roots of the Homestead Act date to the 1820s when the U.S. Congress began to give relief to squatters by giving them preemption rights in certain areas. In 1841, a general Preemption Act granted anyone settling on publicly owned land that was surveyed but not yet available for sale the right to buy 160 acres at the minimum price when it was auctioned. The nation's land policy was as liberal as could be consistent with the demand that the public domain be a continuing source of revenue.

In the 1850s, as agitation for land continued, it became apparent that the passage of a homestead law was inevitable. Southerners, who had at one time favored grants to actual settlers, became violently opposed to this as time went on. The typical 160-acre farm proposed by homestead supporters was not large enough to make slave labor economical. To Southerners, it seemed obvious that homesteading would fill the West with antislavery people. Northern congressmen joined forces with westerners because they knew that free land meant free states.

In 1860, a homestead act was passed, but President James Buchanan, fearing that the South would use it as an excuse to secede, vetoed the bill. Two years later, with the Civil War raging and Southerners out of Congress, the Homestead Act of 1862 became law.


The Homestead Act of 1862
37th Congress Session II 1862

Chapter LXXV—An Act to secure Homesteads to actual Settlers on the Public Domain.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such, as required by the naturalization laws of the United States, and who has never borne arms against the United States Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies, shall, from and after the first January, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, be entitled to enter one quarter section or a less quantity of unappropriated public lands, upon which said person may have filed a preemption claim, or which may, at the time the application is made, be subject to preemption at one dollar and twenty-five cents, or less, per acre; or eighty acres or less of such unappropriated lands, at two dollars and fifty cents per acre, to be located in a body, in conformity to the legal subdivisions of the public lands, and after the same shall have been surveyed: Provided, That any person owning and residing on land may, under the provisions of this act, enter other land lying contiguous to his or her said land, which shall not, with the land so already owned and occupied, exceed in the aggregate one hundred and sixty acres.

SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That the person applying for the benefit of this act shall, upon application to the register of the land office in which he or she is about to make such entry, make affidavit before the said register or receiver that he or she is the head of a family, or is twenty-one years or more of age, or shall have performed service in the army or navy of the United States, and that he has never borne arms against the Government of the United States or given aid and comfort to its enemies, and that such application is made for his or her exclusive use and benefit, and that said entry is made for the purpose of actual settlement and cultivation, and not either directly or indirectly for the use or benefit of any other person or persons whomsoever; and upon filing the said affidavit with the register or receiver, and on payment of ten dollars, he or she shall thereupon be permitted to enter the quantity of land specified: Provided, however, That no certificate shall be given or patent issued therefor until the expiration of five years from the date of such entry; and if, at the expiration of such time, or at any time within two years thereafter, the person making such entry; or, if he be dead, his widow; or in case of her death, his heirs or devisee; or in case of a widow making such entry, her heirs or devisee, in case of her death; shall prove by 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 the affidavit aforesaid, and shall make affidavit that no part of said land has been alienated, and that he has borne true allegiance to the Government of the United States; then, in such case, he, she, or they, if at that time a citizen of the United States, shall be entitled to a patent, as in other cases provided for by law: And provided, further, That in case of the death of both father and mother, leaving an Infant child, or children, under twenty-one years of age, the right and fee shall ensure to the benefit of said infant child or children; and the executor, administrator, or guardian may, at any time within two years after the death of the surviving parent, and in accordance with the laws of the State in which such children for the time being have their domicile, sell said land for the benefit of said infants, but for no other purpose; and the purchaser shall acquire the absolute title by the purchase, and be en-titled to a patent from the United States, on payment of the office fees and sum of money herein specified.

SEC. 3. And be it further enacted, That the register of the land office shall note all such applications on the tract books and plats of, his office, and keep a register of all such entries, and make return thereof to the General Land Office, together with the proof upon which they have been founded.

SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That no lands acquired under the provisions of this act shall in any event become liable to the satisfaction of any debt or debts contracted prior to the issuing of the patent therefore.

SEC. 5. And be it further enacted, That if, at any time after the filing of the affidavit, as required in the second section of this act, and before the expiration of the five years aforesaid, it shall be proven, after due notice to the settler, to the satisfaction of the register of the land office, that the person having filed such affidavit shall have actually changed his or her residence, or abandoned the said land for more than six months at any time, then and in that event the land so entered shall revert to the government.

SEC. 6. And be it further enacted, That no individual shall be permitted to acquire title to more than one quarter section under the provisions of this act; and that the Commissioner of the General Land Office is hereby required to prepare and issue such rules and regulations, consistent with this act, as shall be necessary and proper to carry its provisions into effect; and that the registers and receivers of the several land offices shall be entitled to receive the same compensation for any lands entered under the provisions of this act that they are now entitled to receive when the same quantity of land is entered with money, one half to be paid by the person making the application at the time of so doing, and the other half on the issue of the certificate by the person to whom it may be issued; but this shall not be construed to enlarge the maximum of compensation now prescribed by law for any register or receiver: Provided, That nothing contained in this act shall be so construed as to im-pair or interfere in any manner whatever with existing preemption rights: And provided, further, That all persons who may have filed their applications for a preemption right prior to the passage of this act, shall be entitled to all privileges of this act: Provided, further, That no person who has served, or may hereafter serve, for a period of not less than fourteen days in the army or navy of the United States, either regular or volunteer, under the laws thereof, during the existence of an actual war, domestic or foreign, shall be deprived of the benefits of this act on account of not having attained the age of twenty-one years.

SEC. 7. And be it further enacted, That the fifth section of the act entitled "An act in addition to an act more effectually to provide for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States, and for other purposes," approved the third of March, in the year eighteen hundred and fifty-seven, shall extend to all oaths, affirmations, and affidavits, required or authorized by this act.

SEC. 7. That nothing in this act shall be so construed as to prevent any person who has availed him or herself of the benefits of the first section of this act, from paying the minimum price, or the price to which the same may have graduated, for the quantity of land so entered at any time before the expiration of the five years, and obtaining a patent therefore from the government, as in other cases provided by law, on making proof of settlement and cultivation as provided by existing laws granting preemption rights.

APPROVED, May 20, 1862.


The Homestead Act bolstered western loyalty to the United States but it did not turn out to be the bonanza that many had expected. At the time that the legislation passed, prime fertile lands remained unclaimed only in western Iowa, western Minnesota, eastern Kansas, eastern Nebraska, and the Dakotas. Most of the first-class land was soon taken, however, leaving little except the unclaimed lands west of the hundredth meridian in the Great Plains. Little rain fell in this area. In most of the plains and mountain regions, a 160-acre homestead was impractical because the land was suitable only for grazing livestock. Farms required much more acreage.

It was so easy to circumvent the provisions of the law that land grabbers used it, along with the legislation that still provided for outright purchase, to amass great holdings. Between 1870 and 1900, less than one acre in five that were added to farming rolls belonged to homesteaders. Most were held by big businesses.



Gates, Paul Wallace. Agriculture and the Civil War. New York: Knopf, 1965.

Gould, Florence C., and Patrician N. Pando. Claiming Their Land: Women Homesteaders in Texas El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1991.

Merrill, Karen R. Public Lands and Political Meaning: Ranchers, the Government, and the Property btween Them. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.