Lincoln signs the Homestead Act

5/20/2021 cbw

By Dr. Jacob Friefeld

Illinoisan Daniel Freeman made sure he travelled to Nebraska before January 1, 1863, the day the Homestead Act went into effect and allowed him to claim 160 acres of federally owned land. Freeman must have been friendly with the land office agent in Brownville because the office opened just minutes after midnight and Freeman filed what would be the very first homestead claim. His homestead near Beatrice is now the site of the Homestead National Monument of America.

Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law on May 20, 1862. The law allowed Americans to claim 160 acres of the public domain for a small filing fee. If they stayed on the land for five years and made improvements, they could prove-up (take ownership of) their claim. This marked the end of a long struggle by Whig and then Republican advocates of a “free land” policy for the United States that would attempt to distribute land, dispossessed from its original American Indian inhabitants, to citizen and immigrant settlers.

Part of the Homestead Act, signed in the lower right corner by President Lincoln. (National Archives and Records Administration, Identifier 299815)

In many ways homesteading was a progressive law by nineteenth-century standards. By allowing “heads of household” to claim land, it opened the way for single and widowed women to claim land in their own names. The act also encouraged immigration to the United States, allowing immigrants to claim land as long as they became U.S. citizens before they proved-up. (Both proving-up and filing for citizenship required five years of residency.)

The act also included no overtly racial language. With the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment that secured full citizenship for African Americans, they too were free to homestead. They did so by the thousands in the Southern homesteading states and the West.

Illinois-born Oscar Micheaux was one of thousands of African Americans who moved west to homestead. Micheaux homesteaded in South Dakota before launching a successful filmmaking career. (Image from the Oscar Micheaux Portrait Collection, New York Public Library)

Homesteading would go on to have a significant impact on the American West. Between 1863 and 1900, the majority of homesteaders successfully gained title to their land; homesteaders during this same period accounted for nearly two-thirds of the new farms created in the region. It would continue to encourage large-scale western settlement until the 1930s. The federal government eventually repealed the law in 1976 in all states aside from Alaska, which received a ten-year extension.

While both the president who signed the law and the first homesteader were Illinoisans, little land in Illinois was actually settled through the Homestead Act. The Graduation Act of 1854 had significantly discounted the remaining unsettled public land in Illinois, and it was mostly sold by the time the Homestead Act went into effect. In the end, homesteaders only filed 74 claims in Illinois totaling about 6,000 acres.

Jacob Friefeld is an ALPLM research historian specializing in the history of Illinois and the Midwest.

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