The Homestead Act of 1862, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, gave all citizens who were heads of a family or 21 years old the ability to claim 160 acres of land in the “unsettled” West. If they lived on the land for five years and made improvements on it such as building a home and planting crops, the Homestead Act allowed them to keep the land after filing with the nearest land office for a nominal fee.
While unthinkable to many today, the U.S. faced a problem in its early days in getting individuals to move to the West on cheap land, and even before the Act, the U.S. allowed squatters to claim lands in many parts of the country after fulfilling certain conditions. The practice was well known, and many in the government wished for individuals to move West to reduce strains on cities and encourage economic growth. However, the federal government struggled for many decades to get a Homestead Act passed as many interests went against the granting of federal lands. Most importantly, Southern states uniformly condoned such practices as the politics of the day rested heavily on a balance between the slave owning South and opposing positions in the North. The Southern states feared that such land grants could lead to more Northern aligned states, especially since African Americans could potentially claim homestead rights. After the Southern states left the U.S., a Homestead Act quickly became law.
The Homestead Act has long lasting marks and implications for the country. The Act was just the beginning of a series of land grant legislation that attempted to push Westward expansion. Other acts encouraged different areas of growth such as the Timber Culture Act that gave even more land to those planting trees in the far West or the Morrill Act which granted lands for states to create colleges such as Cornell University. Homesteads were still claimable under federal law until the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 prevented any more homestead claims under the Homestead Act, except those in Alaska.
While the Homestead Act may have ended, its legacy of litigation continues. From its beginning individuals struggled to fulfill the requirements in order to keep the land, and many that did could face issues of ownership. One notable source of friction involved mass land grants given to railroad companies to build long routes. These grants often could run into conflict with existing claimants of homestead land, with Homestead Act litigation still occurring today in cases such as Hash v. United States from the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals.
[Last updated in February of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]