The Homestead Acts
were several United States federal laws that gave an applicant ownership of land, typically called a "homestead", at little or no cost. In all, more than 270 million acres of public land, or nearly 10% of the total area of the U.S., was given away free to 1.6 million homesteaders; most of the homesteads were west of the Mississippi River.
An extension of the Homestead Principle
in law, the Homestead Acts were an expression of the "Free Soil" policy of Northerners who wanted individual farmers to own and operate their own farms, as opposed to Southern slave-owners who wanted to buy up large tracts of land and use slave labor, thereby shutting out free white men.
The first of the acts, the Homestead Act of 1862
, opened up millions of acres. Any adult who had never taken up arms against the U.S. government could apply. Women and immigrants who had applied for citizenship were eligible. The 1866 Act explicitly included and "encouraged" blacks to participate.
Several additional laws were enacted in the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Southern Homestead Act of 1866
sought to address land ownership inequalities in the south during Reconstruction. The Timber Culture Act
of 1873 granted land to a claimant who was required to plant trees—the tract could be added to an existing homestead claim and had no residency requirement. The Kinkaid Amendment
of 1904 granted a full section (640 acres) to new homesteaders settling in western Nebraska. An amendment to the Homestead Act of 1862, the Enlarged Homestead Act
, was passed in 1909 and doubled the allotted acreage from 160 to 320 acres. Another amended act, the national Stock-Raising Homestead Act
, was passed in 1916 and again increased the land involved, this time to 640 acres.