The 1862 Homestead Act: How it transformed America & changed our society forever

Homesteads and the Homestead act - Millions of acres across the US

Note: This article may feature affiliate links, and purchases made may earn us a commission at no extra cost to you. Find out more here.


How the Homestead Act opened the floodgates of humanity on the American West

When the Homestead Act of 1862 was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20 of that year, it was one of the most significant pieces of legislation passed during the 19th century in the United States. (You can read the text from it toward the end of the page.)

Emigrants to the West by WM Cary (1881)

The Homestead Act opened up the western frontier — most of which would now be considered the midwest — to settlement by offering 160 acres of public land to anyone willing to live on and improve the land for at least five years.

This act played a huge role in the settlement and development of the country’s vast prairie lands, and those pioneers dramatically shaped American society in numerous ways.

Settler's first blockhouse (1870)

The revolutionary impact of the Homestead Act offered an opportunity to the marginalized

A vital aspect of the Homestead Act is that it allowed any person to claim land — regardless of their race, gender, or economic status. This included freed slaves and women, who were usually excluded from land ownership opportunities. The act provided a way for these groups to establish their own farms and communities.

The Act also helped to spur westward expansion by providing an incentive for people to move to the western states and territories — especially those who otherwise couldn’t afford to buy land.

Pioneer life in 1882 - Sod house

The Homestead Act allowed economic decentralization & diversification

The Homestead Act contributed to the growth of small farms and the decline of the open range and large landholdings. The act’s requirement that claimants live on and improve the land helped to encourage the development of small farms, as opposed to large ranching operations.

This shift towards small farms had a major impact on American society, as it helped to create a more diverse and decentralized agricultural economy.

A Breaking Scene of the Western Pioneers (1886)

Displacement & destruction of indigenous communities

While providing land ownership opportunities for marginalized groups, the Homestead Act also played a role in relocating indigenous peoples from their traditional lands.

The act encouraged non-Native Americans to settle in the western states and territories, leading to the displacement of many indigenous communities — an activity that was usually violent — with the US army and settlers pushing Native American tribes off their land and onto reservations.

Many indigenous communities saw their traditional way of life disrupted, as they were forced to abandon their hunting and farming practices and rely on government-provided rations.

ALSO SEE: The Battle of Little Bighorn: Original newspaper stories & more details from the disastrous conflict in 1876

Their relocations meant not only the loss of access to natural resources that were important to their livelihoods — but also degradation of the environment. New settlers cut down trees, hunted some wildlife to extinction, and polluted the streams and rivers.

The Homestead Act’s impact on the displacement of Native American communities is a dark chapter in American history, and it continues to have an impact on these communities today.

A Lakota tipi camp near Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and pioneer's horses at White Clay Creek watering hole (1891)
A Lakota tipi camp near Pine Ridge, South Dakota in background — horses at White Clay Creek watering hole in the foreground (1891)

Environmental consequences of the pioneers

The Homestead Act had a significant impact on the environment, as the rapid settlement of the West led to the destruction of natural resources. The act’s emphasis on land improvement and cultivation led to the widespread plowing of prairies and the felling of trees, which further led to the loss of important habitats for wildlife and the erosion of soil.

But there was more. The overgrazing of cattle on the open range led to the depletion of grasses and the further decline of the soil — eventually contributing to catastrophic consequences, like the Dust Bowl situation in the 1930s.

The Homestead Act’s impact on the environment is still felt today, serving as a reminder to consider the long-term effects of human actions on the natural world.

The pioneer's home on the western frontier (1867)

The Homestead Act dramatically shaped the United States

The Homestead Act continues to be an important part of American history, and is a legacy that lives on even today — especially in the midwest and western states.

It even played a big part of popular culture back in the 1970s and 1980s. There was a beloved TV show based on a book series all about the life of a homesteading family: Little House on the Prairie. Women’s clothing styles from that era became stylish again when the prairie dress had a big comeback in the 80s.

Below, we’re sharing some of the articles, advertisements and posters used to persuade Americans that a challenging life as a pioneer was actually a desirable — and maybe even luxurious — lifestyle.

The miners pioneer ten commandments - Scenes when crossing the plains in 1849 Kurz and Allison's Art Studio, Chicago (1887)

Millions of acres in Central Dakota (1870s)

2,000,000 FARMS of Fertile Prairie Lands to be had Free of Cost

Homestead Act in Central Dakota — 30 millions of acres — You need a farm!

The United States offers as a gift two million farms to two million families who will occupy and improve them. These lands lie between the 44th and 46th degree of latitude, and between Minnesota and the Missouri River.

Millions of acres in Central Dakota (1870s)

Kansas: About the Homestead Act (1863)

The Leavenworth Times (Leavenworth, Kansas) February 21, 1863

“Come to Kansas and homestead 160 acres of land for $10”

So much misunderstanding exists among the settlers regarding this Act, that we again repeat the important features of the law.

On the payment of ten dollars, and the office fees, any person, being the head of a family, or over the age of twenty-one years, or anyone under any twenty-one, provided he has served in the army not let less than fourteen days, may enter 160 acres, or a less quantity, of the unappropriated Public Land as his Homestead. The applicant must either be a citizen, or have declared his intention to become such.

American homestead spring by Currier and Ives 1869

The law allows a settler owning less than 160 acres to enter, without being compelled to occupy and improve it, an amount of adjoining land, lying in a compact parcel, which, with his own, will make 160 acres. The ruling allows the settler to take a Homestead without reference to the amount of land he has pre-empted, or owns, provided he makes the tract his home.

Homesteads may be taken on offered or unoffered land, but if the tract has been previously filed on, and the legal period allowed the pre-emptor has not expired, then the applicant will have to procure a Quit Claim Deed, or have one made at the Land Office, by the person who filed on the tract, before he will be permitted to enter the tract.

If there is a filing on the tract, and the persons filing cannot be found, then the proper course is to procure a notice at the Land Office, and place it on the tract, notifying the party filing that a certain day he will make application to enter said tract as his Homestead.

Departure from the old homestead 1862

Land along the line of the Kansas branch of the Pacific Railroad, while it cannot be located with Land Warrants, or purchased with money, is open to settlement under the Homestead and Pre-Emption Laws. All the sections designated by even numbers can be thus taken. Each person settling after the 3lst of July, 1863, can take an 80-acre tract, while those settling prior to that time are; entitled to 160 acres. 3

No filings or improvements are required at the time of entry, but the applicant will be required to make the land his home, and get on it in a reasonable time. No witnesses, except in the case when notice has been posted on the tract, are necessary. The applicant comes to the Land Office in person, makes his application, takes the oath, pays his entrance money and fees, and receives a Receipt, which is his title till the end of five years.

American homestead summer by Currier and Ives 1868

Under the beneficent provisions of the Homestead Act, thousands can find excellent lands on the line of the Railroad, and tens of thousands can select the most beautiful locations all over Western Kansas.

Let this war once he brought to a close, and we shall soon see these unoccupied lands made fruitful fields. In no place in the United States can such openings be found for settlement. As yet, but a very small proportion of the Government land is taken.

Daniel Freeman: The first man to claim a homestead

Accordinfg to the National Parks Service, Daniel Freeman was one of the first people to file a claim under the Homestead Act of 1862, and he ended up with 160 acres of land in Nebraska.

“Legend has it that Daniel Freeman filed his claim 10 minutes after midnight at the Land Office in Brownville, NE on January 1, 1863, the first day the Homestead Act went into effect.”

Read more about Freeman and his family on the NPS site here.

Daniel Freeman - First homesteader - Nebraska (1863)

First Homestead Certificate for Daniel Freeman 1863-1868

First Homestead Certificate for Daniel Freeman 1863-1868

Homestead paint color options sold in 1869

Homestead paint colors (1869)

Homestead Act in Illinois: Farm land from $8 to $12 an acre (1863)

The finest farming lands equal to any in the world


Near Markets, Schools, Railroads, Churches, and all the blessings of Civilization.

1,200,000 Acres, in Farms of 40, 80, 120, 160 Acres and upwards, in Illinois, the Garden State of America.

The Illinois Central Railroad Company offer, ON LONG CREDIT, the beautiful and fertile PRAIRIE LANDS lying along the whole line of their Railroad, 700 MILES IN LENGTH, upon the most Favorable Terms for enabling Farmers, Manufacturers, Mechanics and Workingmen to make for themselves and their families a competency, and a HOME they can call THEIR OWN, as will appear from the following statements:

ILLINOIS. Is about equal in extent to England. with a population of 1,722,, and a soil capable of supporting 20,000,000. No State in the Valley of the Mississippi offers so great an inducement to the settler as the State of Illinois. There is no part of the world where all the conditions of climate and soil so admirably combine to produce those two great staples, CORN and WHEAT.

Illinois: Farm land from $8 to $12 an acre (1863)

CLIMATE. Nowhere can the industrious farmer secure such immediate results from his labor as on these deep, rich, loamy soils, cultivated with so much ease. The climate from the extreme southern part of the State to the Terre Haute, Alton and St. Louis Railroad, a distance of nearly 200 miles, is well adapted to Winter.

WHEAT, CORN, COTTON; TOBACCO. Peaches, Pears, Tomatoes, and every variety of fruit and vegetables is grown in great abundance, from which Chicago and other Northern markets are furnished from four to six weeks earlier than their immediate vicinity. Between the Terre Haute, Alton & St. Louis Railway and the Kankakee and Illinois Rivers, (a distance of 115 miles on the Branch, and 136 miles on the Main Trunk) lies the great Corn and Stock raising portion of the State.

THE ORDINARY YIELD of Corn is from 50 to 80 bushels per acre. Cattle, Horses, Mules, Sheep and Hogs are raised here at a small cost, and yield large profits. It is believed that no section of country presents greater inducements for Dairy Farming than the Prairies of Illinois, a branch of farming to which but little attention has been paid, and which must yield sure profitable results. Between the Kankakee and Illinois Rivers, and Chicago and Pimleith, (a distance of 56 miles on the Branch and 147 miles by the Main Trunk), Timothy Hay, Spring Wheat, Corn, &c, are produced in great abundance.

ALSO SEE: How to start a genealogical record for your family

1863 illinois finest farm lands for sale

AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTS. The Agricultural products of Illinois are greater than those of any other State. The Wheat crop of 1861 was estimated at 25,000,000 bushels, while the Corn crop yields not less than 140,000,000 bushels besides the crop of Oats, Barley, Rye, Buckwheat, Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes, Pumpkins, Squashes, Flax, Hemp, Peas, Clover, Cabbage, Beets, Tobacco, Sorghum, Grapes, Peaches, Apples, &c., which go to swell the vast aggregate of production in this fertile region. Over Four Million tons of produce were sent out the State of Illinois during the past year.

STOCK RAISING. In Central and Southern Illinois uncommon advantages are presented for the extension of Stock raising. All kinds of Cattle, Horses, Mules, Sheep, Hogs, &c., of the best breeds, yield handsome profits; large fortunes have already been made, and the field is open for others to enter with the fairest prospects of like results. DAIRY FARMING also presents its inducements to many.

CULTIVATION OF COTTON. The experiments in Cotton culture are of very great promise. Commencing in latitude 39 deg. .30 min. (see Mattoon on the Branch, and Assumption on the Main Line), the Company owns thousands of acres well adapted to the perfection of this fibre. A settler having a family of young children, can turn their youthful labor to a most profitable account in the growth and perfection of this plant.

Illinois - Rich and valuable farming and wood lands for sale by the Illinois Central RR Co
Illinois – Rich and valuable farming and wood lands for sale by the Illinois Central RR Co

THE ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD Traverses the whole length of the State, from the banks of the Mississippi and Lake Michigan to the Ohio. As its name imports, the Railroad runs through the centre of the State, and on either side of the road along its whole length lie the lands offered for sale.

CITIES, TOWNS, MARKETS, DEPOTS. There are Ninety-eight Depots on the Company’s Railway, giving about one every seven miles. Cities, Towns and Villages are situated at convenient distances throughout the whole route, where every desirable commodity may be found as readily as in the oldest cities of the Union, and where buyers are to be met for all kinds of farm produce.

EDUCATION. Mechanics and working-men will find the free school system encouraged by the State, and endowed with a large revenue for the support of the schools. Children can live in sight of the school, the college, the church, and grow up with the prosperity of the leading State in the Great Western Empire.

ALSO SEE: The amazing Annie Oakley: Meet the legendary American sharpshooter from the old West

Covered wagons and wide-open land in the 1800s

Jul 27, 1942 Covered wagons 1800s

The Homestead Act: Millions of Acres poster (1872)

Millions of Acres — Iowa and Nebraska Lands
For Sale on 10 Years Credit
By The Burlington & Missouri River R. R. Co.
At 6 Per Ct. Interest And Low Prices
Only One-Seventh of Principal Due Annually, beginning Four Years after purchase
20 Per Cent Deducted From 10 Years Price, For Cash.

Plymale, a Pioneer's Home in Nebraska (1880)
Plymale, a Pioneer’s Home in Nebraska (1880)

Land Exploring Tickets Sold and cost allowed in First Interest paid, on Land and bought in 30 days from date of ticket.

Thus our land buyers get a free pass in the State where the Land bought is located.

These TERMS are BETTER at $5, than to pre-empt United States Land at $2.50 per Acre.

Extraordinary Inducements On Freight And Passage Are Afforded To Purchasers And Their Families.

Address GEO. S. HARRIS, LAND COMMISSIONER, or T.H. LEAVITT, Asst Land Comm’r, Burlington, Iowa

Covered wagon in the 1800s
The Covered Wagon of the Great Western Migration. in Loup Valley, Nebraska (1886)

Products will pay for Land and Improvement
FREE ROOMS for buyers to board themselves are provided at Burlington and Lincoln.
CURRICULARS are supplied GRATIS for distribution in ORGANIZING COLONIES and to include individuals to emigrate WEST.
A SECTIONAL MAP, showing exact location of our IOWA LANDS is sold for 30 cents, and of NEBRASKA LANDS for 30 cents.

Image: View on the Big Blue, between Camden and Crete, representing Valley and Rolling Prairie Land in Nebraska.

MORE: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s famous ‘Little House’ books have long enchanted readers, young and old

Millions of acres in Iowa and Nebraska 1870s homestead poster
Millions of acres. Iowa and Nebraska. Land for sale on 10 years credit by the Burlington & Missouri River R. R. Co. at 6 per ct interest and low prices (1872)

Homestead Act first page – May 20, 1862

Homestead Act first page - May 20, 1862

ALSO SEE: The real Gettysburg Address: Photos, analysis & full text of Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech (1863)

The Homestead Act: Text transcript (1862)

Act of May 20, 1862 (Homestead Act), Public Law 37-64 (12 STAT 392).

CHAP. LXXV. —An Act to secure Homesteads to actual Settlers on the Public Domain.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such, as required by the naturalization laws of the United States, and who has never borne arms against the United States Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies, shall, from and after the first January, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, be entitled to enter one quarter section or a less quantity of unappropriated public lands, upon which said person may have filed a preemption claim, or which may, at the time the application is made, be subject to preemption at one dollar and twenty-five cents, or less, per acre; or eighty acres or less of such unappropriated lands, at two dollars and fifty cents per acre, to be located in a body, in conformity to the legal subdivisions of the public lands, and after the same shall have been surveyed: Provided, That any person owning and residing on land may, under the provisions of this act, enter other land lying contiguous to his or her said land, which shall not, with the land so already owned and occupied, exceed in the aggregate one hundred and sixty acres.

SEC. 2. And be it further enacted, That the person applying for the benefit of this act shall, upon application to the register of the land office in which he or she is about to make such entry, make affidavit before the said register or receiver that he or she is the head of a family, or is twenty-one years or more of age, or shall have performed service in the army or navy of the United States, and that he has never borne arms against the Government of the United States or given aid and comfort to its enemies, and that such application is made for his or her exclusive use and benefit, and that said entry is made for the purpose of actual settlement and cultivation, and not either directly or indirectly for the use or benefit of any other person or persons whomsoever; and upon filing the said affidavit with the register or receiver, and on payment of ten dollars, he or she shall thereupon be permitted to enter the quantity of land specified: Provided, however, That no certificate shall be given or patent issued therefor until the expiration of five years from the date of such entry; and if, at the expiration of such time, or at any time within two years thereafter, the person making such entry; or, if he be dead, his widow; or in case of her death, his heirs or devisee; or in case of a widow making such entry, her heirs or devisee, in case of her death; shall. prove by two credible witnesses that he, she, or they have resided upon or cultivated the same for the term of five years immediately succeeding the time of filing the affidavit aforesaid, and shall make affidavit that no part of said land has been alienated, and that he has borne rue allegiance to the Government of the United States; then, in such case, he, she, or they, if at that time a citizen of the United States, shall be entitled to a patent, as in other cases provided for by law: And provided, further, That in case of the death of both father and mother, leaving an Infant child, or children, under twenty-one years of age, the right and fee shall ensure to the benefit of said infant child or children; and the executor, administrator, or guardian may, at any time within two years after the death of the surviving parent, and in accordance with the laws of the State in which such children for the time being have their domicile, sell said land for the benefit of said infants, but for no other purpose; and the purchaser shall acquire the absolute title by the purchase, and be entitled to a patent from the United States, on payment of the office fees and sum of money herein specified.

SEC. 3. And be it further enacted, That the register of the land office shall note all such applications on the tract books and plats of, his office, and keep a register of all such entries, and make return thereof to the General Land Office, together with the proof upon which they have been founded.

SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That no lands acquired under the provisions of this act shall in any event become liable to the satisfaction of any debt or debts contracted prior to the issuing of the patent therefor.

SEC. 5. And be it further enacted, That if, at any time after the filing of the affidavit, as required in the second section of this act, and before the expiration of the five years aforesaid, it shall be proven, after due notice to the settler, to the satisfaction of the register of the land office, that the person having filed such affidavit shall have actually changed his or her residence, or abandoned the said land for more than six months at any time, then and in that event the land so entered shall revert to the government.

SEC. 6. And be it further enacted, That no individual shall be permitted to acquire title to more than one quarter section under the provisions of this act; and that the Commissioner of the General Land Office is hereby required to prepare and issue such rules and regulations, consistent with this act, as shall be necessary and proper to carry its provisions into effect; and that the registers and receivers of the several land offices shall be entitled to receive the same compensation for any lands entered under the provisions of this act that they are now entitled to receive when the same quantity of land is entered with money, one half to be paid by the person making the application at the time of so doing, and the other half on the issue of the certificate by the person to whom it may be issued; but this shall not be construed to enlarge the maximum of compensation now prescribed by law for any register or receiver: Provided, That nothing contained in this act shall be so construed as to impair or interfere in any manner whatever with existing preemption rights: And provided, further, That all persons who may have filed their applications for a preemption right prior to the passage of this act, shall be entitled to all privileges of this act: Provided, further, That no person who has served, or may hereafter serve, for a period of not less than fourteen days in the army or navy of the United States, either regular or volunteer, under the laws thereof, during the existence of an actual war, domestic or foreign, shall be deprived of the benefits of this act on account of not having attained the age of twenty-one years.

SEC. 7. And be it further enacted, That the fifth section of the act entitled “An act in addition to an act more effectually to provide for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States, and for other purposes,” approved the third of March, in the year eighteen hundred and fifty-seven, shall extend to all oaths, affirmations, and affidavits, required or authorized by this act.

SEC. 8. And be it further enacted, That nothing in this act shall be so construed as to prevent any person who has availed him or herself of the benefits of the first section of this act, from paying the minimum price, or the price to which the same may have graduated, for the quantity of land so entered at any time before the expiration of the five years, and obtaining a patent therefor from the government, as in other cases provided by law, on making proof of settlement and cultivation as provided by existing laws granting preemption rights.

APPROVED, May 20, 1862.

ALSO SEE: How the California Gold Rush of 1849 began, and what life was really like for the miners

PS: If you liked this article, please share it! You can also get our free newsletter, follow us on Facebook & Pinterest. Thanks for visiting and for supporting a small business! 🤩 


You might also like...

The fun never ends:

Comments on this story

Leave a comment here!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.