Homestead Act

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The Homestead Act helped begin the settlement of the rest of America in 1862. Due to its creation more people began moving west and creating permanent homes. This act is one of the biggest reasons America is structured in which the way it is today. People explored other areas instead of staying where they were familiar. However, there were consequences to moving further west. Native Americans were forced out of their homes, and new animals were discovered, used and killed or died off because of the loss of their natural habitats. For a brief introduction on the act, watch this |video.

What is the Homestead Act?

Homestead Act Stamp
Homestead Act Stamp, 1862. Source: [1]

The Homestead Act was a law that was signed by President Lincoln on May 20, 1862. It provided 160 acres of public land out west to encourage settlers to go farther out into the country. Settlers, known as homesteaders, would pay a small filing fee and had to stay on the land for five years before receiving ownership. During these five years they would need to create a permanent home, and cultivate the land. However, if they did not want to stay that long, homesteaders could stay for 6 months and then purchase the land from the government for $1.25 an acre. By 1900, 80 million acres of public land out west had been distributed to adventurous Americans. [1]


Certificate for the Homestead
The certificate for the homestead of Daniel Freeman in 1868. Source: [2]

The Homestead Act has a long historical background. It goes so far back in US history that it has a connection with the Articles of Confederation. [2] Creating the Homestead Act was a process that took about a 100 years. Prior to the creation of the Homestead Act the idea of distributing land had been a highly debated issue. The government attempted to produce solutions to the problem of land allocation, such as, the "Articles of Confederation" in 1777, along with many other laws. Another attempt to solve the problem of land allocation was The Land Ordinance of 1785. This ordinance created a system in which people could buy public land. However, with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 the land of the United States more than doubled, and the issue became more prominent. In the 1830s, writer and reformer George Henry Evans developed the slogan "Vote Yourself a Farm". He believed that "improving the land qualified one for ownership." In 1840, The Senate passed the Log Cabin Bill which would have given 160 acres of land to settlers that had claimed land out West by living on it for $1.25 an acre, however, this was not passed in the House. Then between 1842 and 1850 the "Donation Acts gave deeds of land to settlers who were willing to live on the frontier in places such as Florida and Oregon Territories." People were very enthusiastic about the idea of free land, and there was a push to move to the underpopulated areas of the country. Some push back, however, came from the Northern industrialists because they were afraid of losing their cheap labor force. Many different bills were introduced from 1848 to 1849. One of these was a bill that would give "landless settlers to preempt 160 acres and if he improved it he could have 40 acres without price." This idea of giving 160 acres to people who improved the land would be contested until 1862 with the creation of the Homestead Act. [3] Due to the Homestead Act many Native American tribes were either forced further West, or onto small reservation lands far away from their ancestral homes. This came after their initial removal with President Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears in 1838.[4] Originally, Native Americans were forced to give up their lands East of the Mississippi River and in return they were promised land West of the river. However, the Homestead Act opened up the land West of the Mississippi River to any white settler that wanted it and the original reservation lands were greatly limited. This removal of Native Americans continued until 1871 when, with the Dawes Act, the federal government stated that “hereafter no Indian nation or tribe within the territory of the United States shall be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation, tribe, or power with whom the United States may contract by treaty.” The act also stated that if Native Americans moved off their reservation land in favor of a 160 acre plot they would be granted citizenship. [5] Alaska was the final area to be affected by the Homestead Act. Settling of the area was practically non-existent originally because there was poor soil, so no farmers had an incentive to go there, and people did not like the cold weather. However, there was a large intake of applications after WWII and the Vietnam War. The Homestead Act was then repealed in 1976. However, there was a provision in the act that allowed homesteading to continue in Alaska until 1986. The last person to receive a parcel of land from the Homestead Act was: Kenneth Deardoff. He filed for 80 acres near Stony River, Alaska. Once Kenneth received his patent for the land in 1988, less than 1% of Alaska had been given to homesteaders. That equaled over 360,000 acres, or 3,277 homesteads. [6] After the Homestead Act was finished, 10% of US land had been given to homesteaders. That is approximately 270,000,000 acres that was given away. Over the 132 years that the Homestead Act had been valid, 4,000,000 claims were filed for land. Today, it is believed there are 93,000,000 homesteader descendants who are still alive. [7]

Impact on the Wilderness

Since the Homestead Act distributed land to the public, it had a large impact on wilderness. Wilderness was often established with privately owned land or state owned land within it, called in-holdings. In-holdings are considered the largest problem the Homestead Act created for the wilderness when it was enacted. Even though there was land owned within some areas, the government went ahead with declaring the areas as wilderness. If they had left these areas out, it would have severely limited the National Wilderness Preservation System. There are 5 main problems with having in-holdings in the wilderness.

  1. Motorized access across the wilderness to get to and from the in-holding.
    1. Vehicles and roads can damage the physical characteristics of the wilderness.
    2. Vehicles can also damage the wilderness experience for other people.
  1. Land speculation and threatened development of in-holdings.
    1. Some in-holding owners wanted to develop so they could sell their land for a large profit. In the West Elk Wilderness of Colorado, an in-holder owner began building a 3,450 square foot house. He threatened to develop further unless the USF paid a large sum of money or agreed to a land exchange. The USF ended up exchanging a 105-acre plot of land worth $4.2 million for the 240-acre of land worth $240,000. Cases like these were not isolated.
  1. Use of in-holdings that are incompatible with the wilderness.
    1. Can impact the ecological health, aesthetic value, and the character of the adjoining wilderness.
    2. Incompatible uses include:
      1. Major building construction
      2. Airfield use
      3. Mining
      4. Introduction of exotic species
  1. Legal ambiguities related to the property rights of the owners of the in-holding.
    1. Section 5 of TWA is the legal bases regarding in-holdings contained within a wilderness.
    2. Other wilderness legislation includes provisions to provide access to in-holdings, however access is not necessarily for motorized vehicles.
    3. The most important legislation related to in-holdings:
      1. The Eastern Wilderness Act: Set aside lands in the Eastern United States designated as wilderness. This Act can be viewed |here
      2. The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act: Set aside land in Alaska that was deemed important for scientific, beauty, or resource reasons. More information on this Act can be found |here
      3. The California Desert Protection Act: Expanded Joshua Tree and Death Valley national parks, and established the Mojave preserve. This Act can be found |here
    4. Language in legislation regarding in-holdings is very obscure and multiple agencies have interpreted it differently.
  1. Legal guidelines for wilderness managers.
    1. Because of the multiple pieces of legislation regarding in-holdings, and some are not applicable to certain areas, access to in-holdings are regulated differently, depending on which agency is managing the wilderness.



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