Western Expansion for Kids - The Homestead Act of 1862
For Kids: US President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law in May of 1862, one year after the Civil War had started. This act allowed any head of household who was a citizen (or in the process of becoming one), including freed slaves, to claim 160 acres of unoccupied and surveyed Federal land for a small filing fee. All you had to do after that was build a home, plant crops, and live on the land for five consecutive years. After five years, you could file with the government and show you had satisfied the rules, and the land would become your property. It sounds easy, but was it?
One of the problems facing homesteaders was that many people who attempted to homestead had little or no farming experience. The land itself was not always the best; some of it was very dry and difficult to irrigate. There were Indian attacks, disease, snow storms, flash floods, and years of lean crops. But some people were successful. By the end of the Civil War, in 1865, over 15,000 homesteads had been established. None had yet filed for permanent ownership because the five year period was not yet up, but the farms were successfully operating.
In the following years, and all together, over 250 million acres of land were opened to homesteaders. Not all the land was claimed. Not everyone who filed was successful. But the Homestead Act was designed to encourage settlement of the west. And that it accomplished. Certainly there were other reasons people chose to move west. But the lure of owning their own farm was a strong one.