Nearly everyone knows that the Emancipation Proclamation became effective on January 1, 1863. This document formally established abolition of slavery as one of the Union’s goals in fighting and winning the Civil War and enabled the North to recruit African American men to fight as Union soldiers and sailors. Before signing it, President Abraham Lincoln famously remarked, “If my name shall have a place in history, it will be for this act.”
However, the Emancipation Proclamation was not the only significant act or law to become effective 155 years ago today. The Homestead Act, signed by Lincoln on May 20, 1862, also took effect on January 1, 1863. While certainly not as well-known as the Emancipation Proclamation, the homestead law still had great impact on the United States and remained in effect for an incredible 123 years.
The Homestead Act’s provisions offered qualified settlers the opportunity to select a piece of public land up to 160 acres in size (though claims in some areas were limited to 80 acres). Once selected, the prospective homesteader paid minimal administrative costs to the government and had to take up residence on the land within six months. At least ten acres had to be placed in cultivation, and the settler had to stay on the property for five consecutive years. Once that time elapsed and the homesteader met all legal requirements of the law, the federal government transferred the property’s permanent title to the homesteader. This law eventually led to the transfer of more than 270 million acres of land to settlers in 30 different states. The Homestead Act remained active in some parts of the country until 1976 and until 1986 in Alaska.
Questions about whether and how the federal government should distribute land to settlers had persisted since the end of the Revolutionary War. Like so many other questions of national importance, land distribution eventually got wrapped up in the debate over slavery, and Congress was never able to agree on a bill that satisfied both northerners and southerners. As the nation started down the road that eventually led to the Civil War, the Homestead Act became a critically important issue to the fledgling Republican Party in the late 1850s and early 1860s. As abolitionists joined the Republicans’ ranks, more and more southerners came to oppose homesteading on principle alone—basically due to guilt by association with Republicans. Early Republicans included abolitionists, disaffected Whigs and Democrats, former “Know-Nothings,” and the castoffs of other regional parties. Homesteading, even more than abolition of slavery, was one issue on which most of them agreed from the beginning and was therefore an important cause for creating cohesion among the first Republicans.
As Americans clamored for some kind of homestead bill into the 1850s, the idea became more and more politicized. Southerners that cared little about western settlement under a homestead act came to vehemently oppose it, viewing it as a northern plot to populate the western territories with free soil settlers and prevent the expansion—and, therefore, survival—of slavery. Likewise, northerners far removed from the West who might not have given any real thought to that region’s concerns came to view homesteading as a critical measure to provide genuine opportunity to the homesteader while limiting the South’s options to expand slavery.
The Homestead Act became a central piece in a series of western bills that Republicans rammed through Congress during the Civil War while no southerners were present to object. This represented Republicans taking full advantage of the opportunity to pass what the party viewed as a critical tool to determine the future of the West and the nation as a whole. Republicans used homesteading, a transcontinental railroad, new taxes, land grant colleges, national banking, and other radical ideas to completely change the nation’s financial system, settlement patterns, commerce, economy, and social structure. In fact, the Homestead Act represented a foundational piece of a legislative agenda that had as much impact as the New Deal some 70 years later.
The Homestead Act initiated significant changes to American society. Homesteading provided new levels of opportunity to many not accustomed to it. Women, still unable to own land in their own names in many parts of the country, were free to claim and own homesteads. Significantly for a law that went into effect the same day as the Emancipation Proclamation, after the Civil War and the resulting Reconstruction amendments to the Constitution African Americans were also able to claim and own land as homesteaders. Thousands traveled west for the opportunity to do so. Immigrants from most areas of the world were welcomed and sometimes even invited to the United States to make claims. Homesteading contributed to the United States becoming one of the world’s largest agricultural producers.
The law was not perfect by any means. Reflecting American society’s values of the era, immigrants of Chinese origin were barred from homesteading. The Homestead Act also had catastrophic effects on many American Indian populations and cultures. Indian displacement and removal had been occurring for decades before the Homestead Act, but this law represented yet another in a long line of acts that served to remove natives from their ancestral homes and force them onto reservations. Homesteading had environmental impacts that contributed to drought, soil erosion and degradation, and the onset of the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s.
The upheaval of the 1850s, rising sectional tensions, and the creation of the Republican Party were all important milestones on America’s road to the Civil War. The “free land” idea manifested in the Homestead Act played an important role in all of these events and must be considered when assessing the actions of both the North and South in the decades before the war. Abraham Lincoln and his Republican colleagues saw the Homestead Act as a means to provide genuine opportunity to the masses while accomplishing their political goals of keeping slavery out of the West and determining the future settlement and economic success of that region.