In 1997, the now-defunct political magazine George published an article listing its choices for the ten most important legislative achievements in American history. Landmark laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the G.I. Bill claimed spots, as did Social Security and the interstate highway system.
The Homestead Act of 1862 landed at number three, beaten only by the Louisiana Purchase and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This seems appropriate considering that the nation acquired much of the land eventually opened to homesteaders in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was a lightning rod for abolitionists and those opposed to slavery’s expansion to the West. By letting residents of Kansas and Nebraska decide if the states would have slavery or not—a system known as “popular sovereignty”—the act bearing those Territories’ names effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise and made slavery possible in areas north of the 36-30 line.
Kansas and Nebraska later saw huge numbers of homesteaders within their borders. More importantly, though, the Homestead Act, like the Kansas-Nebraska bill before it, became politicized as North and South marched toward war. Southerners that cared little about western settlement under the Homestead Act came vehemently to oppose it, seeing it as a northern plot to populate the western territories with free soil settlers and prevent the expansion—and, therefore, survival—of slavery. Likewise, northerners far removed from the West who might not have given any thought to that region’s concerns came to view homesteading as a critical measure to provide genuine opportunity to the homesteader while limiting the South’s options to expand slavery.
The Homestead Act was a critically important issue to the fledgling Republican Party in the 1850s and early 1860s. As abolitionists joined the Republicans’ ranks, more southerners came to oppose homesteading on principle alone—guilt by association with Republicans, if you will. Early Republicans consisted of abolitionists, disaffected Whigs and Democrats, former Know-Nothings, and the castoffs of other regional parties. Homesteading, even more than the abolition of slavery, was one issue on which most of them agreed from the beginning and was therefore an important cause for cementing cohesion among the first Republicans.
The Homestead Act’s provisions were simple. The law offered a qualified settler the opportunity to select a piece of public land up to 160 acres in size, though claims in some areas were limited to 80 acres. Once selected, the prospective homesteader paid minimal administrative costs to the government and had to take up residence on the land within six months. At least ten acres had to be placed in cultivation, and the settler had to stay on the property for five consecutive years. Once that time elapsed and the homesteader met all legal requirements of the law, the federal government transferred permanent title to the property to the homesteader. Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862, the Homestead Act took effect January 1, 1863—the same day as the Emancipation Proclamation—and eventually transferred over 270 million acres of land in 30 states to settlers. Remarkably, the law remained active in some areas of the country until 1976 and until 1986 in Alaska.
The Homestead Act initiated great changes to American society. Homesteading provided new levels of opportunity to many not accustomed to it. Women, still unable to own land in their own names in many parts of the country, were free to claim and own homesteads. After the Civil War and the resulting Reconstruction-era amendments to the U.S. Constitution, thousands of African Americans went west seeking homesteads. Immigrants from most areas of the world were welcomed and sometimes even invited to the United States to make claims.
The law was not perfect by any means. Reflecting society’s values of the era, immigrants of Chinese origin were barred from homesteading. The law also had catastrophic effects on many American Indian populations and cultures. Indian displacement and removal had been occurring for decades before the Homestead Act, but this law represented yet another in a long line of acts that served to remove natives from their ancestral homes and force them onto reservations. Homesteading had environmental impacts that contributed to drought, soil erosion and degradation, and the onset of the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s.
Later, the Homestead Act became a central piece in a series of western bills Republicans rammed through Congress during the Civil War while no southerners were present to object. This represented Republicans taking full advantage of the opportunity to pass what the party viewed as a critical tool to determine the future of the West and the nation as a whole. Republicans used homesteading, a transcontinental railroad, new taxes, land grant colleges, national banking, and other radical ideas to completely change the nation’s financial system, settlement patterns, commerce, economy, and social structure. In fact, the Homestead Act represented a foundational piece of a legislative agenda that had as much impact as the New Deal seven decades later.
The upheaval of the 1850s, rising sectional tensions, and the creation of the Republican Party were all important milestones on the road to the Civil War. The “free land” idea manifested in the Homestead Act played an important role in all of these events and must be considered when assessing the actions of both the North and South in the decades before the war. Abraham Lincoln and his Republican colleagues saw the Homestead Act as a means to provide genuine opportunity to the masses while accomplishing their political goals of keeping slavery out of the West and determining the future settlement and economic success of that region.