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Historical Highlights

The Homestead Act

May 20, 1862
The Homestead Act Image courtesy of Library of Congress Serving 16 nonconsecutive terms in the House, William S. Holman of Indiana chaired both the Public Lands and Appropriations committees.
On this date, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act (12 Stat. 392) into law. The measure granted up to 160 acres of government-surveyed, public land to any adult U.S. citizen (or intended citizen) who occupied it for five years and made improvements to the parcel. It also allowed settlers to purchase the acreage outright ($1.25 per acre) after six months of residence. The act had been in the works for nearly 20 years, long obstructed by a combination of northern business interests and southerners who feared that new homesteaders in western territories would tip the scales in favor of abolition. After the secession of southern states, the road was cleared for passage. In early 1862, during the 37th Congress (1861–1863), the Committee on Public Lands, led by Chairman John “Bowie Knife” Potter of Wisconsin, reported the bill (H.R. 125) to the full House. On February 28, 1862, the House moved to a vote. During debate, William S. Holman of Indiana, forcefully supported the act, decrying “the extraordinary facilities which our land policy has hitherto furnished for capitalists to almost monopolize the public lands.” He added, “Instead of baronial possessions, let us facilitate the increase of independent homesteads. Let us keep the plow in the hands of the owner. Every new home that is established, the independent possessor of which cultivates his own freehold, is establishing a new republic within the old, and adding a new and a strong pillar to the edifice of the State.” Later that day, the House passed the Homestead Act, 107 to 16. After it became law, the program produced mixed results. During the next 40 years, the federal government dispersed 500 million acres. Of these, only about 20 percent went to homesteaders primarily on the Western Plains. Land speculators, railroads, and ranchers, snapped up the balance.

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