AskDefine | Define homesteader

Dictionary Definition

homesteader n : someone who settles lawfully on government land with the intent to acquire title to it [syn: squatter, nester]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A pioneer who goes and settles on a homestead.

Extensive Definition

The Homestead Act was a United States Federal law that gave an applicant freehold title to 160 acres (one quarter section or about 65 hectares) of undeveloped land outside of the original 13 colonies. The new law required three steps: file an application, improve the land, and file for deed of title. Anyone who had never taken up arms against the U.S. Government, including freed slaves, could file an application and improvements to a local land office. The Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862


The Homestead act was intended to liberalize the homesteading requirements of the Preemption Act of 1841. The "yeoman farmer" ideal was powerful in American political history, and plans for expanding their numbers through a homestead act were rooted in the 1850s. The South resisted, fearing the increase in free farmers would threaten plantation slavery. Two men stood out as greatly responsible for the passage of the Homestead Act: George Henry Evans and Horace Greeley. Agitation for free land started in 1844, when several bills began to be introduced unsuccessfully until 1862. After the South seceded and their delegations left Congress in 1861, the path was clear of obstacles, and the act was passed. C.G.

The end of homesteading

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 ended homesteading; the government believed that the best use of public homes was for them to remain in government control. The only exception to this new policy was in Alaska, for which the law allowed homesteading until 1986.

Fraud and corporate use

The Homestead Act was much abused. The intent of the Homestead Act was to grant land for agriculture. However, in the arid areas west of the Rocky Mountains, was generally too little land for a viable farm (at least prior to major public investments in irrigation projects). In these areas, homesteads were instead used to control resources, especially water. A common scheme was for an individual acting as a front for a large cattle operation to file for a homestead surrounding a water source under the pretense that the land was being used as a farm. Once granted, use of that water source would be denied to other cattle ranchers, effectively closing off the adjacent public land to competition. This method could also be used to gain ownership of timber and oil-producing land, as the Federal government charged royalties for extraction of these resources from public lands. On the other hand, homesteading schemes were generally pointless for land containing "locatable minerals", such as gold and silver, which could be controlled through mining claims and for which the Federal government did not charge royalties.
There was no systematic method used to evaluate claims under the Homestead Act. Land offices would rely on affidavits from witnesses that the claimant had lived on the land for the required period of time and made the required improvements. In practice, some of these witnesses were bribed or otherwise collaborated with the claimant. In any case the land was turned into farms.
Although not necessarily fraud, it was common practice for all the children of a large family who were eligible to claim nearby land as soon as possible. After a few generations a family could build up quite sizable estates.

Related acts in other countries

The act was later imitated with some modifications by Canada in the form of the Dominion Lands Act. Similar acts—usually termed the Selection Acts—were passed in the various Australian colonies in the 1860s, beginning in 1861 in New South Wales.

Popular culture

Further reading

  • Dick, Everett, 1970. The Lure of the Land: A Social History of the Public Lands from the Articles of Confederation to the New Deal.
  • Gates, Paul W., 1996. The Jeffersonian Dream: Studies in the History of American Land Policy and Development.
  • Hyman, Harold M., 1986. American Singularity: The 1787 Northwest Ordinance, the 1862 Homestead and Morrill Acts, and the 1944 G.I. Bill.
  • Lause, Mark A., 2005. Young America: Land, Labor, and the Republican Community.
  • Phillips, Sarah T., 2000, "Antebellum Agricultural Reform, Republican Ideology, and Sectional Tension." Agricultural History 74(4): 799-822. ISSN 0002-1482
  • Richardson, Heather Cox, 1997. The Greatest Nation of the Earth: Republican Economic Policies during the Civil War.
  • Robbins, Roy M., 1942. Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776-1936.

References and Notes

homesteader in German: Homestead Act
homesteader in French: Homestead Act
homesteader in Japanese: ホームステッド法
homesteader in Polish: Homestead Act
homesteader in Portuguese: Lei da Propriedade Rural
homesteader in Chinese: 宅地法

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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