Collectively, the Homestead Acts are comprised of a group of U. S. federal laws in which people who met the requirements could apply for land, follow some guidelines, and then obtain ownership of the land for little or no money.
More specifically, The Homestead Act of 1862, which was signed by Abraham Lincoln on May 20 of 1862 is one of interest to me personally. The Act stated that anyone who had never taken up arms against the U. S. government, (men, women, and/or freed slaves), and was 21 years of age (or the head of their household), could file an application.
Many people know this much. But there’s more to the story that most do not.
Most think the land was free–not entirely true. Many others, while acknowledging that life would be hard for these original homesteaders, do not completely understand what they went through to meet all the requirements.
Yes, there were requirements. And if you were an honest person, you likely gave up, or got through your requirements at great personal sacrifice.
Applicants originally paid an $18 filing fee and a $10 temporary hold claim for the land specified. They then had to travel to their land (with no cars, no roads, not even a railroad). It was then mandated that they build a structure on the land, live there, make improvements and farm the land for 5 years.
Once they got this far, they had to go sign that they had met regulations, pay a $6 legal fee, $2 commission fee, and then $1.25/acre for their land (prices were adjusted after 1854–some down to $0.125 per acre since no one wanted them).
For those who are curious, $1 in 1862 is equivalent to $23.81 today. Your total fees today would be $5419.16 for 160 acres. That’s not entirely free, but still quite cheap.
Assuming you had the money, however, it wasn’t this simple.
Imagine packing up your family and everything you had (on horse, or foot, or by wagon) and heading to a land where you would brave hunger, thirst, disease, and wilderness to build a home and start land improvements.
Many of us in America can’t fathom living right where we are–in solid structures we call homes–for any amount of time completely on our own.
What if you and your family packed up what you could carry and walked out your door tomorrow? No roads, cars, trains, fast food stops, diapers, laundry services.
To say that our ancestors were amazing would be an understatement.
Those who settled in the plains had little wood–yet were required to build homes. Those whose land had no water had to figure out how to grow crops without.
Personally, my ancestors’ biggest challenge would have been time and wildlife. We can get snow any day of the year, but usually it snows until March or April with the ground still frozen until May. We can’t plant until June 1, and the growing season is over by the beginning of August, with snow again in September.
How on earth did my ancestors (with little babies and all), get it all done in this short amount of time?
Each and every time I am frustrated that I cannot get everything planted in time, harvested in time, preserved in time–I am humbled. My ancestors didn’t have the tractors we have, nor many of the implements, drills, etc. They didn’t even have a tiller. They did all this by hand, with horses if they had them.
When we head out for an entire week of collecting wood, I think, what if we didn’t have this truck, these 2 chainsaws, this highly efficient wood stove?
Living off the land is hard–and I’m not even building my own home at the same time–by hand. I have resources at my disposal. Yes, shopping is 60 miles away–but it’s there if I need it. There is a small hospital 35 minutes away if I need one. A small school is open in the nearest town 6 miles away.
Our ancestors didn’t have any of these things–and they kept going anyway.
There were no hand-outs or free things. If you didn’t work for something, you didn’t have it. Our forefathers (and mothers) were amazing. I am so thankful that I have these men and women to look up to–and motivate me on the days I am weary and frustrated.
Looking to be inspired? I think every library has copies of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House On The Prairie book series. In this series she chronicals about her father, Pa Ingalls bringing the family through the homestead process. It’s an excellent series for younger readers and adults alike looking for inspiration.
I have the additional privilege of having some journal notes from great great grandmothers telling their local stories. I cherish them. Perhaps you have journals somewhere in your family too.
Teaching With Documents: The Homestead Act of 1862 (archives.gov)
About The Homestead Act (National Park Services)
Primary Documents in American History (loc.gov)