Among these was the Homestead Act of 1862, commemorated and interpreted by the National Park Service at Homestead National Monument of America, located near Beatrice, Nebraska. Over the course of 123 years, the government distributed more than 270 million acres of land to homesteaders. Thirty of the 50 states had homesteads in them at one time or another, including such geographically diverse areas as Florida, Iowa, the Dakotas, New Mexico, Washington, California, and Alaska.
Approximately 1.6 million homesteaders (about 40 percent) “proved up” on their lands by fulfilling all requirements and taking title from the government. Millions of people of different ethnic origins, ages, and backgrounds took advantage of homesteading, hoping to use the Act to help them fulfill their own personal visions of the American Dream of land and home ownership. An estimated 93 million homesteader descendants inhabit the modern world.
The 1860 Republican Party platform on which Lincoln was elected to the presidency specifically called for the passage of a homestead bill. Visitors to the Monument will see, in an exhibit entitled “Legislating Westward Expansion,” a copy of that platform, as well as a copy of a letter written to President-elect Lincoln in January 1861 by a Canadian hopeful for passage of the Homestead Act once Lincoln took office.
The Act proposed to make up to 160 acres of public land available to any qualified applicant. There was no charge for the land (besides administrative costs totaling $18.00); rather, the homesteader agreed to live on it for five years, cultivate and improve it, and build a dwelling upon it. If the applicant had done so to the government’s satisfaction within those five years, the U.S. government transferred permanent title to the land to the homesteader, who at that point took possession of it as private property. Men and women, black and white, young and old, married and single—nearly anyone qualified to homestead. The law became effective, interestingly enough, on January 1, 1863—the same day as the Emancipation Proclamation—and remained active until 1986.
Homesteaders exponentially increased America’s agricultural output and helped build the nation into an agriculture empire, and the exhibits at Homestead National Monument of America show the visitor how farming technology evolved from hand tools to mechanization. The equipment needs of homesteaders helped continue the Industrial Revolution and led to many new mechanical inventions, demonstrated in the Monument’s “Unleashing an Agricultural Revolution” exhibit. Immigration to the United States increased after the Civil War, and many of those coming here sought the “free land” about which they had heard so much in their home countries. At the Monument, artifacts such as immigrant trunks, wooden shoes, and household items show how immigrants made their journeys to America, what they brought with them, and how they lived once they arrived.
The law also impacted American Indians, and the Monument’s award-winning interpretive film, Land of Dreams: Homesteading America, captures the essence of the both the American Indian and homesteader perspectives on the Homestead Act. In addition, millions of acres of scientifically unique and valuable prairie ecosystems were destroyed. Over 100 acres of Homestead National Monument of America has been restored to tallgrass prairie, and visitors are encouraged to walk the more than two miles of trails to experience this diverse ecosystem for themselves.
Finally, the Act led to increased land speculation, mortgaging of farms, and many attempts to farm lands not suitable for agriculture. The impacts of the Homestead Act—both positive and negative—are still felt across modern America, and many consider the Act to be one of President Lincoln’s most important legacies.
Other laws President Lincoln signed worked hand-in-hand with the Homestead Act to forever change the landscape of the West. On May 15, 1862, just five days before approving the Homestead Act, he signed a bill creating the United States Department of Agriculture, calling it “the people’s department, in which they feel more directly concerned than any other.”
On June 19, 1862, he signed a bill outlawing slavery in U.S. territories, ending the specter of the spread of slavery into areas likely to be settled by Northern-sympathizing homesteaders. He approved the creation of a transcontinental railroad by signing the Pacific Railway Act on July 1, 1862, and did likewise for a national land-grant college system with his approval of the Morrill Act the very next day.
The visions for the American West of congressional leaders, farmers, immigrants, industrialists, abolitionists, and others were made possible by the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Exhibits, artifacts, films, park ranger programs, and special events at Homestead National Monument of America interpret this aspect of Lincoln’s role in the creation of the modern West.
“The whole concept of the Homestead Act was certainly unique to the United States,” said Mark Engler, Superintendent of Homestead National Monument of America. “At a time when people in many parts of the world were barred from owning land unless they were royalty or first-born sons, the U.S. government offered millions of acres to just about anyone who wanted it. What greater gift could a nation offer its own people and those from all over the world? The Act was very successful in many ways and less successful in others, but it certainly is among the most important laws President Lincoln signed during his time in office.”
What do YOU think was Lincoln’s most visionary, important act? What is his greatest legacy? How would America—and the world—look today had he done something differently? What do you think those 93 million descendants and the thousands of living homesteaders would say?