Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Homestead Act is a piece of U.S. legislation which gave 160 acres (0.65 km²) i.e. one quarter of a section of a township of undeveloped land in the western United States to any family head provided he lived on it for five years, or allowed the family head to buy it for $1.25 per acre ($308/km²) after six months. The act was signed into law by President Lincoln on May 20, 1862.
By the end of the 19th century, very little useful agricultural land remained open to settlement, but over 570 million acres (2,300,000 km²) remained open to settlement. As the Frontier moved west onto the arid Great Plains the amount of land a homesteader was allowed to claim was changed to 640 acres (2.6 km²), a full section.
In 1906, the Forest Homestead Act was passed. The Homestead Act of 1912 reduced the homestead requirement from five to three years.
Although a few isolated pockets remained into the 1950s most land in the lower 48 states had been taken up by 1910 or so. Homesteading continued on a small scale in Alaska. Much of the remaining public domain was included in the National Forests or is administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
In Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado homesteading cut into the access of the large ranches to the public domain where hundreds of thousands of cattle were grazed upon the open range, a practice called free grazing . The ranchers fought back by themselves (or their cowboys) homesteading prime spots which gave access to water. At times tensions escalated into violence, conflicts called range wars , for example, the Johnson County War in Wyoming.
The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 ended homesteading; the government believing that the best use of public lands was for them to remain in government control. The only exception to this new policy was Alaska, for which the law allowed homesteading until 1986.
The last claim under the Homestead Act was made by Kenneth Deardorff for 80 acres of land on the Stony River in southwestern Alaska. He fullfilled all requirements of the Homestead Act in 1979, but he did not actually receive his patent until May 1988. Therefore, he is the very last person to receive the title to land claimed under the provisions of the Homestead Act.
Fraud and corporate use
Ironically, the Homestead Act was often used as a scam. Usually, the land that was available was in too poor a shape to farm on, especially in the middle of the plains where droughts were common occurrences. Because of hardships like these, not many families actually stayed for the entire 5 years.
Many corporations also took advantage of this act. They would pay people to buy the top-of-the-line property which contained an abundance of resources such as timber, minerals, and oil. Then the settlers would claim later on that they had "improved" the land. In reality, the improvements made to the land were minimal.
In the history of the world, land ownership had been a great privilege available only to a tiny elite. The self-empowerment, entrepeurship, and social responsibility that followed this privilege were likewise unavailable to the great majority of the world's population. The Homestead Act, for a short time and in a singular place, reversed this balance, and changed the course of American history forever. The real property thus afforded to impoverished East-coast city dwellers and masses of new Northern European immigrants created huge amounts of wealth distributed evenly among a working populace, greatly increasing the stakeholdership of the American Dream. The fact that the Homestead tracts were often excellent farmland not only provided a source of steady subsistence but also a steady income beyond subsistence level; Homestead farmers in time became the agricultural producers to the nation as a whole. Additionally, strong communities with a commitment to social values, education, and personal responsibility were spawned throughout the territories (eventually, new States) covered by the Homestead lands.
The economic, agricultural, and social stability generated by the Homestead Act was utterly inconceivable in other times and places -- and formed a large part of the foundation of American prosperity in the 20th century.
The act was later copied with some modifications by Canada in the form of the Dominion Lands Act, and similar acts, usually termed the Selection Acts were passed in the various Australian colonies in the 1860s, beginning in 1861 in New South Wales.
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