The Homestead Act of 1862 was a landmark in the evolution of federal agriculture law. Passed by Congress during the Civil War, it had an idealistic goal: it sought to shape the U.S. West by populating it with farmers. The law's Northern supporters had pursued a vision of taming the rough frontier for several decades, as a means both to create an agrarian base there and to break the institution of slavery that was entrenched in the South. To achieve this end, they engineered a vast giveaway of public lands. The Homestead Act provided 160 acres of land for a small filing fee and a modest investment of time and effort. The overly optimistic law failed in several ways. Most important, it was exploited by railroads and other powerful interests for profit. After making basic changes to it Congress finally repealed the law in 1977.
The Homestead Act arose from the struggle between the North and the South that culminated in the Civil War (1861-65). During this struggle, the nation followed two competing paths of agricultural development: the industrialized North favored giving public lands to individual settlers, while the South clung to its tradition of slave labor. From the early 1830s, Northern proponents of the free distribution of public land, organized around the Free-Soil party and later in the Republican party, had their ideas blocked by Southern opponents. The secession of Southern states in 1861 cleared the way for passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, against a backdrop of other important legislation that would define national agriculture policy for the next century: the Morrill Land-Grant College Act, the Pacific Railroad Act, and the creation of the Department of Agriculture. The Homestead Act went into effect on January 1, 1863, just as President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves.
In this context of controversy and war, the Homestead Act offered a simple plan to achieve the goals of the North. As yet not fully settled, western states would be populated with a flood of homesteaders — individual farmers whose hard work would create a new agricultural industry. On its face, the law was generous. Anyone who was at least twenty-one years of age, the head of a family, or a military veteran was qualified to claim land; moreover, citizens and immigrants alike were entitled to participate. They paid a small filing fee in return for the temporary right to occupy and farm 160 acres. The land did not become theirs immediately; the law stipulated that it had to be improved, and only after living on and maintaining it for five years would the homesteader gain ownership. Proponents viewed the law with an almost utopian fondness: through the federal government's largesse, a new West would be created.
In actual application, the act did not achieve this happy outcome. Although the East offered sufficient rainfall, the West was unforgiving. There, harsh land and arid conditions made farming 160 acres a dismal prospect for the settlers, who lived in houses usually made of sod. Often, they simply needed more acreage in order to succeed. In addition, homesteaders seldom had the best land. By bribing residents who bought the land for them, or simply by filing fraudulent claims, speculators managed to reap the lion's share of land at public expense. It is estimated that only a quarter of the trillion acres made available through the Homestead Act ever served their intended purpose. The bulk of this land went to corporate interests, particularly in the railroad and timber industries, rather than individual settlers.
The Homestead Act left a complicated legacy to U.S. law. Its passage was a triumph for Northern states in their decades-long battle to control the destiny of national agricultural policy. But its limitations and its exploitation meant that the vision of those states could scarcely be realized. Congress made changes to the law during its 105-year history — chiefly, modifying the limits on acreage that it made available — but these amendments did little to alter the act's net effect on the course of national agricultural policy. The law was finally repealed in 1977. Popularly romanticized during the nineteenth century and even into the twentieth, the Homestead Act is now widely viewed by scholars as a failed experiment and a lesson in the contrasts between the intentions and outcomes of law.