I had no idea the first claim of what would become one of the largest gifts of public lands ever – 270 million acres over 123 years – was made on a patch of prairie in southeast Nebraska. A guy named Daniel Freeman, in a hurry to return to the Union side of the Civil War, signed up with a land agent just after midnight on January 1, 1863.
Freeman’s land is now home to a beautiful building that rises up on the plains as if growing in the tall grass prairie, its roof shaped like a huge silver plow cutting sod and facing due west.
I was familiar with the law, given a tendency towards obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder as a kid. (Seriously, I think I read all the “Little House” books a hundred times. Each.)
But I had no idea of the law’s scope and how it carved America into what it is today. Need just one factoid to blow your mind? One study suggests that there are 93 million descendants living today who are connected to the Homestead Act.
Beginning January 1, 1863, any U.S. citizen—or intended citizen—who had never taken up arms against the United States could claim up to 160 acres and take title by living and farming on the land for five years. Total charge: $18. Female heads of household were eligible. African-Americans would be eligible after they became citizens under the 14th Amendment in 1868. Native Americans would be displaced.
Now, 150 years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the law on May of 1982, there’s a big birthday party being planned. For more information on that, click here or go to the monument’s site, linked above. And obviously, not everyone is celebrating the act -- a special section at the Monument is dedicated to the Native Americans who were kicked off their own land when the settlers arrived.
In marking this anniversary/birthday, we’d like to hear from you. Are you descended from the Homestead Act? Do you have memories of your family being connected to a claim? We’re working on a series of stories on people’s connection to the farm and family land.