Homestead Act Purpose and History

Kelly Enders, Alexandra Lutz
  • Author
    Kelly Enders

    Kelly Enders has been a secondary social studies teacher for over 20 years. She has a Masters of Education in Secondary Social Studies from Kutztown University, a Digital Learning Instruction Certificate from Eduspire and a Bachelors of Science in Secondary Social Studies from Penn State University.

  • Instructor
    Alexandra Lutz

    Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Learn what the Homestead Act of 1862 was. Explore the purpose of the Homestead Act, information about the frontier, and if the Homestead Act was successful. Updated: 05/18/2022

Table of Contents


What was the Homestead Act?

The U.S. Government began to pursue a goal of increased settlement in the west in the mid-1800s. So that American agriculture and farming were able to thrive, the U.S. Government established colleges dedicated to researching agriculture technology, leading to agriculture and farming flourishing in the 1860s. The Morrill Land Grant Act established 57 colleges throughout the United States to develop new agricultural practices in the hopes of encouraging westward settlement. By teaching new agricultural practices, the U.S. Government hoped that farmers would have the tools and training needed to successfully farm the new terrain of the frontier because its land was different than what the majority of farmers were used to.

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  • 0:05 Miners Open the West
  • 1:15 The Homestead Act
  • 3:55 Changes in Western Life
  • 6:16 The Frontier Thesis
  • 8:23 Lesson Summary
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What Was the Purpose of the Homestead Act of 1862?

The purpose of the Homestead Act of 1862 was to populate the frontier and foster economic growth in the United States. The Homestead Act offered settlers a total of 270 million acres of land, the majority of which was in the modern-day states of mainly Montana, North Dakota, Colorado, and Nebraska. To assist in populating the frontier, the Homestead Act promised free land if settlers built a home on their land and grew crops on it for five years. These guidelines were established to make sure that settlement in the west would be permanent. The Homestead Act of 1862 was significant because it helped the U.S. achieve its goal of expanding the nation from the East to West coast.

What was the Impact of the Homestead Act?

The Homesteaders of America took advantage of the free homestead land in the largely unsettled western United States. In total, 1.6 million deeds were given to settlers in 30 modern-day states. This led to a surge in population in the west. For example, in 1860, the present-day states of Montana and North Dakota both reported zero population living in those areas in the census. By the 1890 census, Montana had a population of 132,159 and North Dakota had a population of 190,983. The other two states that grew the most in population as a result of the Homestead Act were Colorado and Nebraska. As settlers established homesteads, towns grew in the most populated areas and post offices were established.

The Frontier

The frontier was forever transformed by the Homestead Act and the settlement of the west. The first person to settle on the frontier was a middle-aged miner from Virginia who moved in the mid-19th century. Many others followed, beginning with the California gold rush of 1848.

As more and more settlers moved into the west, it became apparent that a more accessible railroad that joined the East and the West would help encourage westward settlement and also help increase the already booming economic growth in the U.S. The frontier was also transformed by the building of the Transcontinental Railroad which was completed in 1869. The railroad connected the existing railroad system on the East Coast to the newly-developed west coast. Although it was an asset in this regard, it was considered a detriment as well. The railroad ended the cowboy life and brought about decades of struggles and bloodshed between Native Americans and the U.S. Government. Also, much of the land of the frontier ended up being bought by corporations, rather than the homesteaders it was designed for.

Famous historian Frederick Jackson Turner wrote in his frontier thesis that he believed the United States was forever changed through their settlement of the west. He believed that western settlement impacted American society specifically as it spread the value of democracy throughout the frontier. This was something that the U.S. had envisioned as early as the mid-19th century.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What were the 3 conditions of the Homestead Act of 1862?

Although the government was offering free land to settlers in the west, certain conditions had to be met. The settlers had to build a home, farm the land, and live there for five years.

What was the Homestead Act and why did it fail?

The Homestead Act of 1862 offered 160 acres of land to settlers in the west if they built a home and farmed the land for a period of five years. However, many were forced to abandon their homesteads early due to harsh conditions. In addition, speculators and corporations were able to purchase much of the land and therefore it has often been considered a failure.

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