Homestead Act Takes Effect: January 1, 1863

On December 31, 1862, Daniel Freeman made his way to the land office in Brownville, Nebraska. It was just before midnight, but Freeman, a Civil War soldier on furlough, arranged for an obliging clerk to open the doors. He planned to file the first homestead claim under the newly enacted Homestead Act which took effect on January 1, 1863.

At 12:05 A.M., Freeman successfully filed his claim. He was awarded a tract of land in Nebraska that he lived on and cultivated until his death in 1908. Later, to celebrate the most progressive land redistribution in American history, Freeman’s property became the Homestead National Monument of America.

The Homestead Act was US legislation that granted 160 acres of unappropriated public land to any American citizen or immigrant who declared his intention to become a citizen, upon the receipt of a small fee. Applicants agreed to live on the land, improve it, and build a residence. Those applying were required to be 21-years-old or the head of a family. Women and freed slaves were also eligible to apply.

Enacting homestead laws did not come easy. Southern states regularly voted against homestead legislation, fearing it would create an agricultural alternative to the slave labor system. Others argued the legislation was inevitable. When the Homestead Act finally passed, it opened up the Great Plains and western United States to settlement.

Mary Myer and her husband Philipp were German immigrants to the United States. In 1860, they made their way to the Nebraska frontier and settled on a piece of land, planning to remain there until owners forced them to leave. Philipp died in 1861, and when the Homestead Act passed in 1862, Mary realized she could apply to own the land she and her three children already lived on. On January 20, 1863, Mary filled out application number 20 and received homestead rights, possibly becoming the first woman to own land under the Homestead Act.

Six months after legislators approved the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railroad Act passed. By May 1869, the transcontinental railroad provided easy transportation and lured homesteaders further West. As more homestead land became available, eager settlers snatched it up. By 1934, the government processed more than 1.6 million homestead applications and awarded 270 million acres of land to citizens. In 1988, 125 years after the first homestead claim, Kenneth Deardorff received the last grant of land under the Homestead Act for 80 acres in Alaska.

Did someone in your family file a homestead claim? Is the land still in your family? Learn more about the Homestead Act on our topic page and research your family’s homestead roots on



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33 thoughts on “Homestead Act Takes Effect: January 1, 1863

  1. Canada had a similar situation in the “Dominion Lands Act – 1872” Land Grants of Western Canada. My Great grandfather and family took stake in1886 establishing the Dauphin Plains Manitoba family Homesteads.

  2. Very interesting article my grandfather Knudson homestead in Amidon, ND in 1908. Our family s
    till has the land.

  3. I find it interesting section 16 was originally set aside to fund public schools. Does anyone know why some of the income off of section 16 land was not set aside with permanent income for the school systems?

    1. Probably because the greedy politicians moved it over to the general fund so they could spend it on pet projects just as the did with the Social Security “lockbox”!

      1. You will still find “School Sections” in most areas of the grid-surveyed US. They are leased out with the income going to the local school system. In other places, the school system sold the land to cover short term operating/building costs. This was always the intent of the school section and was left in the hands of the local school board to determine lease vs. sale.

    1. My understanding is Texas was a country and therefore owned all the land and gave it away as land grants before and after statehood. Therefore the federal government did not own land to homestead. End result is Texas has a very high percentage of private property and the most successful economies in the US.

  4. Wow, this is so interesting! My children will be studying the Industrial Homestead Act (now called Capital Homesteading) that Reagan advocated for before his first term as president which is modeled after Lincoln’s Homestead Act. We might just have to take a field trip to the Homestead National Monument of America! Thank you for this information!

  5. Is there a searchable source that I can access to determine whether any of my
    ancestors might have been granted land hereunder?

    1. Yes, go to the US Bureau of Land Management General Land Office (GLO) web site:
      (some of the pages may not be available until the government shutdown ends).
      The search feature is very easy to use. If they received a patent (title) for the homestead; you can view, print, & download the copy of it.

  6. It wasn’t as easy as your article makes it appear. Lots of folks were unable to profit from the land they purchased, and despite hard work, they lost everything. This happened to my ancestors, always moving west for new opportunity, always trying to improve the land, always failing and moving on as poor as ever.
    Your readers might recognize others who had same problems: Laura Ingalls family is one easily recognized.

    Please do your readers a service and follow up on this article with results of Homestead Act.

  7. My 2nd Great Grandfather received a grant under the homestead act. He deeded 1 acre for a school out of his 141 acres. I don’t know why he only received 141 acres but know he had to live and work the land for 5 years. My 2nd Great Uncle received 160 acres so he may have paid a small fee for the land. This was all in Benzonia County, Michigan

    1. Not even sure why you would concern yourself with that question if they weren’t worried about it back then….. Other than to poke a bear why would you even bother. Do you sincerely care?

      1. I speculate that Jake is poking a bear. Respect to you Jake for trying to remind us we should think about history in context. Native Americans were driven off these lands, by violence, so that my ancestors could Homestead. I can’t fix it, but I sure think it’s important for people to understand.

        1. Michelle …Thank you for your thoughtful, sensitive reply.
          Coming from the loading side of this history, articles like this are not the most pleasant to read…

      2. Seems likely that many of the native Americans that were forced to reservations , might have had ancestors or themselves traveled the Trail of Tears…

      3. Patrick..looking at history and situations today from different perspectives can make you more aware, compassionate, well rounded and..maybe not so defensive. My ancestors are some of those pushed out and colonized so though I appreciate why you enjoy the homestead history…I challenge you to expand your mind….

  8. My grandfather was a homesteader in what is now Major county Oklahoma. We know long we own the land but do still have the mineral rights. I think of grandfather, grandmother, mother and all the hardship and deprivation they must have endured as they established their home from the virgin land he was granted. Here it is nearly 125 years later and I am still rewarded for my ancestors grit and determination with routine mineral checks. I sure am lucky.

  9. I am part owner in 20 acres that my great-grandfather homesteaded in 1910. The other 60 acres was sold off over the years. My cousin still lives in the house that Grandpa built.

    Thank you for sharing info about The Homestead Act. Unfortunately the BLM search page is offline during the shutdown but I will bookmark the page for future reference.

  10. What about the Native American Indian who were living on this land for hundreds of years before our government “gave” it to settlers?

    1. THANK YOU Elaine!!
      I was wondering when someone was going to point out the OBVIOUS!
      The land was NOT theirs to give…PERIOD. And they make it sound so Patriotic and Civil…its disgusting. Never mentioning how many indians they slaughtered to get it.

  11. Actually, It may not be the first official homestead from the Homestead Act of 1862. South Dakota has a historical marker on our gravel road marking the first official homestead, filed by Mahlon Gore at 12:01 AM (1 minute after midnight) on January 1,1863.

  12. Progressive? Not sure about that. Most of today’s progressives would see this as a land grab from native Americans not a socialist land redistribution program.

  13. Interesting. I all ways thought it was 40 acres and a mule!

    Anyway. I read not to long ago that in Kansas, SIMILAR rules apply today. One must agree to improve the land…

  14. Hi.
    Whenever I think about homesteaders, it reminds me of Little House Books. And the movies and books I read and watched with my daughter as she was growing up. Sarah, Plain and Tall. Skylark, Caddie Woodlawn.

    1. Yikes. Really bad Grammer ^. Land Grants were given for Military Service.

      I believe a Land Grant is different than Land aquired through Homestead Act.

  15. Some of my ancestors from Poland that came to USA from 1870-1895 purchased land from IL Central Railroad … I do not think they would have been concidered Homesteaders…. Although I have been told that some from Nashville, IL area went west to Colorado.

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