Pre-Homestead Act Era
1803: United States Acquires Louisiana Territory from France doubling the size of the country and introducing large quantities of public land
This is the beginning of a long debate about how to settle the public lands. Many questions arise, but the two dominant themes for the next 60 years would be slavery and free land. These competing visions of expansion would dissolve the Union in 1861.
1820: Missouri Compromise leads to geographic division of the United States
1820: Cash Sale Act is the first attempt to sell the public lands
Potential settlers could buy up to 160 acres of surveyed public land for $1.25 an acre
1830: Indian Removal Act forces American Indians in the East to the public lands in the West
1840’s: First serious discussions about the Homestead Act begin
1841: Preemption Act of 1841 allowed for actual settlers to claim public land and begin living on and improving that land before they purchased for $1.25 an acre.
Many settlers used the Preemption Act to claim land before they could afford it. The Preemption Act was used extensively until the passage of the Homestead Act. Settlers opted for the Preemption Act because they had up to 18 months to live on the land before having to purchase as long as they could prove that they had built a home and started to make agricultural improvements.
1846-48: Mexican American war results in additional public lands
The Wilmot Proviso: Repeated attempts by Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot to ban slavery in territory acquired from Mexico. This increased tensions between North and South as the South believed the institution of slavery was being threatened and was going to be denied in the western territories.
1846: Oregon Treaty results in the addition of the Oregon Territory into the public lands, slavery is banned in the territory
1850: Congress passed the Donation Land Claim Act. The law offered 640 acres to married couples and 320 acres to single individuals of free land in the Oregon Territory in an attempt to populate this region. This was the first such measure to provide land to the citizenry. Law required individuals to live on the land for 4 years and make improvements. The provisions of the law were limited to white citizens over the age of 18.
1849: California gold rush sees an increase in migration to the West
1850’s: Increased sectionalism and debate over homestead legislation
Compromise of 1850: California will be a free state, but the North must accept the Fugitive Slave Act. Tensions further increase between the North and South as the North is forced to accept slavery and assist in returning escaped slaves to the South.
1850’s: Homestead legislation introduced several times in Congress, all failed to pass
Southern opposition thwarts all attempts to pass homesteading legislation. Their fear is that small family farms are not conducive to slave agriculture and will prevent southern expansion into the territories.
1854: Kansas-Nebraska Act opens the Nebraska Territory up for settlement; debate over slavery in the territory is to be resolved by Popular Sovereignty (let the people decide)
The occupants of the territory are given the vote to decide the legality of slavery in their respective territories. Nebraska’s population voted the territory free with little debate, but Kansas erupted in violence. Debates often led to fierce clashes between supporters of slavery and those who opposed the institution. This era would become known as “Bleeding Kansas” as the violence escalated.
The violence spilled over onto the floor of Congress in 1856 when Senator Charles Sumner blamed the South for the violence during a congressional speech. This infuriated Congressman Preston Brooks from South Carolina who responded by beating Senator Sumner with his cane while fellow Congressman Laurence Keitt prevented other congressmen from intervening by holding them off with a gun. Two years later in 1858, another fight erupted in Congress during a debate over the pro-slavery Kansas constitution. Laurence Keitt attacked Congressman Galusha Grow (author of the Homestead Act) after insults were hurled back and forth over slavery and free land. This led to a melee in the House of Representatives as an estimated 50 members of Congress joined the fight.
The issues of slavery in the territories and homesteading were rapidly dividing the country.
1854: Republican Party formed by abolitionists and free soil advocates
1860: Abraham Lincoln elected President
1861: South secedes from the Union and Civil War begins
Southern secession documents cite the North’s attempts to prevent the expansion of slavery to the territories and public lands as one of their primary grievances.
1861: 37th Congress begins
1862: Homestead Act passed (May 20)
1862: Pacific Railway Act passed (July 1)
1862: Morrill College Act passed (July 2)
1863: Homestead Act takes effect (January 1)
1863: Daniel Freeman claims the first homestead (January 1)
Early Homesteading Era (1863-1900)
Travel: Most homesteaders are coming by wagon and train
Communication: Most homesteaders are only able to communicate through mail service, some access to telegraph service
1860’s: Homesteading begins in the United States; primarily in the Great Plains states and territories of Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakota Territories
1860’s: Transcontinental Railroad is constructed connecting the Eastern United States with the Great Plains and the Western U.S.
1860-1890: Railroads and Great Plains states heavily recruit potential settlers (recruitment efforts focus on Northeastern States and European Immigrants
1860-1890: Government institutions installed, U.S. Army removes American Indian from areas in Colorado, the Dakota’s, and the Desert Southwest
1878-80: Thousands of African American’s flee the South after Reconstruction, many head to the West seeking free land under the Homestead Act, they are known as the Exodusters
Pre Word War II Homesteading Era (1900-1941)
Travel: Most homesteaders are coming by train and automobile
Communication: Most homesteaders are communicating through mail, some access to telephone
1900-1930: The vast majority of Homesteading occurs during these thirty years, 175 million acres distributed to 1 million homesteaders during this time
1911-1920: Highest volume of homesteading occurs, 440,000 people receive homestead patents 90 million acres
1930’s: Dust Bowl occurs and peaks between 1934-36, drought and bad agricultural practices cause severe soil erosion and drive many from their land
1930’s: Electricity begins to come to rural communities
Modern Homesteading Era (1946-1986)
Travel: Homesteaders are coming by train, automobile, or flying to their claims
Communication: Homesteaders continue to use mail and telephone
1940’s and 50’s: Homesteading sharply declines, most land available is in regions where agriculture is very difficult
1940’s: Homesteading in the Desert Southwest climaxes
1950’s: Some lands are made available to WWII veterans
1960 -1986: Homesteading is most prevalent in Alaska
1976: Homesteading officially ends in the lower 48 States
1986: Homesteading officially ends in Alaska
1988: Alaskan Kenneth Deardorff receives his homestead patent, becoming the last individual to receive land under the Homestead Act