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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Homesteading in America by Linda Broday

Many homeowners upon buying their property file for a homestead exemption. That means they're protected against the forced sale of their home to meet demands of creditors and it provides a $15,000 tax exemption. It’s easy to quality. It has to be a primary residence and the homeowner can’t have a homestead exemption on any other property whether in state or out.

Much has been written in western novels about homesteading in the old West and it’s been the subject of western movies. The unscrupulous land agent, the large ranch owner who’s intent on running out homesteaders, and the Oklahoma land rush.

So what about homesteading back in our forefathers’ day? Here's a look at the Homestead Act that was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862.

It stated:

  • The man or woman had to be 21 years of age or the head of a family

  • Be a U.S. citizen or in the process of becoming one

  • Had never taken up arms against the U.S.

If they met all of those qualifications, they could claim up to 160 acres of free land. Up for grabs were hundreds of thousands of unappropriated public acres, primarily west of the Mississippi River. The government saw this as a way to settle the country fast and boy, did it work. People rushed to cash in. Foreign immigrants flooded into the country. This was the chance of a lifetime to have something few had even dreamed of.

Stipulations that had to be met:

  • Had to live on the property at least 6 months of the year

  • Had to make improvements which usually meant farming

  • Had to live there for five years

Once they played nicely by the rules, the land would become theirs free and clear. Anyone not wanting to wait the five years to get a clear title could pay $1.25 an acre and the land became theirs.

There was also the Timber Culture Act of 1873 which provided claimants to secure an additional 160 acres of land if they planted and kept growing 40 acres of trees for 8 years. That obligation was reduced to 10 acres in 1878.

The Desert Land Act of 1877 was a ploy by the government to attract settlers to the arid regions. It was similar to the Homestead Act except a person could claim up to 640 acres that needed irrigation before it could be cultivated. It was cheap though—only 25 cents per acre with the stipulation that they live on it for 3 years. Or they could purchase it outright for a dollar an acre.

Most early homestead shacks were small, some as few as 8’ X 8’. And building materials were whatever was available. From log homes and frame structures to sod houses and dugouts. The settler was pretty inventive.

The homesteading process went something like this. A claim was filed at the nearest Land Office stating the homesteader’s intention. After checks for any ownership claims, the person would pay a $10 fee as well as a $2 commission to the land agent. Then the prospective homesteader would round up two friends who’d vouch for the truth regarding the stated land improvements and pay another $6 fee when he signed the “proof document.” In exchange, the homesteader received a patent for land. The paper was often proudly displayed on the cabin or dugout wall.

An  interesting side note: 12% of all homesteaders were single women. Yay for us!

But the Homestead Act was not all it was cracked up to be.

1.)  It often attracted unscrupulous people who used the free land giveaway as a scam. They sometimes got the immigrants to file for land too bad to farm on, often in the middle of the drought-stricken plains. Not many homesteaders lasted the mandatory 5 years in this case.

2.)  A problem arose with the Native Americans. When homesteaders pushed them off land they’d lived on for thousands of years, they oftentimes pushed back with results the homesteader didn’t like.

3.)  The homesteader could clash with the established rancher which often led to range wars.

4.)  Not all land was available. Eight years after the Homestead Act passed, 127 million acres were granted to railroads with another 2 million for wagon roads and canals. Land adjacent to such grants could not be homesteaded and had to be purchased outright with cash. They were also limited to 80 acres rather than the 160.

5.)  Only surveyed land was available. No one could gain a title to unsurveyed land.  

For all its advantages and faults, the Homestead Act of 1862 lasted until 1976. Although it continued in Alaska until 1986. Millions of acres of land was given away for a little of nothing. It stands as the biggest government subsidy program in American history.

Have read a book or seen a movie where homesteading was part of the plot?


  1. Your explanation cleared up some misconceptions and stories. Adeline Hornbeck, who I have written about, used this act to create a home for herself and family. She was one of the lucky ones. What an interesting time in the life of our country. Thanks for the information. Now back to the writing and reading (after the dishes are finished) Doris

  2. Hi Doris......I'm glad you enjoyed my blog. The Homestead Act really helped a lot of people and it did the country a tremendous service also. I think if I'd lived back then, I would've jumped at the chance to own my own land. At least I think so. It was the only way for some to improve their circumstances.

    Have a wonderful day!

  3. Such a great article Linda. I did write two books, (still not published) but I did do a bit of researching the great Oklahoma land rush and also the one in Nebraska. As far as building a sod house, or soddie as it was called, I did read step by step on how to build one. I found it interesting that you had to pack rags around the windows and door frames so when the sod dried it wouldn't crack the glass or wood frames. I think I would have jumped at the chance to own my own land too back in the day. Just imagine the hardships they endured to own it. Drought, pestilents and Indians.

  4. Ugh. I just left a very long comment that blogger ate. I'm writing a book about this subject, Linda, and I wondered if you might have some good resources on it? I've lived in OK practically all my life and never knew until a few years ago that we had 5 land runs. Wonderful post!