The Homestead Act of 1862
The passage of the Homestead Act by Congress in 1862, a law that would transfer millions of acres to settlers virtually free of charge, was the culmination of more than seventy years of controversy over the disposition of public lands. The need to populate vast areas of the open West dictated an openhanded land policy by the Federal government, and the Homestead Act became law on Jan. 1, 1863.
The base price of public land was lowered from $2 to $1.25 an acre and the minimum purchase was reduced from 160 to as few as 80 acres. Heads of household, widows, and single persons over twenty-one years who were citizens or had declared their intention to become citizens were allowed to file for a quarter-section of free land (160 acres). A homesteader could claim the land as his own if at the end of five years he had built a house on it, dug a well, broken (plowed) ten acres, fenced a specified amount, and actually lived there. Additionally, one could claim a quarter-section of land by "timber culture" (commonly called a "tree claim"). This required that the homesteader plant and successfully cultivate 10 acres of timber. An 'entryman' could commute a claim to cash entry and pay minimum price per acre but was still required to build a home and cultivate the land. Only half of the homestead entries filed before 1900 went to patent.