Homestead Act turns 150

May 22, 2012

Sunday was the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act.

The act, signed in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln, offered 160 acres of free land to anyone who was the head of a household or at least 21 years old. The landowner had to develop the land and grow crops within five years. The only costs associated with acquiring the land were filing fees of $18.

Mark Scherer teaches Nebraska and Great Plains history at UNO. He says the Homestead Act was important to Nebraska’s statehood in 1867. “About half of the total acreage within the state will be claimed by people under the Homestead Act, so I think that in itself is a fairly staggering sort of fact to appreciate.”

He says land ownership before the Homestead Act was complicated because of an 1841 law called the Preemption Act. Under that law, people could squat on public territory. But Scherer says the plots of land usually weren’t surveyed, and it led to overlapping claims and litigation.

The original, four-page Homestead Act is on display this week at the Homestead National Monument in Beatrice.