1862 Homestead Act

In the dark, early years of conflict between the Northern and Southern States, when Civil War threatened to forever shatter all that the founding fathers had created, Abraham Lincoln signed a momentous piece of legislation. The Homestead Act of 1862 had little to do with the Civil War—at least not directly—but, like the War itself, it would dramatically shape the future destiny of the nation. Especially affected was the American West, and most notably, the soon-to-be-formed Territory of Montana. It would ultimately become the most heavily homesteaded state in America.

Montana historian, Derek Strahn

By the mid-19th century, there was growing support for the notion of the federal government providing free land to Americans. In 1860, Congress passed a homestead bill, but it was vetoed by President James Buchanan. In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, Congress passed the legislation again, President Lincoln signed it, and the 1862 Homestead Act was law.

The Homestead Act was one of the largest federal grant programs ever enacted and its impacts are still relevant today. In exchange for 160 acres, a person, including freed slaves, had five years to "improve" the land and it was theirs to keep. For the United States, it was a way to populate the West with small "yeoman" or common farmers, instead of vast tracts being developed, as in the South, by wealthy plantation owners. For many, this was the chance of a lifetime. While some saw homesteading as a pathway to a better life and a lifelong way to make a living, others saw it as a way for faster economic gain, sometimes with no real intent of personally settling down and farming the land as a career.

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Derek Strahn, "Feast or Famine: Homestead Montana." Distinclty Montana magazine, Spring 2007.

U.S. Department of the Interior. Bureau of Land Management. The Homestead Act.