Go West, Young Farmer!

May 20, 1862
The Homestead Act went into Effect

Land available! Come and get it! This poster told Americans about their opportunity to claim land and farm it, thanks to the Homestead Act. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862, to spur Western migration. How did a person get 160 acres of one’s own? You had to be a U.S. citizen and 21 years of age. By paying a filing fee of $10 and residing on your new farm in the West for at least five years, the land would be yours. A great deal, but it took 20 years to get the Act passed. Why?

Northern businessmen thought free land would lower property values and reduce the cheap labor supply. Southerners feared homesteaders would add their voices to the call to stop slavery. With the Civil War silencing the protests of the South, the Homestead Act finally passed. By 1900, homesteaders had filed 600,000 claims for 80 million acres. Most pioneers moved to the Western Plain states such as Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming. They hoped for prosperity, but knew the move was a gamble. Why?

The homesteaders knew it would be tough, farming the land for the first time, living in unfamiliar territory, often isolated from other people for long periods. Men such as Daniel Freedman, pictured here, perhaps the first homesteader, left family and community to try to win prosperity with their new land. Some settlers went with their families. They have left us stories about grasshoppers devouring entire crops of corn. They also told about their isolation, with no schools or social gatherings, as people lived too far apart.

Despite hard times, some farmers succeeded and accumulated more acres. With the railroads creating more access to the East, and a rising demand for beef, ranches prospered too. Between 1860 and 1880, the number of head of cattle in the Plains states rose from 130,000 to 4.5 million! Would you have applied for a homestead and moved west back in 1862?