The Homestead Act of 1862
When the Southern states seceded and their Representatives and Senators abandoned Washington D. C. in 1861 the Republicans and other former Free-Soil advocates passed the Homestead Act of 1862. The purpose of this law was to expand the homesteading requirements of the Pre-emption Act of 1841 making it easier for loyal citizens of the Union to claim land and thereby expand the concept of the “yeoman farmer”. Andrew Johnson, George Henry Evans and Horace Greeley were the primary advocates and leaders of this effort.
The law provided that any citizen of the Union could claim 160 acres of public land if willing to settle on the property and farm the land for at least five years. A three-step process was required; 1) file an application giving the boundaries of the land and pay the required fee, 2) improve the land and 3) file for a deed of title after five years. The applicant had to be a citizen of the U. S. or have filed an intent to become a citizen, be at least twenty-one years of age or the head of a household. This last stipulation enabled single women and widows to make application. The only other requirement was that the applicant had never taken up arms against the government of the U. S. After the fourteenth amendment freed all slaves, former slaves could also file a claim.
In 1866 the Southern Homestead Act was passed by Congress and signed into law. This law made it possible for poor tenant farmers and sharecroppers living in the Southern states during Reconstruction to become landowners. It proved to be not as successful as anticipated because, despite low fees and other costs associated with taking up a claim, such as the purchase of tools, transportation to the claim, seed, livestock, and other necessities, most potential applicants were unable to move from where they were mired in abject poverty.
Initially immigrants, farmers with no land of their own, single women and all citizens or persons who had filed a declaration of their intention to become a citizen qualified for “free” land. With time the requirements changed. Slaves became qualified after the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868. South Asians and East Asians born in the U. S. were qualified after the Supreme Court ruled on the United States vs. Wong Kim Ark lawsuit in 1898. However, by 1998 almost all high-quality farm lands were claimed. For immigrants entering the country legally during the 1890’s most had to file a declaration of their intent to become a citizen to be admitted. During this time the bulk of the immigrants were from Europe. Immigrants from Asia were largely excluded. Immigrants from Africa were permitted but very few applied.