The first Homestead Act was passed in 1841. The terms of this act allowed people to purchase 160 acres of Plains land at a very small price.
In a bid to encourage more people to move from the overcrowded eastern states onto the Plains, the US government passed another Homestead Act in 1862
Under the terms of this Act, available Plains land (2.5 million acres) was divided into sections or homesteads of 160 acres. People could now claim 160 acres of land. The only requirement on their part was that they paid a small administration charge and built a house and lived on the land for at least 5 years.
In 1873 a further Act called the Timber Culture Act was passed. Under the terms of this act people could have 160 acres of land free provided that at least 40 acres of it was planted with trees. Anyone could lay claim to the land even foreign immigrants.
However, although 160 acres seemed like a vast amount of land, it was not enough to support a family if they wished to make a living from farming the land or raising livestock. It was thought that homesteaders ideally needed at least double that amount if they were to make an adequate living from the land. After 1875 when better farm machinery had been developed and larger amounts of land could be more easily ploughed, this was even more important.
The government accepted the criticisms that 160 acres was not enough and passed a further act in 1877 called the Desert Land Act. This act allowed people to buy 640 acres of land in areas where there was little rainfall and irrigation schemes were needed to work the land.
Although it was the intention of the act to provide individuals with the opportunity to make a new life for themselves, land speculators managed to acquire large amounts of land cheaply which they later sold at a great profit. They managed to get the land by getting their employees register for it.
The state of Kansas saw a huge influx of homesteaders during this period from 1850 – 1890. In 1871-2 9,000 claims were made. By 1885-6 this had risen to 43,000.
Was the Homestead Act a push or pull factor in people’s decision to move onto the Plains?