Teaching With Documents, Volume 2


The Homestead Act of 1862

On January 1, 1863, Daniel Freeman, a scout for the Union Army, was scheduled to leave Gage County, Nebraska Territory, to report for duty in St. Louis. Fortunately for him, while attending a New Year’s Eve party in a hotel in Brownsville, Nebraska, he spoke with some Land Office officials. He was able to convince one of the clerks to open the office shortly after midnight so that he could file a land claim before his departure. In doing so, Freeman became one of the first to seize the opportunity made possible by the Homestead Act, a law signed by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862.

The Homestead Act provided that any U.S. citizen, or intended citizen, who had never borne arms against the U.S. government could claim 160 acres of surveyed government land. Claimants were required to "improve" the plot by building a dwelling measuring at least 12 by 14 and by cultivating the land. After five years on the land, the original filer was entitled to the property, free and clear, except for a small registration fee. Title could also be acquired after only a six-month residency and trivial improvements, provided the claimant paid the government $1.25 per acre. After the Civil War, Union soldiers could deduct the time they served from the residency requirements.

Although this act was included in the Republican party platform of 1860, support for the idea began decades earlier. Even under the Articles of Confederation, before 1787, the distribution of government lands generated much interest and discussion. These early discussions focused on land measurement and price.

A congressional committee decided to end the chaos experienced by settlers and government officials in Kentucky in 1779 by resolving the issue of measurement. Under the existing Virginia System, plots were generally guided by natural landmarks. A Kentuckian could simply step off whatever land he wanted (regardless of shape), survey, and register it. This system led to confusion and a number of overlapping claims. The federal solution was the creation of a system of land surveys to be completed prior to settlement. These surveys were based on a defined unit of measurement called a township. Each township was a six-mile square, divided into 36 sections, measuring one square mile or 640 acres each. Astronomical observations determined the starting points of the measurements. As the country acquired vast new territory throughout the first half of the 1800s, this system of measurement continued.

The early government’s prevailing belief that public land was best used as a source for revenue, rather than as a cheap inducement to settlement, influenced early decisions about price and distribution. In the 1780s, the minimum price for public land was set at $1 per acre, and the minimum amount to be sold to an individual was 640 acres (one section). The cost was prohibitive and the amount of land was simply too much for most would-be settlers, as much of it was wooded and required labor intensive clearing to serve as agricultural land. Consequently, by 1800, provisions were made that halved the minimum amount to 320 acres and allowed settlers to pay in four installments.

In the 1830s and 1840s, as the price of corn, wheat, and cotton rose, well-financed, large farms-particularly the plantations of the South-forced small farmers to sell out and move further west to lands they could afford to develop. All public land during these years sold for $1.25 an acre regardless of condition. Superior plots sold easily, inferior ones did not. To induce settlement to these less desirable areas, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri led a long battle to graduate land prices according to desirability. He even suggested that land be given away, if it had not been purchased within a certaintime period, in order to bring it into minimal cultivation. While the policies of graduating prices and giving away public land were not adopted until later, their very suggestion fueled the growing belief that public land should not be sold simply to raise revenue, but to furnish homesteads and encourage settlement.

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Prior to the war with Mexico (1846-1848), people settling in the West demanded "preemption"—an individual’s right to settle land first and pay later. Essentially, they wanted an early form of credit. Although Easterners feared that this practice would drain cheap labor from their factories, pre-emption became national policy. This was due to impatient pioneers jumping borders to settle where they wished, as had been done since colonial days, and to insufficient funding that caused surveys to lag behind settlement.

Following the war with Mexico, a number of circumstances contributed to the growing support for the homestead movement: the arrival of unprecedented numbers of immigrants drawn by the nation’s prosperity and cheaper trans-Atlantic crossings; new canals and roadways that reduced western dependence on New Orleans; England’s repeal of its corn laws, which opened new markets to American agriculture; and the practice of granting land to railroad companies, which set precedents for similar land concessions to citizens. Furthermore, a growing number of people believed that they could successfully farm nonwooded western lands.

Finally, in 1854, Senator Benton’s principle of graduated pricing was used to sell land that had been on the market for 30 years for 12½ cents per acre. In the next couple of years, extraordinary bonuses were extended to military veterans and those interested in settling the Oregon Territory.

Three times—in 1852, 1854, and 1859—the House of Representatives passed homestead legislation, but on each occasion the Senate defeated the measure. In 1860, a homestead bill providing federal land grants to western settlers was passed by both houses of Congress, but vetoed by President Buchanan. These failures resulted from sectional concerns about slavery. Southerners believed that the proposed policy of making the public domain available in 160-acre plots, free of charge, would fill the West with small farmers opposed to slavery.

After the South seceded from the Union, congressional opposition dwindled, and the Homestead Act of 1862 was passed and signed into law. On the first day the law went into effect, Daniel Freeman and 417 others filed claims. Before the law was ultimately repealed in 1934, more than 1.6 million homestead applications were processed, resulting in more than 270 million acres—10 percent of all U.S. lands—being given by the Federal Government to individuals.

The homestead acquisition process was threefold: filing an application, improving the land, and filing for deed of title. When an individual selected a site, he filed an application with a government land office. For the next five years, the homesteader lived on the land and improved it by building a 12 by 14 dwelling and growing crops. At the end of the five years, the homesteader could file for his patent or deed of title to the land. This required submitting proof of residency and improvements to the land office. The paperwork accumulated by the local land office was forwarded to the General Land Office in Washington, DC, along with a final certificate that declared the case file eligible for a patent. The case file was examined, and if found valid, a patent to the land was sent back to the local land office for delivery to the homesteader.

Unfortunately, there was corruption in the system. For example, speculators took advantage of the fact that the law did not specify whether the 12 by 14 dwelling was to be built in feet or inches. Others acquired homestead land by hiring phony claimants or buying up abandoned land. The General Land Office received inadequate funding to provide the number of investigators needed for its widely scattered offices. Those who did conduct investigations were overworked and underpaid and often susceptible to bribery.

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The conditions the homesteaders faced on the land were even more challenging than the required paperwork. Depending on the location, the challenges could include plagues of grasshoppers and locusts, blizzards, wind, prairie fires, little water, and no wood. The lack of trees for building timbers, particularly in western Kansas and Nebraska and eastern Colorado, prompted the building of homes out of sod. Limited wood also meant limited fuel for cooking and heating, and scarce natural vegetation made it particularly difficult to raise livestock. While 160 acres may have been sufficient for an eastern farmer, it was simply not enough on the dry plains. As a result, in many areas, the original homesteader did not stay on the land long enough to fulfill the claim.

The challenges, however, also led to opportunities for those who stayed. Six months after the Homestead Act was passed, the federal act providing for a transcontinental railroad was signed. Railroads provided easy transportation for homesteaders (many of whom were new immigrants lured by railroad companies eager to sell off the excess land at inflated prices). The new rail lines also provided a means by which homesteaders could receive manufactured goods. Through catalog houses like Montgomery Ward, homesteaders could order farm tools, plows, windmills, barbed wire, linens, weapons, even houses, and have them delivered via the rails. As homesteaders populated the territories, they filed for statehood, and built prairie schools. In many areas, the schools became the focal points for community life, serving as churches, polling places, and gathering spots for clubs and organizations.

One such school built in 1872, near Beatrice, Nebraska, is today part of the Homestead National Monument. The monument, administered by the National Park Service, includes the land claimed by Daniel Freeman. Although a number of other claimants received applications that indicated that their claim was the first, Freeman capitalized on his. In 1886, he sent Congressman Galusha Grow, author of the Homestead Act, a cane made from wood grown on his property. The Congressman accepted the cane along with Freeman’s claim that he was the first entryman and subsequently referred to Freeman as "the first" in a number of speeches.

The national recognition that Freeman received brought forth a number of other claimants. An investigation conducted for the centennial of the Homestead Act by the Bureau of Land Management and experts at the National Archives determined that William Young of Palmyra, Nebraska; Mahlon Gore, of Vermillion, Dakota Territory; and Daniel Freeman all might have a claim to this national honor. The investigation also found that Orin Holdbrook of Des Moines, Iowa, might also be a contender, since he was the only homesteader to file for his claim on the first day and to file for his final certificate exactly five years later, on January 1, 1868. The Department of the Interior, however, embraced Freeman’s claim and established the monument on his homestead in 1936. Today, the site commemorates the lives and accomplishments of all pioneers and the changes to the land and to people brought by the Homestead Act.

Documents featured in this article include a homestead application, certificate, and proof, and a photograph of a pioneer family. Freeman’s application, certificate, and proof and those of other homesteaders are contained in the Records of the General Land Office, Record Group 49. The photograph, #69-N-13606C, is available from the Still Pictures Branch, National Archives at College Park, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001. For more information about land records, General Information Leaflet Number 67 entitled "Research in the Land Entry Files of the General Land Office, RG 49," written by Kenneth Hawkins, is available free from the National Archives and Records Administration, NWCP, Washington, DC, 20408.

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1. Provide each student with a photocopy of each of the featured documents, and make a transparency with the following questions: What types of documents are they? What are the dates of the documents? Who wrote the documents? What is the purpose of the documents? What information in the documents helps you understand why they were written? Ask one student to read the documents aloud as the others read silently. Lead the class in oral responses to the questions.

2. Instruct students to analyze the documents and make a list of the Homestead Act requirements. Ask them to check their answers by referring to the text of the Act, available in Henry Steele Commager and Milton Cantor, eds., Documents of American History, and in the Westward Expansion: 1842-1912 teaching packet available from the National Archives, as well as some textbooks. Lead a class discussion using some of the following questions:

What were the citizenship requirements for settlers?

What were their age requirements?

Why was there a clause pertaining to never having borne arms against the government?

How long did a homesteader have to reside on the property?

What was a homesteader required to do to improve the land?

Whose names appear on the documents?

With what office were these documents filed?

In order to locate this property on a map, what additional information is necessary?

Did Freeman receive a patent for the land?

Why are these documents preserved by the Federal Government?

3. The case file for Virgil Earp, Prescott, Arizona, (1870-1905) is available online from the National Archives and Records Administration on the Web at http://www.nara.gov/nara/EXTXA/earphom.html. The case file for Charles P Ingalls, father of Laura Ingalls Wilder, (1880-1907) is available on the Web at http://www.nara.govlnara/EXTRA/Iingalls.html. Encourage students to look at these later files and to write a paragraph comparing them to the Freeman documents.

4. Divide the class into three groups representing each of the three regions of the country in the 1840s: the North, the South, and the West. Ask each group to research and write their region’s position on the homestead issue. Ask representatives from each group to conduct a mock congressional debate on a proposed homestead bill.

5. Invite a local real estate developer, surveyor, or land official to talk to your class about present-day real estate prices and land measurement. Ask them to bring documents describing property locations using section, township, and range. Then ask the students to use local sources to determine the section, township, and range of your school.

6. Locate and read the article, "How to Use an Economic Mystery in Your History Course," written by Donald R. Wentworth and Mark C. Schug and published in the January 1994 issue of Social Education. Divide the class into six groups and assign each group one of the principles of economic reasoning to consider as they try to solve the "mystery" of the Homestead Act of 1862 by the method proposed in the article. Use the jigsaw method of regrouping for students to share information gathered about all six principles in order to answer the question: Why did so many people fail to take advantage of the Homestead Act?

7. Assign pairs of students different public land states. Inform them that it is 1880, and they have just filed for a homestead in their assigned state. Using information contained in their history books, geography books, and library resources, ask them to determine what crops they will cultivate, if they will raise livestock, how they will obtain water and fuel, and where they will live. Ask them to construct a 12 by 14 (inch) dwelling out of materials that would have been available to them.

8. Divide the class into three groups. Ask one group to determine the population of the Plains states in 1860, 1870, and 1880, and to create a large bar graph with their data. Ask another group to determine how many immigrants came to the United States between 1850-1860, 1860-1870, and 1870-1880, and to create a bar graph with their data. Finally, ask the third group to investigate the miles of railroad tracks in the United States laid between 1850-1860, 1860-1870, and 1870-1880, and to create a bar graph with their data. Ask each group to present their findings as the basis for a class discussion on cause and effect and to answer this question: To what extent did acts of the Federal Government influence these three factors? Historical Statistics of the United States, almanacs, and other library sources will be helpful for this activity.


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Chicago: "The Homestead Act of 1862," Teaching With Documents, Volume 2 in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. Wynell B. Schamel (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, 1998), 33–40. Original Sources, accessed May 13, 2021, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RXEESG1GMG131XA.

MLA: . "The Homestead Act of 1862." Teaching With Documents, Volume 2, in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, edited by Wynell B. Schamel, Vol. 2, Washington, D.C., National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, 1998, pp. 33–40. Original Sources. 13 May. 2021. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RXEESG1GMG131XA.

Harvard: , 'The Homestead Act of 1862' in Teaching With Documents, Volume 2. cited in 1998, Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. , National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, Washington, D.C., pp.33–40. Original Sources, retrieved 13 May 2021, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=RXEESG1GMG131XA.