Friday, January 14, 2011

How to Legally Acquire 480 Acres from the U. S. Government

Claimants utilizing the Homestead Act of 1862 usually proved up on their basic 160 acres [quarter section] of land. This was the intent of the United States government land policies. But was it possible for one man to claim three separate quarter sections? The answer is “Yes.” Some men managed to legally acquire ownership of 480 acres.

There were three major acts passed by Congress to provide free or cheap land to settlers. The acts were designed to encourage development of newly acquired public lands:

• The Pre-Emption Act of 1841 permitted a settler to file for 160 acres [a quarter section] for a $2.00 filing fee. This privilege was open to citizens and those who had filed for citizenship. After the claimant resided on the land for six months and had cultivated and improved the land enough to show he intended to live there and farm the land, he could “prove up” by paying $1.25 per acre [$87.50].

In practice the terms were not quite so restrictive. The claimant was required to build a claim shack at least 8 feet by 10 feet, dig a well, plow five acres, and live their at least one night each month during the six months. This lenient residency requirement enabled a man to live and work somewhere else while fulfilling the legal stipulations of the pre-emption claim that he visited only periodically. After he had “proved up” and paid the fee, the land became his and he could sell it. The Pre-Emption Act remained in effect until 1891.

• The Homestead Act of 1862 was designed to encourage immigrants to become permanent settlers. Any person who was a head of a family or 21 years old and a citizen of the United States or had filed a declaration of intent to become a citizen could claim a quarter section. He or she was required to live on and cultivate the land for five years. At that time or within the next two years the claimant filed proof that they had fulfilled the legal requirements and received title to the land. If the claimant died during that time, his widow or children could continue the claim.

The settler was required to dig a well, build a house of prescribed size with a door and glass windows, put in fences, and cultivate twenty acres. This regulation also permitted a delay of six months after the initial filing before the residency requirement had to begin. During the residency, there could be no absences of more than six months per year. This type of homestead could be purchased or “commuted” after six months by paying $1.25 per acre.

Later the residence requirement before commutation was lengthened to fourteen months. Double Minimum Lands were public lands within the alternate sections granted to railways and therefore considered more valuable. The minimum price on Double Minimum Lands was $2.50 per acre.

• The Timber Culture Acts of 1873, 1874, and 1875 encouraged the planting and growing of trees on the prairie. After filing a claim on 160 acres, the claimant was required to plant forty acres of trees and then tend them for eight years, achieving this goal within thirteen years of filing. No residency on these acres was necessary. The 1878 Act reduced number of acres of trees from forty to ten.

Thus we can see how a man could legally gain three homesteads by first filing for 160 acres under the Pre-Emption Act, proving up in six months, and paying $87.50. Then he could file on a second quarter section, prove up by living on and cultivating this claim for five years. Thirdly, he could file a timber claim, plant and cultivate the required acres of trees for eight years, thus gaining an additional 160 acres. A surprising number of enterprising men accomplished this and became owners of 480 acres.

Although a man was supposed to file for only one claim at a time, the laws were loosely administered; and in some cases a man filed on all three acreages at once, moved onto the homestead claim, and then planted trees to hold the third 160 acres.

Adapted from the article Was It Possible for a Man to Legally Acquire 480 Acres from the U. S. Government? by Pamela Schwannecke Olson


Fanebust, Wayne. Where the Sioux River Bends Freeman, S. D. 1984 Pages 97-99
Potter, James E. “U. S Land Laws in Nebraska 1854-1904.” Heritage Quest July/August 1986 Pages 27-46
Schell, Herbert S. The History of South Dakota Lincoln, Nebraska. 1975 Page 174

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