160 Acres of Hope and Hardship: Homestead Act of 1862

Photo: Freeman gravesite and Visitors Center – Homestead National Historic Park – Beatrice, Nebraska – 2020

Brief History – An excerpt from the National Park Service’s “Homestead”  webpage:

The Homestead Act of 1862 has been called one of the most important pieces of Legislation in the history of the United States. Signed into law in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln after the secession of southern states, this Act turned over vast amounts of the public domain to private citizens. 270 millions acres, or 10% of the area of the United States was claimed and settled under this act. 

A homesteader had only to be the head of a household or at least 21 years of age to claim a 160 acre parcel of land. Settlers from all walks of life including newly arrived immigrants, farmers without land of their own from the East, single women and former slaves came to meet the challenge of “proving up” and keeping this “free land”. Each homesteader had to live on the land, build a home, make improvements and farm for 5 years before they were eligible to “prove up”. A total filing fee of $18 was the only money required, but sacrifice and hard work exacted a different price from the hopeful settlers. Daniel Freeman, a first Union Army scout was the first to take advantage of opportunities provided by the Homestead Act.

Daniel Freeman family photo and letter to his wife, Agnes – Homestead National Historic Park Display – Beatrice, Nebraska – 2020

Homesteading Certificate of Eligibility for Daniel Freeman; January 20, 1868;
Homestead Final Certificates, 1863 – 1887; Records of the Bureau of Land Management, Record Group 49 National Archives Building, Washington, DC.
[Online Version, https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/homesteading-certificate-daniel-freeman, April 10, 2021]
Homesteading Certificate of Eligibility – (back)

Act of May 20, 1862 (Homestead Act), Public Law 37-64 (12 STAT 392); May 20, 1862; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789 – 2011;
General Records of the United States Government, Record Group 11; National Archives Building, Washington, DC. – Page 1
[Online Version, https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/homestead-act, April 10, 2021]
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Daniel Freeman Homestead – 1904 – Library of Congress

The Homestead Act remained in effect until it was repealed in 1976, with provisions for homesteading in Alaska until 1986. Alaska was one of the last places in the country where homesteading remained a viable option into the latter part of the 1900s. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 substantially decreased the amount of land available to homesteaders in the West. Because much of the prime land had been homesteaded decades earlier, successful Homestead claims dropped sharply after this time.

On March 16, 1936 Congress passed Public Law 480 of the 74th Congress created a new unit in the National Park System on the site of the Daniel Freeman homestead. 

President Roosevelt signing P.L. 480
Photo: President Roosevelt signs the Homestead Act (George Norris standing by) – 1936

On March 19, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the law and Homestead National Monument of America “as an appropriate monument to retain for posterity a proper memorial emblematical of the hardships and the pioneer life through which the early settlers passed in the settlement, cultivation and civilization of the Great West.”

Most recently, in January 2021 the Homestead National Monument was officially renamed the “Homestead National Historic Park”.

Nebraska Delegation Lauds Enactment of Bill to Rename Homestead National Monument into Law – Press Release – Adrian Smith

Homestead Name Change Signed into Law – Beatrice Daily Sun – January, 2021

The National Archives offers this PDF document on the history of the Homestead Act: “How the West Was Settled: The 150-year-Old Homestead Act Lured Americans Looking for a New Life and New Opportunities,” by Greg Bradsher – Prologue 44 (Winter 2012) – National Archives and Records Administration

Additional Resources:

Anniversary of the Homestead Act: govinfo.gov

The Homestead Act: U. S. Capitol

The Homestead Act of 1862: National Archives (Teacher Resources)

Kansas-Nebraska Act: Primary Documents in American History: Library of Congress

Homestead Act: Primary Documents in American History: Library of Congress

Homestead National Historic Park: Beatrice, Nebraska



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