01 January 2018

Homestead Act of 1862

"On January 1, 1863, Daniel Freeman, a Union Army scout, was scheduled to leave Gage County, Nebraska Territory, to report for duty in St. Louis. At a New Year's Eve party the night before, Freeman met some local Land Office officials and convinced a clerk to open the office shortly after midnight in order to file a land claim. In doing so, Freeman became one of the first to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the Homestead Act, a law signed by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862." 
                                                    – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

On 1 January 1874, 11 years after the Homestead Act in the United States went into effect, Russia enacted mandatory military service, the beginning of the rollback of the privileges granted to German colonists living in Russia, as was decreed by Tsar Alexander II 4 June 1871.  This caused  a surge of emigration to the United States where there was land...lots of it.

The Homestead Act ran between 1863 and 1986, ending with Alaska having the final homesteads granted. Ironically, Alaska was a territory that Russia sold to the United States in 1867, and it became subject to homesteading under the Act.  Over the course of 123 years, the government distributed more than 270 million acres of public land to homesteaders in 30 territories and states.  An accounting of state by state number of homesteads and acreage show the impact of this Act in the history of U.S. westward expansion.


Map of current states (in brown) that held public domain land and were subject to the Homestead Act of 1862. 
Source: National Park Service Homestead National Monument of America

You can read the articles of the Act here, or view the original document signed by President Abraham Lincoln here.  A complicated law to understand, many newspapers and magazines ran stories explaining the finer points of new law both before and long after it went into effect.  Below is a version called the "Rules for Homesteading" that ran in the North Dakota Magazine circa. 1906, republished by The Bismarck Tribune, and preserved by the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection:

  1. No person who is the owner of more than 160 acres of land in any state or territory can acquire any right under the homestead law. 
  2. A man has to be twenty-one years of age to make an entry, unless he is married or the head of a family. 
  3. A married woman has no right to make a homestead entry.   
  4. Commemorative U.S. stamp issued in
    1962 on the100th anniversary of the
    Homestead Act.
    Source: Digital Horizons

  5. A deserted wife can make a homestead entry. 
  6. A single woman over the age of twenty-one years has the right to make a homestead entry. 
  7. A single woman does not forfeit her homestead entry by marriage if thereafter she continues to comply with the law as to residence, improvements and cultivation.   But a husband and wife cannot both hold separate homestead entries and prove up on both. 
  8. The widow or children of a homesteader are not required to reside on their homestead after his death, but must continue cultivation by agent or otherwise.  The widow can enter a homestead in her own right while cultivating that of her husband, in which event she must actually reside on the land entered in her own name. 
  9. Homestead entries cannot be made for more than 160 acres of land. 
  10. Five years' residence from date of entry is required on homesteads for perfecting the title, except that sailors or soldiers of the late war may apply, as time of residence, the period of their military service; but in all cases there must not be less than one year's actual residence on, and improvement of, the land. 
  11. After fourteen months' residence on a homestead the entry may be commuted, if desired, by paying $2.50 per acre, if within the Northern Pacific Railway land grant, 40 miles each side of the center of said railway track, or $1.25 per acre, if outside of said limit, and the government will then give patent. 
  12. Any person who entered less than 160 acres of land as a homestead before March 2, 1889, may 
    Commemorative U.S. quarter dollar
    issued in 2015 celebrating the
    Homestead Act.
    Source: National Park Quarters
    now enter enough additional land which, added to the amount originally entered, will not exceed 160 acres. 
  13. A person who has not perfected title to a homestead entry, which he made prior to June 5, 1900, may make a new homestead entry of 160 acres, regardless of his previous filing. 
  14. Any person who, prior to June 5, 1900, commuted a homestead entry, may now take another homestead, but must reside on it five years.  He cannot commute an entry again. 
  15. It is necessary to appear in person when making an entry of homestead lands. 
  16. Land office fees, when application is made for homestead entry, are as follows: $14 for 160 acres; $13 for 120 acres; $7 for 80 acres; $6 for 40 acres.  If within the railroad land grant limit, $18 for 160 acre; $16 for 120 acres; $9 for 80 acres; $7 for 40 acres.

About 40%, or 1.6 million homesteaders, met all the requirements and proved improvements to the land and received the final patent, or ownership papers, on their claims.  And there is an estimated 93 million descendants of those homesteaders, present company humbly included.

Homestead application of the author's maternal great-great-grandfather, Ludwig Erck of Straßburg, Odessa, Russia. 
Source: National Archives and Records Administration

Homestead application of the author's paternal great-grandfather, Johann Schilling of Glückstal, Odessa, Russia.
Source: National Archives and Records Administration


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