Homesteading: Go West, Young Man

By Russell Lee - Library of Congress[1], Public Domain,
A dugout home on a homestead near Pie Town, New Mexico in 1940 (Photo By Russell Lee via U.S. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)
On this date in 1862, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law.

Here are some things you may not have known about homesteading in the United States.

The idea of opening up the American west to settlement had been proposed several times by northern lawmakers before the Civil War. Southern lawmakers, however blocked these efforts in an attempt to keep the lands open for for purchase by slave owners. The homestead act of 1860 passed Congress, but was vetoed by President James Buchanan. The bill that Lincoln signed was passed after the southern states seceded from the Union.

It allowed any American citizen, or recent immigrant who intended to become a citizen, who was also the head of the household, or 21 years old to claim 160 acres of land. The homesteader had to build a home, make improvements, live on the land and farm it for a minimum of five years. It cost $18 to file a claim, the equivalent of about $430 today. After lasting five years, the homesteader would receive title to the land.

The first person to file a claim under the new system was Daniel Freeman, who claimed his 160 acres in southeastern Nebraska.

In 1904, the act was amended to allow homesteaders to claim up to 640 acres in western Nebraska, as 160 acres wasn’t enough land to support a family. In 1909, the Enlarged Homestead Act was passed, which gave up to 320 acres to farmers who accepted more marginal lands that could not be easily irrigated. This large number of inexperienced farmers on difficult dry land was one of the factors that would lead to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Between 1862 and 1934, 1.6 million homesteaders were granted 270 million acres, about 10 percent of all the land in the United States. Homesteading continued until 1976, except in Alaska, where it ended in 1986. About 40 percent of homesteaders were successful and received title to their land.

The last person to receive title to land under the Homestead acts was Ken Deardorff, who claimed 80 acres in southwestern Alaska. He received his deed in 1988.

Our question: Who wrote the “Little House on the Prairie” series of books about a homesteading family?

Today is World Meteorology Day, European Maritime Day and National Day in Cameroon.

It’s National Bike to Work Day, National Pizza Party Day and National Quiche Lorraine Day.

It’s the birthday of actor Jimmy Stewart, who was born in 1908, musician Joe Cocker, who was born in 1944 and entertainer Cher, who is 70 today.

Because our main topic happened before 1960, we’ll spin the wheel to pick a year at random.

This week in 1963, the top song in the U.S. was “If You Wanna Be Happy” by Jimmy Soul.

The No. 1 movie was “Dr. No,” while the novel “The Glass Blowers” by Daphne du Maurier topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.


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