The Homestead Act was put in place by the U.S. Congress in 1862. It allowed American citizens to receive 160 acres of Western land free after they had spent five years farming it.
There were few eligibility requirements. Technically, the
homesteader did not even need to be a citizen; he needed only to file a declaration of intent to become a citizen in order to receive the land. The only real requirement was that the settler must be 21 years of age or older, and the only required cash payment was in the form of certain administrative fees. According to the Act, land could also be purchased, without cultivation by the homesteader, at a rate of $1.25 an acre. With the later development of farm machinery that
made small tracts uneconomical to operate, Congress expanded the Act to allow the acquisition of larger plots of land.
The Act was put into effect in the belief that only cultivated land had value. It was meant to distribute America's wealth more evenly by enabling poor citizens to start farms. It helped greatly with the growth and spread of the United States.
Over time, more than a quarter of a billion acres of land were acquired and developed under the Act. However,
through trickery and deceit, much of this land wound up in the hands of railroad developers. Due to the ignorance of many homesteaders, this was often some of the best land.
Because the Homestead Act resulted in the development of more railroads, it significantly harmed the environment. The building of the railroad wiped out herds of bison and endangered the lives of those who relied on the buffalo. The expansion of farming itself also caused damage to the
environment, by eliminating prairies and subsequently entire ecosystems; the same was true of the overfarming of dry lands, a practice that greatly contributed to the giant dust storm in the 1930s, the Dust Bowl.
Substantially amended, the Homestead Act is still in effect in the United States today. Due to the absence of good uncultivated and undeveloped land, however, the Act is rarely
The text of the law