At least as early as the 1830s, various groups clamored for free distribution of the vast public lands of the West. In 1848, the Free-Soil party was organized to oppose the extension of slavery into the territories newly acquired as a result of the Mexican War. The party failed to carry a single state in the presidential election that year, but it did give a unified voice. The party’s idea of regulating federal distribution of public lands was one means of stopping the spread of slavery into the territories.
When the Republican Party was founded in 1854, most of the “Free-Soilers” abandoned their dead-end party and joined the new one, which adopted distribution of federal lands as a plank of its 1860 platform. This issue fanned the flames of Southern secession; the slave states were always opposed to any policy that would bring more free states into the Union. But when the Civil War broke out, Southern opposition became a moot point.
On May 20, 1862, President Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act, which granted 160 acres of public land in the West as a homestead to “any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of 21. years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such.”
This was no free gift. Although the homesteader had only to pay a modest filing fee, he did have to live on the land for five years and make certain improvements-the most important of which was the construction of a dwelling. After these conditions were satisfied, the homesteader received clear title to the land. Alternatively, a homesteader could “preempt” the land after only six months’ residence by purchasing it at the rate of $1.25 per acre. If the settler could scrape together $50—a very substantial sum in the 1860s and beyond the means of many homesteaders—he could augment his original grant with an additional 40 acres, up to a maximum of 160.
The Homestead Act was a bold experiment in public policy and was shaped by years of hard experience with the distribution of unsettled land. Traditionally, such territories had drawn unscrupulous speculators, who figured out ways to come into control of vast acreages and make quick fortunes. The new law sought to avoid such abuses and aspired to a high degree of democracy. For the most part, it succeeded, although there were plenty of sharpers eager to burrow through legal loopholes. The greatest culprits in fraud were big railroads and big mining companies seeking large tracts of land at the public expense.
Despite the abuses, the Homestead Act opened the West to hundreds of thousands. The new settlers were different from the first waves of westerners. The solitary trapper and mountain man, the bachelor soldier, the grizzled prospector now made way for the farmer and the family, and with the family came stable, permanent communities.