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Wednesday, May 26, 2021

How Homesteaders Shaped the West

    With a stroke of his pen, on May 20, 1862 Abraham Lincoln opened millions of federally owned lands in the American west for settlement. On that day, he signed the Homestead Act into law. Carl Sandburg referred to this statute as offering "a farm free to any man who wanted to put a plow into unbroken sod."  Consistent with the prevailing philosophy of eminent domain, the Homestead Act had two main goals: to give the government a way to sell off its land to ordinary citizens, and to assure that the land would be used in an economically efficient manner.

Homestead Act - National Archives

 Citizens and immigrants who had applied for citizenship were eligible to file a claim to 160 acres of surveyed federal land as long as they had never borne arms against the United States government. Additionally, applicants had to be a “head of family” or, if single, at least 21 years of age. Thus, the Act was egalitarian in that it allowed Blacks, former slaves, immigrants, and some women a chance to find success in the western lands. Women who were single, widowed, divorced, or deserted were eligible, but those who were married were discriminated against for claiming land in their own name unless they could prove that they were the heads of their households.

Homestead Application - National Archives

     Once the government designated territory as available, homesteaders found a plot of land and filed their claims at the regional land office. They paid a filing fee of $18, which consisted of $10 to make a temporary claim on the land, $2 for commission to the land agent, and a $6 payment to receive an official title. To earn this final title, settlers had to live for five continuous years on the land. Union soldiers could reduce this residency requirement by an amount of time equal to their time of service in the Civil War. Settlers also had to build a house, at least twelve by fourteen feet, on the land and cultivate at least ten acres. Two neighbors or friends had to attest to the government that these requirements had been fulfilled. Land titles could also be purchased from the government for $1.25 per acre following six months of proven residency.

     Thousands of women claimed free land in the Great Plains. The majority of female homesteaders were young and single, looking for adventure and/or independence, and seeking personal financial gain.  

Woman's Claim in Broken Bow, NE - Library of Congress

     Several years ago, I researched women in nontraditional roles in the late nineteenth century for a novel I was writing. Since then, this topic has intrigued me and I have included it in two of my stories. The main character in my current work-in-progress is a woman who homesteads in South Dakota. In a previous novel, one of my secondary female characters claimed title to a homestead in Wyoming.

     Between 1862 and 1916, a series of laws were passed to provide incentives for people to move west. Collectively, these laws are referred to as the Homestead Acts.

      In the 1870s, racism in the Reconstruction South spurred many former slaves to move north and west, taking advantage of the Homestead Act. Before the Civil War, Kansas had a reputation of supporting abolition, making it an attractive destination for many southern blacks who expected to find freedom and justice there.  Former slaves who settled in Kansas were called “exodusters,” and the migration was referred to as the “Great Exodus.” Blacks considered their movement to be similar to the Hebrews’ journey across the desert from slavery to freedom in the Book of Exodus.

"Exodusters" - Library of Congress
     Both black and white leaders in the South encouraged this migration. In the decade from 1869 to 1879, 27,000 blacks moved to Kansas and several exclusively black settlements emerged. An article in an 1879 issue of the Topeka Colored Citizen declared, “Our advice…to the people of the South, Come West, Come to Kansas…in order that you may be free from the persecution of the rebels. If blacks come here and starve, all well. It is better to starve to death in Kansas than to be shot and killed in the South.”

      In 1887, the Dawes Severalty Act was passed. The aim of this law was to break up Indian reservation holdings as well as the tribes themselves by inducing them to integrate into the general society.  Under the provisions of this statute, tribal lands were broken up into 160-acre allotments, and any individual who agreed to claim a plot and leave reservation lands would become an American citizen. Congressman Henry Dawes believed this act had a “civilizing effect on Indians because it forced them to cultivate land, live in European-inspired houses, ride in Studebaker wagons…(and) own property.” 

Native Americans were Pressured to Assimilate - National Park Service

       This law was stacked against the Native Americans. As a result, they lost land holdings and the bargaining power of tribes was diminished. Additionally, many individuals who had taken homestead plots lacked funds to buy the tools and supplies they needed for farming start-up so they went into debt and eventually lost their claims to speculators.

     Life on a homestead was difficult, no matter the claimant’s race, gender or background. Many settlers had little previous farming experience, and homesteaders had to supply their own farming tools, which could involve considerable expense. Prairie fires, strong winds, harsh weather extremes, plagues of grasshoppers and prolonged droughts could destroy an entire year’s worth of crops. On the open grasslands, first homes often had to be built out of sod due to a lack of trees and the cost of shipping in lumber. Failures were common, with many homesteaders declaring bankruptcy or simply abandoning the land claim.

       Homesteading declined significantly in 1934 with the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act, which regulated grazing on federal public lands. By then, approximately 270 million acres were claimed and farmed under the Homestead Act. 

     In his 1962 message to Congress on conservation, President John F. Kennedy stated, "One hundred years ago the Congress passed the Homestead Act, probably the single greatest stimulus to national development ever enacted."

     The Homestead Act and its impact on the United States is celebrated at the Homestead National Historical Park in Beatrice, Nebraska. More information can be found on their website:

Ann Markim





  1. Fascinating. The hope which fuelled these people was often based on their lives being just as hard working for someone else in the old country, and with no prospect of getting out of it. Fascinating rule about the house building. As Lincoln was a lawyer I do wonder if there was any basis in which the ancient common law rule in the British isles called Tŷ unnos was considered. It allowed people to stake a claim on common land, by building a house as long as it was built in one day, and there was smoke coming from the chimney by day break the following day. They could then extend the boundaries house by the distance they could throw an axe with one hand. They then had time to rebuild the basic structure of a more permanent structure.

  2. Thanks for sharing the fascinating information about the British common law. I didn't find reference to it in my research, but I was concentrating more on the "effect" of the Act than its derivation. But it makes sense, and it's interesting to see how this might have evolved.

  3. Really interesting, Ann. I am sorry for the Native Americans. For others the act seems to have been a chance at liberation.

    Christine - Love the idea of the axe throwing!

    1. Thank you, Lindsay. I feel sorry for the way our government has treated Native Americans through history.

  4. I appreciate the clarification why a married woman couldn't own property because she wasn't the head of the household, yet single or divorced women could. I'd read that in a lot of states women couldn't own property, so this makes sense now, even though it's not fair. And if she came into the marriage with property, it became the husband's to control not hers. But I think some women managed to get away with it. Very interesting reading,. I love the movie Far and Away with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and it's terrific land race. It's been decades since I've seen the movie, so now I'd like to watch it again. Thanks for an informative article, Ann.

    1. Thanks for the comment. The Homestead Act was federal, but most laws pertaining to women's property rights were made by states, so they were all over the place and changed at different rates. It was a mess.

  5. As always, an informative and interesting post. I do love that your share you research. It is such a balm to a research nerd like me. Doris

    1. Thanks, Doris. The research is my favorite part of writing.

  6. Good to know women had a fair right to claim land along with the others. Some people were just at a disadvantage because they were too poor to afford tools and/or had never farmed before.
    I've read about those sod houses...kinda scary with insects and snakes. It amazes me the grit those people had to survive and actually prosper.
    A great article, Ann.

  7. Thanks, Sarah. I've been thinking about doing a post on sod houses in the future, since I've researched different types and how they were built for my work-in-progress. You're right about the grit necessary to survive.