Homestead Act

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  • Topic: Public Land Survey System, Homestead Act, Land patent
  • Pages : 9 (2927 words )
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  • Published : June 19, 2005
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The Homestead Act of 1862 made surveyed lands obtainable to homesteaders. The act stated that men and women over the age of 21, unmarried women who were head of households and married men under the age of 21, who did not own over 160 acres of land anywhere, were citizens or intended on becoming citizens of the United States, were eligible to homestead. This paper will show how the Homestead Act came to be enacted, who the homesteaders were and the effects of the Homestead Act on the pioneers.


The distribution of Government lands had been an issue since the Revolutionary War. Early methods for allocating unsettled land outside the original 13 colonies were chaotic. Boundaries were established by stepping off plots from geographical landmarks. As a result, overlapping claims and border disputes were common. The Land Ordinance of 1785 finally implemented a standardized system of Federal land surveys that eased boundary conflicts. Territories were divided into a 6-mile square called a township prior to settlement. The township was divided into 36 sections, each measuring 1 square mile or 640 acres each. Sale of public land was viewed as a means to generate revenue for the Government rather than as a way to encourage settlement. Initially, an individual was required to purchase a full section of land at the cost of $1 per acre for 640 acres. The investment needed to purchase these large plots and the massive amount of physical labor required to clear the land for agriculture were often insurmountable obstacles. According to all available indexes of growth, the United States grew enormously between 1840 and 1860. The continental limits of the nation were reached, with the exception of Alaska, by 1854 through the acquisition of the Mexican Cession territory and the Gadsden Purchase. The population continued its upward spiral, moving from slightly over seventeen million in 1840 to over thirty-eight million in 1860. New canals, steamboats, turnpikes, and railroads knit the nation together into an integrated economic unit. Hundred of thousands of people crossed the Atlantic to take up residence in the dynamic nation, while other hundreds of thousands moved into the Western regions of the country.

Legislative efforts to improve homesteading laws faced opposition on multiple fronts. Southern majorities in Congress consistently blocked legislation called for by the other sections of the country because they worried that rapid settlement of western territories would give rise to new states populated by small farmers opposed to slavery. Others were concerned that factories in the East would lose their supply of cheap labor if workers were lured westward by the availability of small blocks of land at low prices. Congressmen from the West argued that settlers were performing a patriotic service when they tamed the wilderness and advanced the frontier. For decades, the halls of Congress echoed with debates about the minimal price at which land should be sold and the minimal acreage that a buyer should be required to purchase. Gradually, Congress decreased the minimum unit from 640 acres in 1785 to 320 acres in 1800, 160 acres in 1804, 80 acres in 1820, and 40 acres from 1832 until 1862, when the Homestead Act gave 160 acres free to anyone who would live on the land and cultivate it for five years.


The Pre-emption Act of 1841 legitimized squatting by letting farmers claim unsurveyed plots and later buy them from the government. Pre-emption became the national policy, but supporting legislation was blocked. Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee took up the cause in 1840. Southerners opposed Johnson's land giveaway as benefiting working-class whites who were unlikely to vote slavery into the new states. Three times the House of Representatives passed homestead legislation (1852, 1854, and 1859) but...
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