Year
1862

The Homestead Act

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.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Spirit of St. Louis departs

At 7:52 a.m., American aviator Charles A. Lindbergh takes off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York, on the world’s first solo, nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean and the first ever nonstop flight between New York to Paris. Lindbergh, a daring young airmail pilot, ...read more

Vasco da Gama reaches India

Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama becomes the first European to reach India via the Atlantic Ocean when he arrives at Calicut on the Malabar Coast. Da Gama sailed from Lisbon, Portugal, in July 1497, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and anchored at Malindi on the east coast of ...read more

Christopher Columbus dies

On May 20, 1506, the great Italian explorer Christopher Columbus dies in Valladolid, Spain. Columbus was the first European to explore the Americas since the Vikings set up colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland in the 10th century. He explored the West Indies, South America, and ...read more

Battle for Hamburger Hill ends

After 10 days and 10 bloody assaults, Hill 937 in South Vietnam is finally captured by U.S. and South Vietnamese troops. The Americans who fought there cynically dubbed Hill 937 “Hamburger Hill” because the battle and its high casualty rate reminded them of a meat grinder. ...read more

Sunday Silence wins Preakness by a nose

On May 20, 1989, Sunday Silence edges by Easy Goer to win the closest race in the 114-year history of the Preakness Stakes by a nose. Sunday Silence had already beaten Easy Goer in the Kentucky Derby by two-and-a-half lengths, putting the horse one victory away from winning the ...read more

Lincoln signs Homestead Act

On this day in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signs the Homestead Act, which opens government-owned land to small family farmers (“homesteaders”). The act gave “any person” who was the head of a family 160 acres to try his hand at farming for five years. The individual had to be ...read more

Plane crashes at Cairo airport

A Pakistan Airways Boeing 707 arriving from Pakistan crashes upon landing at the airport in Cairo, Egypt, killing 124 people on this day in 1965. The accident came just as pilots were complaining about poor conditions at the Cairo airport. In 1965, the International Pilots ...read more

Mary Kay Letourneau marries former victim

On this day in 2005, ex-teacher and convicted pedophile Mary Kay Letourneau, 43, marries her former victim and the father of two of her children, Vili Fualaau, 22. Just nine months earlier, Letourneau had been released from prison after serving a seven-and-a-half year sentence ...read more