I have found it fascinating to research the Homestead Acts in the United States and cannot even begin to imagine how exciting the possibilities were for anyone with the courage and energy to take advantage of the legal opportunities. This research went into my most recent release, A Bride for Hamilton, since it fascinated me so much.
The Homestead Acts were several laws in the United States by which an applicant could acquire ownership of government land or the public domain, typically called a homestead. In all, more than 160 million acres (650 thousand km2; 250 thousand sq mi) of public land, or nearly 10 percent of the total area of the United States, was given away free to 1.6 million homesteaders; most of the homesteads were west of the Mississippi River. (This fact blew my mind!)
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 Federal government of the United States could apply. Women and immigrants who had applied for citizenship were eligible. The Homestead Acts had few qualifying requirements.
A homesteader had to be the head of the household or at least twenty-one years old. They had to live on the designated land, build a home, make improvements, and farm it for a minimum of five years. The filing fee was eighteen dollars (or ten to temporarily hold a claim to the land).
The homestead was an area of public land in the West (usually 160 acres or 65 ha) granted to any US citizen willing to settle on and farm the land. The law (and those following it) required a three-step procedure: file an application, improve the land, and file for the patent (deed). The occupant had to reside on the land for five years, and show evidence of having made improvements. The process had to be complete within seven years.
The “yeoman farmer” ideal of Jeffersonian democracy was still a powerful influence in American politics during the 1840–1850s, with many politicians believing a homestead act would help increase the number of “virtuous yeomen”. The Free Soil Party of 1848–52, and the new Republican Party after 1854, demanded that the new lands opening up in the west be made available to independent farmers, rather than wealthy planters who would develop it with the use of slaves forcing the yeomen farmers onto marginal lands. Southern Democrats had continually fought (and defeated) previous homestead law proposals, as they feared free land would attract European immigrants and poor Southern whites to the west. After the South seceded and their delegates left Congress in 1861, the Republicans and other supporters from the upper South passed a homestead act.
I really love the ideals and principles behind these Acts. The fact that those supporting these laws wanted to allow “average” people to settle and prosper rather than those who were already wealthy landowners really appeals to me. And inspires story ideas 😉
If you haven’t yet read A Bride for Hamilton, check it out now 🙂