In a milestone in the settlement of the American West, President Abraham Lincoln signs into law the Homestead Act, a program designed to grant public land to small farmers at low cost. The act gave 160 acres of land to any applicant who was the head of a household and 21 years or older, provided that the person settled on the land for five years and then paid a small filing fee. If settlers wished to obtain title earlier, they could do so after six months by paying $1.25 an acre.
The Homestead Act was first proposed in the 1850s, but Southern congressmen feared that the settlement of the West by small farmers would create an agricultural alternative to the Southern slave system. In 1858, a homestead bill was defeated by only one vote in the Senate, and in 1859 a bill was passed in both houses but vetoed by President James Buchanan. Passage of the bill was high on President Lincoln’s agenda, and the loss of Southern congressmen in the secession removed most of the bill’s congressional opposition. The president signed the Homestead Act into law on May 20, 1862. By the end of the Civil War, some 15,000 land claims had been made.
Most homesteaders were experienced farmers from the crowded east or Europe. By 1900, 600,000 claims had been made for some 80 million acres of public land. Although numerous claims continued to be made into the 20th century, the mechanization of American agriculture in the 1930s and 1940s led to the replacement of individual homesteads with a smaller number of much larger farms.