The Homestead Act: A Short History

The Ingalls family: Caroline, Carrie, Laura, Charles, Grace, Mary

The other day when I posted on the 150th anniversary of the creation of the Department of Agriculture I mentioned that it was one of several pieces of legislation passed in 1862. Today is the sesquicentennial of the Homestead Act. That these and other measures were enacted one after the other is not coincidental. The Republican Party and its antecedents had wanted to enact public works legislation for decades, only to be stymied by their Southern opponents. Secession assured the Republicans a majority in Congress, allowing them the pass the laws they had long desired for internal improvements. Hence the Agriculture Department, and the Homestead, Morrill, and Pacific Railway Acts. There was also the Second Confiscation and Militia Acts for the prosecution of the war. And of course the Emancipation Proclamation that September. One could make a strong case that 1862 was the pivotal year in American history.

The Homestead Act went into effect on 1 January 1863, the same day as the Emancipation Proclamation. It was responsible, literally, for giving us the country we live in today. 270 million acres–10% of the nation’s land mass–were given away during the 123 years the Homestead Act was in effect. Land was distrubuted under the act’s provisions under every president from Lincoln to Ronald Reagan. Immigration, expanding before and even during the war, exploded in the decades after Appomattox. That is why they eventually built Ellis Island in the 1890s. It was not just immigrants; individuals like Charles Ingalls moved westward by the thousands, in his case from Upstate New York, in search of greener pastures. It is important when studying our civil war to think beyond the drums and bugles if one wants to understand the country we live in today. President Kennedy believed it was the most important document in American history.

For the first time ever, all four of the Homestead Act’s parchment pages have left Washington and are on exhibit. Appropriately the document is currently at Homestead National Monument of America in Nebraska, through May 28th. The Park Service and National Archives collaborated on this video that one can watch in less time that an episode of any sit com.