What is the Homestead Act of 1862? - Definition & Summary

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  • 0:06 Definition
  • 0:36 Historical Background
  • 1:20 Federal Land Policy -…
  • 2:39 Challenges for Homesteaders
  • 5:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ronald Kotlik

Ron has taught history and educational technologies at the high school and college level and has a doctorate in American History.

Define the Homestead Act of 1862, learn about its historical origins, and understand the challenges individuals faced as they established property claims on the Great Plains during the 19th century.


The Homestead Act was a law passed by Congress in 1862 that granted 160 acres of federal land to any U.S. citizen. An individual was given ownership of the land for free if that person lived on the land for five years and improved the land by building a home and producing a crop. This legislation was intended to give Americans incentive to settle on the Western Frontier and aid the continuing territorial expansion of the United States during the 19th century (1800s).

Historical Background

The sale and distribution of federal public land has a history that is rooted in the country's colonial beginnings and the Revolutionary War. There were numerous disputes between colonies over territorial claims and boundaries. These disputes carried over after the conclusion of the Revolutionary War as each state tried to maximize its position and integrity in the new emerging country. The Land Ordinance of 1787 established federal control over public land and implemented defined boundaries among the states. The government also started selling land to the general public for $1 per acre. However, the land had to be purchased in 640-acre tracts that put the acquisition of land out of the financial reach of most Americans.

Federal Land Policy - 19th Century

During the 1800s there was increased demand for access to the vast amounts of available public land. Many individuals seeking to establish homesteads, or small family farms, out West sought economic relief through the policy of preemption. Preemption allowed individuals to settle on land first, improve the property, and then pay for the land later as the land became profitable. While preemption encouraged more settlement, a larger and more comprehensive federal policy was stalled by Southern Congressmen who feared that greater migration out West would result in more free states, or states that prohibited slavery, added to the union, further weakening the South and it's slave holding interests.

Ironically, the Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, offered the greatest opportunity for those advocating for more Federal assistance in adding individuals seeking homesteads out West. When the Southern states seceded, or left the union, and formed the Confederate States of America, Southern opposition to federally sponsored Western settlement was also removed. Southern Congressmen were no longer present to cast their opposition to any proposed legation promoting such settlement. Therefore, the Homestead Act was a major piece of legislation passed by Congress during the Civil War that was not war related.

Challenges for Homesteaders

Homesteaders was the nickname given to those who took advantage of the free land under the Homestead Act. Daniel Freeman was one of the first homesteaders when he filed a claim on January 1, 1863. Freeman, and the 417 homesteaders who filled claims on that day, faced tremendous challenges in their quest to establish homesteads on this public land.

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