Abraham Lincoln Signs the Homestead Act

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862.

The act provided settlers with 160 acres of surveyed public land after payment of a filing fee and five years of continuous residence. Designed to spur Western migration, the Homestead Act culminated a twenty-year battle to distribute public lands to citizens willing to farm. Concerned that free land would lower property values and reduce the cheap labor supply, Northern businessmen opposed the act. Unlikely allies, Southerners feared homesteaders would add their voices to the call for abolition of slavery. With Southerners out of the picture in 1862, the legislation finally passed.

The Homestead Act was a United States Federal law that gave an applicant freehold title to 160-640 acres (1/4-1 section or about 65-259 hectares) of undeveloped land outside of the original 13 colonies. The new law required three steps: file an application, improve the land, and file for deed of title. Anyone who had never taken up arms against the U.S. Government, including freed slaves, could file an application and improvements to a local land office. The Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862.

Eventually 1.6 million homesteads were granted and 270,000,000 acres (1,100,000 km2) were privatized between 1862 and 1986, a total of 10% of all lands in the United States.

Mr. Lane had arrived at his homestead with 30 head of cattle and several horses. He put out sod corn which gave all indication of being a wonderful crop, but the grasshoppers took the entire crop. There was an abundance of wild grass, but no way to harvest it. After winter set in with no feed for the stock they commenced to suffer. The horses became so weak from starvation [that?] they were not fit for traveling so Mr. Lane would walk 15 miles to what they called the "Dutch Settlement" and now known as Swanton, pay $2.00 per bushel for corn and carry a sack full on his shoulder making a thirty mile-round-trip for one sack of corn.”

— Mrs. William Trace