Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter

The Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged development of farming on land as homesteads for western expansion. Heads of households could receive up to 160 acres to farm for five years, or purchase the land after six months. If homesteaders were unable to farm successfully, the land would go back to the government to be offered again to another homesteader. Pro-slavery groups feared a homestead act would give more power to anti-slavery families moving to new territories of privatized land that could become free states, so they fought passage. 

The Civil War, by May 1862, was just over a year old, having begun with the Battle of Fort Sumter. The Homestead Act of 1862 was a way for the Union to expand westward, and in some ways fulfilled the promise contained in President Abraham Lincoln’s message to Congress on July 4, 1861, when he wrote in part:

On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life. Yielding to partial and temporary departures, from necessity, this is the leading object of the Government for whose existence we contend.

According to the National Park Service website, the Act brought to life the “fair chance” to which Lincoln referred and the Act “was one of the most significant and enduring events in the westward expansion of the United States.”

The 1862 Act was not the first effort to expand westward, but prior efforts had been met with resistance from Southern Democrats, who feared European immigrants might inhabit the west. The Act was intended to make it easier for interested persons to move west, without the requirement of “squatters” on federal lands to pay per acre for retaining the property that was part of the Preemption Act of 1841.

The Act had minimal requirements to qualify. Any adult citizen, or intended citizen, who had never borne arms against the United States, could apply for the grant. The citizen was required to improve the land by building a dwelling and cultivating the land. After five years, they obtained the deed to the 160 acres. An inhabitant had the option of a six-month residency with minor improvements and paying $1.25 per acre, the same price as existed under the Preemption Act.

Many could not afford to effectively build a farm and cultivate the land, which included obtaining the necessary tools as well as crops and livestock. One of the first registered homesteaders was Daniel Freeman, whose claim is the site of the Homestead National Monument of America. Freeman is said to have filed his claim ten minutes after the Act became effective on January 1, 1863.

With the Homestead Act of 1862, the westward expansion truly commenced. Over its history, more than 2 million individuals filed claims, with approximately 780,000 obtaining title to the lands. More than 270 million acres were granted while the law was in effect.

Lincoln’s signing of the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862 was an important day in our nation’s history.

Dan Cotter is Attorney and Counselor at Howard & Howard Attorneys PLLC. He is the author of The Chief Justices, (published April 2019, Twelve Tables Press). He is also a past president of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to anyone else. 

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