Homestead Acts

US laws allowing ownership of unclaimed land / From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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The Homestead Acts were several laws in the United States by which an applicant could acquire ownership of government land or the public domain, typically called a homestead. In all, more than 160 million acres (650 thousand km2; 250 thousand sq mi) of public land, or nearly 10 percent of the total area of the United States, was given away free to 1.6 million homesteaders; most of the homesteads were west of the Mississippi River.

Norwegian settlers in North Dakota, 1898

An extension of the homestead principle in law, the Homestead Acts were an expression of the Free Soil policy of Northerners who wanted individual farmers to own and operate their own farms, as opposed to Southern slave owners who wanted to buy up large tracts of land and use slave labor, thereby shutting out free white farmers.

The first of the acts, the Homestead Act of 1862, opened up millions of acres. Any adult who had never taken up arms against the federal government of the United States could apply. Women and immigrants who had applied for citizenship were eligible.

Several additional laws were enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Southern Homestead Act of 1866 sought to address land ownership inequalities in the south during Reconstruction. It explicitly included Black Americans and encouraged them to participate, and, though rampant discrimination, systemic barriers, and bureaucratic inertia considerably slowed Black gains,[1] the 1866 law was part of the reason that within a generation after its passage, by 1900, one quarter of all Southern Black farmers owned their own farms.[2]

The Timber Culture Act of 1873 granted land to a claimant who was required to plant trees—the tract could be added to an existing homestead claim and had no residency requirement. The Kinkaid Amendment of 1904 granted a full section—640 acres (260 ha)—to new homesteaders settling in western Nebraska. An amendment to the Homestead Act of 1862, the Enlarged Homestead Act, was passed in 1909 and doubled the allotted acreage from 160 to 320 acres (65 to 129 ha) in marginal areas. Another amended act, the national Stock-Raising Homestead Act, was passed in 1916 and granted 640 acres (260 ha) for ranching purposes.