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The Homestead Acts were several United States federal laws that gave an applicant ownership of land, typically called a "homestead", at little or no cost. In the United States, this originally consisted of grants totaling 160 acres (65 hectares, or one-quarter section) of unappropriated federal land within the boundaries of the public land states. An extension of the Homestead Principle in law, the United States Homestead Acts were initially proposed as an expression of the "Free Soil" policy of Northerners who wanted individual farmers to own and operate their own farms, as opposed to Southern slave-owners who could use groups of slaves to economic advantage.
The first of the acts, the Homestead Act of 1862, was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862. Anyone who had never taken up arms against the U.S. government (including freed slaves and women), was 21 years or older, or the head of a family, could file an application to claim a federal land grant. There was also a residency requirement.
Several additional laws were enacted in the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Southern Homestead Act of 1866 sought to address land ownership inequalities in the south during Reconstruction. The Timber Culture Act of 1873 granted land to a claimant who was required to plant trees. The tract could be added to an existing homestead claim and had no residency requirement. The Kincaid Amendment of 1904 granted a full section (640 acres) to new homesteaders settling in western Nebraska. An amendment to the Homestead Act of 1862, the Enlarged Homestead Act, was passed in 1909 and doubled the allotted acreage to 320. Another amended act, the national Stock-Raising Homestead Act, was passed in 1916 and again increased the land involved, this time to 640 acres.
The first Homestead Act had originally been proposed by northern Republicans before the Civil War, but had been blocked in Congress by southern Democrats who wanted western lands open for settlement by slave-owners. The Homestead Act of 1860 did pass in Congress, but it was stopped by President James Buchanan with a presidential veto. After the Southern states seceded from the Union in 1861 and their representatives left Congress, the Republican Congress passed the long-delayed bill. It was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862. Daniel Freeman became the first person to file a claim under the new act.
Between 1862 and 1934, the federal government granted 1.6 million homesteads and distributed 270,000,000 acres (420,000 sq mi) of federal land for private ownership. This was a total of 10% of all land in the United States. Homesteading was discontinued in 1976, except in Alaska, where it continued until 1986.
About 40 percent of the applicants who started the process were able to complete it and obtain title to their homesteaded land.
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The "yeoman farmer" ideal of Jeffersonian democracy was still a powerful influence in American politics during the 1840–1850s, with many politicians believing a homestead act would help increase the number of "virtuous yeomen". The Free Soil Party of 1848–52, and the new Republican Party after 1854, demanded that the new lands opening up in the west be made available to independent farmers, rather than wealthy planters who would develop it with the use of slaves forcing the yeomen farmers onto marginal lands. Southern Democrats had continually fought (and defeated) previous homestead law proposals, as they feared free land would attract European immigrants and poor Southern whites to the west. After the South seceded and their delegates left Congress in 1861, the Republicans and other supporters from the upper South passed a homestead act.
The intent of the first Homestead Act, passed in 1862, was to liberalize the homesteading requirements of the Preemption Act of 1841. Its leading advocates were Andrew Johnson, George Henry Evans and Horace Greeley.
The law (and those following it) required a three step procedure: file an application, improve the land, and file for deed of title. Anyone who had never taken up arms against the U.S. government (including freed slaves) and was at least 21 years old or the head of a household, could file an application to claim a federal land grant. The occupant had to reside on the land for five years, and show evidence of having made improvements.
Enacted to allow poor tenant farmers and sharecroppers in the south become land owners in the southern United States during reconstruction. It was not very successful, as even the low prices and fees were often too much for the applicants to afford.
The Timber Culture Act granted up to 160 acres of land to a homesteader who would plant at least 40 acres of trees over a period of several years. This quarter-section could be added to an existing homestead claim, offering a total of 320 acres to a settler.
Recognizing that arid lands west of the 100th meridian, which passes through central Nebraska, required more than 160 acres for a claimant to support a family, Congress passed the Kinkaid Act which granted larger homestead tracts, up to 640 acres, to homesteaders in western Nebraska.
Because by the early 1900s much of the prime low-lying alluvial land along rivers had been homesteaded, the Enlarged Homestead Act was passed in 1909. To enable dryland farming, it increased the number of acres for a homestead to 320 acres (1.3 km2) given to farmers who accepted more marginal lands (especially in the Great Plains), which could not be easily irrigated.
A massive influx of these new farmers, combined with inappropriate cultivation techniques and misunderstanding of the ecology, led to immense land erosion and eventually the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
The Homestead Acts had few qualifying requirements. A homesteader had to be the head of the household or at least twenty-one years old. They had to live on the designated land, build a home, make improvements, and farm it for a minimum of five years. The filing fee was eighteen dollars (or ten to temporarily hold a claim to the land).
Immigrants, farmers without their own land, single women, and former slaves could all qualify.
Settlers found land and staked their claims, usually in individual family units, although others formed closer knit communities. Often, the homestead consisted of several buildings or structures besides the main house.
The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 ended homesteading; by that time, federal government policy had shifted to retaining control of western public lands. The only exception to this new policy was in Alaska, for which the law allowed homesteading until 1986.
The last claim under this Act was made by Ken Deardorff for 80 acres (32 ha) of land on the Stony River in southwestern Alaska. He fulfilled all requirements of the homestead act in 1979 but did not receive his deed until May 1988. He is the last person to receive title to land claimed under the Homestead Acts.
The homestead acts were much abused. Although the intent was to grant land for agriculture, in the arid areas east of the Rocky Mountains, 640 acres (2.6 km2) was generally too little land for a viable farm (at least prior to major federal public investments in irrigation projects). In these areas, people manipulated the provisions of the act to gain control of resources, especially water. A common scheme was for an individual, acting as a front for a large cattle operation, to file for a homestead surrounding a water source, under the pretense that the land was to be used as a farm. Once the land was granted, other cattle ranchers would be denied the use of that water source, effectively closing off the adjacent public land to competition. That method was also used by large businesses and speculators to gain ownership of timber and oil-producing land. The federal government charged royalties for extraction of these resources from public lands. On the other hand, homesteading schemes were generally pointless for land containing "locatable minerals," such as gold and silver, which could be controlled through mining claims under the Mining Act of 1872, for which the federal government did not charge royalties.
The government developed no systematic method to evaluate claims under the homestead acts. Land offices relied on affidavits from witnesses that the claimant had lived on the land for the required period of time and made the required improvements. In practice, some of these witnesses were bribed or otherwise colluded with the claimant.
Although not necessarily fraud, it was common practice for the eligible children of a large family to claim nearby land as soon as possible. After a few generations, a family could build up a sizable estate.
The homesteads were criticized as too small for the environmental conditions on the Great Plain; a homesteader using 19th-century animal-powered tilling and harvesting could not have cultivated the 1500 acres later recommended for dry land farming. Some scholars believe the acreage limits were reasonable when the act was written, but reveal that no one understood the physical conditions of the plains.
Canada passed a similar act, with some modifications, in the form of the Dominion Lands Act. Similar in intent, the British Crown Lands Acts were extended to several of the Empire's territories, and many are still in effect, to some extent, today. For instance, the Australian selection acts were passed in the various Australian colonies following the first, in 1861, in New South Wales.
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