The Homestead Act, signed by 16th US President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862, practically gave away government land to any member of the public that could meet certain criteria. By doing this, he hoped to encourage American expansion and the settlement of the West.
Under the Homestead Act, any head of a family who was at least 21 years old could claim 160 acres of government-owned land out west to farm on for five years. During that time, they had to build a house on the land, dig a well, put up fences, and get a farm going that could support them and their family. If, after five years, they had done these things, then they were given the deed to the land. Alternatively, they could buy the lot after six months at a price of $1.25 an acre, which was a fair price but too expensive for a lot of people.
This wasn’t the first time that the government had tried to pass an act like this. Three previous attempts had been made, starting in 1852, but they were all defeated by Southern members of Congress who were afraid the new territories would become free states. Then, after the Civil War began, the Southern states’ votes were no longer an issue, and the Homestead Act was passed with ease.
The Homestead Act helped several people, and it did speed up America’s westward expansion. However, a lot of people proved unable to handle the rigors of the pioneer life, and they left before the five years were up. Furthermore, there were a lot of scams that took advantage of the act. The act was meant to benefit individual families. However, mining and logging companies frequently paid people to file claims so that they could buy them and profit from the untapped resources on or under the land.
As more land was claimed, the amount that could be claimed was lowered, and the program was slowly wound down over a long period of time. The Homestead Act was not finally repealed until 1976, however. The last deed granted under the Act was handed out a few years later when the final contract concluded.