The Desert Land Act
was passed by the United States Congress on March 3, 1877, to encourage and promote the economic development of the arid and semiarid public lands
of the Western states. Through the Act, individuals may apply for a desert-land entry to reclaim
, irrigate, and cultivate arid and semiarid public lands. This act amended the Homestead Act (1862). Originally the act offered 640 acres (2.6 km2
), although currently only 320 acres may be claimed.
A precursor act in 1875, called the Lassen County Act, was pushed by Representative John K. Luttrell of the northeastern district of California, who wanted to speed up privatization
of land east of the Sierra. This act enlarged the maximum allowable purchase for settlers from 160 acres to 640 acres. With the backing of Land Commissioner
J. A. Williamson, Luttrell and Senator Aaron A. Sargent co-sponsored the Desert act which extended the Lassen County Act to cover several arid states and other regions of California.
Although the Desert Land Act was partly based on the Homestead Act and the Preemption
Act (1841), it did not contain a key provision of those acts, namely the residence
requirement. While the claimant
did need to improve the land, the claimant did not need to live on the land while making the improvements
. In the end, this led to a significant amount of fraud, where land speculation
companies acquired tens of thousands of acres of California land by hiring "dummy entrymen" to make false claims of settlement.