The free homestead law has been called the most important act for the welfare of the people ever passed in the United States.
In 1854 the first free homestead bill was introduced in Congress. The people of the West and poor people everywhere were in favor of the bill but there was strong opposition. On May 20, 1862, the free Homestead Act was passed and signed by President Lincoln with the law taking effect on January 1, 1863.
This law allowed any man or woman twenty-one years old or the head of a family, 160 acres of undeveloped land by living on it five years and paying eighteen dollars in fees. They were required to build a home, make improvements and farm the land before they owned it. Homesteaders could also choose to purchase the land for $1.25 per acre after six months of living on the land.
Settlers included newly arrived immigrants, farmers without land of their own from the East, single women and former slaves. People interested in Homesteading filed their intentions at the nearest Land Office and after a check for any ownership claims, the prospector paid a filing fee of $10 to claim the land temporarily, as well as a $2 commission to the land agent.
When all requirements were completed and the homesteader was ready the take legal possession, the homesteader found two neighbors or friends willing to vouch for the truth of his or her statements regarding land improvement and sign the "proof" document. After successful completion of this final form and payment of a $6 fee, the homesteader received the patent for the land, signed with the name of the current President of the United States.
The Homestead Act of 1912 reduced the homestead requirement from five to three years; by this time most of the land in the lower 48 states had already been taken.
The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 substantially decreased the amount of land available to homesteaders in the West. Because much of the prime land had been homesteaded decades earlier, successful homestead claims dropped sharply after this time.
Homesteading continued on a small scale in Alaska. Much of the remaining public domain was included in the National Forests or is administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 ended homesteading; the government believing that the best use of public lands was for them to remain in government control. An exception to this new policy was Alaska, for which the law allowed homesteading until 1986.
The economic, agricultural, and social stability generated by the Homestead Act was utterly inconceivable in other times and places—and formed a large part of the foundation of American prosperity in the 20th century.
Source: The Homestead Act – Creating Prosperity in America
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