Homestead laws in the United States created a path to legal ownership for small family farmers who were willing to move onto undeveloped public land and improve the property.
Although there were some attempts to open public lands to individual ownership during the first 80 years of the United States of America, wealthy Southern landowners defeated these efforts. The Civil War opened the way for millions of American families to become property owners.
[Southern landowners] continually fought (and defeated) previous homestead law proposals, as they feared free land would attract European immigrants and poor Southern whites to the west. After the South seceded and their delegates left Congress in 1861, the Republicans and other supporters from the upper South passed a homestead act. — Wikipedia
One of the earliest acts of legislation after Southern states seceded from the Union in 1861 was the Homestead Act. Abraham Lincoln signed the bill into law on May 20, 1862.
Ownership of 160 acres was granted to any US citizen who met the following conditions:
- File an application and pay filing fees ($22 – $35)
- Improve the land
- File for the patent (deed) after occupying the land for five years
Applicants had to be at least 21 years old or head of household. Women and freed slaves were eligible. The homestead applicant could buy the property outright after six months of occupancy for $1.25 /acre. The entire process from application to patent filing had to be completed within seven years.
The transcontinental railroad opened the door to westward settlement. By 1934, more than 1.6 million homestead applications had been processed by the General Land Office.
- Daniel Freeman filed the first application under the Homestead Act of 1862
- Mary Meyer was the first woman to file a homestead application
- Ken Deardorff was the last person to receive title for homesteaded property in 1988
The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 ended homesteading in the continental United States. Homestead filings were allowed in Alaska until 1986.