George Washington fathered the country, but Abe Lincoln may have done more than any other president to populate it.
The Homestead Act that Abraham Lincoln signed into law 150 years ago offered 160 acres of undeveloped public land in 30 states to qualified—and gutsy—men or women willing to try and tame the country’s vast interior. Applicants had to be over 21, heads of households, or Union veterans who had served at least 14 days, and they had to come up with $18 in fees.
But that was just the down payment. The rest came in sweat equity.
To “prove” their claim, homesteaders had to make improvements to the property—building a house, cultivating some acreage, and living on to the land for three to five years. Then, after the testimony of witnesses, they received a certificate of patent transferring ownership. Union veterans could count up to four years of service against the time required to prove their claim. Impatient homesteaders with a little more cash on hand could buy their land outright for $1.25 an acre after only six months of occupancy.
The 30 states included under the original Homestead Act were “public domain” states, where the federal government owned and oversaw the selling or transfer of land. (There were no federal homestead lands in the original 13 colonies, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Texas, Tennessee, Vermont or West Virginia.) During the 124 years homesteading legislation was on the books, the government transferred some 270 million acres—almost 10 percent of the nation’s territory in the lower 48—to private ownership. Homesteading
reached its peak in 1913, when more claims were filed than in any other year.
About 40 percent of homesteaders managed to stick it out and prove up their claims. Montana had the most claims proved, with more than 150,000. Nebraska leads in total acreage of the state settled by homesteading (45 percent). Eight other states had 25 percent or more of their acres successfully homesteaded (Colorado, Kansas, Montana, North and South Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wyoming).
Ken Deardorff received the last land patent granted under homestead legislation in 1988. Ken filed his Alaska claim in 1974, two years before the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 ended homesteading in the United States, except for a 10-year extension in Alaska.
“It was one way, and probably the only way left, to get what was referred to as ‘free land,’” Deardorff explains, “which of course it wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination.”
“Everybody thought it was going to be an easy life because you got this free land, but all you got was the land,” says Homestead National Monument’s Todd. Arrington. “Even in the 1860s or ’70s you probably needed a good $1,000 or so in your pocket to really get your homestead going, and a lot of people didn’t have that. That’s why they were becoming homesteaders.”
Many of the homesteads Lincoln helped create are long gone. They’ve been swallowed up by larger farms or subdivided into city lots. And except for a few, like Ken Deardorff, the homesteaders are gone too. But their descendants are still around, 93 million of them, almost a third of the country’s population. They still fill the country’s vast interior, and many of them still keep an eye on the horizon, still longing to live big American dreams.