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Homestead Acts

The principle of home ownership that is still strongly held in the United States originated as a desire to see people own not just their home but the land necessary to farm for a living. In 1844, after considering the contrast between an increasingly crowded East and abundant western lands under government ownership, George Henry Evans wrote in his newspaper, Working Man's Advocate:

To which end we propose that the general government shall no longer traffic, or permit traffic, in the public lands yet in its possession, and that they shall be laid out in farms and lots for the free use of such citizens (not possessed of other lands) as will occupy them, allowing the settler the right to dispose of his possession to anyone not possessed of other land; and that the jurisdiction of the public lands shall be transferred to states only on condition that such disposition should be made of them.

In 1848, the Free-Soil Party placed a program along these lines in its national platform. Four years later, the first bill authorizing homesteading passed the House but was defeated in the Senate by Southern interests, who feared that anti-slavery elements would populate the new territories. The bill also concerned manufacturing interests, who detected in some of the provisions a specific interest to reduce the number of laborers in the East so that they could demand higher wages. Representative Josiah Sutherland of New York put it succinctly: "I do say that to call this bill ... 'a bill to encourage agriculture, commerce, manufactures and all other branches of industry" is a gross perversion of truth, that its title is wholly inconsistent with its real intent, object, and provisions ..." In 1860, a bill passed both houses of Congress but was vetoed by President Buchanan. With the Republican Party supporting homesteading and the Southern opposition having seceded, prospects brightened in the next session. On May 20, 1862, the Congress passed the Homestead Act of 1862. The act provided that any person who was either the head of a family or 21 years old, and a citizen of the United States or intended to become one, could take 160 acres of public land for his personal use and benefit and, after five years of occupancy (not more than six months absence at a time) could claim ownership for a small fee. Wartime soldiers and sailors were considered automatically old enough, and the initial act excluded those who had fought for or materially supported the Confederacy. After six months, a homesteader could obtain title by paying a cost, usually $1.25 per acre. This provision frustrated the original intent of the act, which was to create a large number of freeholding small farmers. Instead, large tracts of land were accumulated by major landholders. The act of 1862 was modified several times during the nineteenth century. In 1900, Congress passed the Free Homestead Act, opening about 30 million acres which the government had purchased for around $35 million from the Indian tribes of Oklahoma. East of the 100th meridian, the original 160-size proved practical, but farther west on land not suitable for irrigation, modifications were required. The Kinkaid Act of 1904 increased the size to 640 acres for lands most suitable for grazing. Only about 40% of those who started the process ultimately gained title to a homestead. Nebraska was the state with the largest percentage of its land, 45%, taken through homesteading. Homesteading was ended by the federal government in 1976 except in Alaska, where it continued until 1986. The last homesteader to receive title did so in Alaska in 1988.