Effects of the Homestead Act of 1862
Because of the Homestead Act of 1862, homesteaders braved myriad obstacles to settle the rural areas of the United States, and their descendants appreciate the effort.
A homestead and family west of Callaway, Nebraska, between 1886 and 1912.
Solomon Butcher/Nebraska State Historical Society RG2608.PH1675
Most of the 33 million schoolchildren in this country today have never set foot on a farm. In fact, only two of every 100 Americans now live on a farm, and less than 1 percent of the 300 million people in our country claim farming as their occupation.
But many of us can trace our heritage to parents, grandparents or great-grandparents who spent their lives on a farm. About 93 million Americans living today are the descendants of homesteaders who filed claims under the Homestead Act, according to historians at the Homestead National Monument of America, located near Beatrice, Nebraska.
My wife and I are among them. My maternal grandfather left his boyhood home near Springfield, Illinois, in the early 1900s to homestead 160 acres of prairie in western Nebraska. My wife’s great-
grandfather brought his family to the United States from Germany in the 1880s to claim a homestead in northeastern Nebraska. Her grandfather later claimed his own homestead in South Dakota.
Beginning in 1863, the words “free land” became a siren call for landless U.S. citizens, freed slaves and hundreds of thousands of European immigrants after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act. The act, which offered 160 acres of land to any qualified homesteader who paid a modest filing fee, built a home, planted at least 10 acres of crops and remained on his or her claim for at least five years, has been called the most important act ever passed for the benefit of the American people. It ultimately helped create the most productive agricultural economy the world has ever seen.
The lure of free land prompted millions of Europeans to immigrate to the United States in the years following the Civil War. Some left their homelands because of crop failures and economic depression. Others sought political and religious freedom, or to escape constant warfare. They came from Germany and Czechoslovakia, from Sweden and Norway, from England and Russia.
Between 1870 and 1900, more than two million immigrants had settled on the Great Plains. You can still find their descendants living in places like Denmark, Kansas; Bruno, Nebraska; New Holland, South Dakota; Bismarck, North Dakota; and Glasgow, Montana.
Soddies, locusts and molasses
Drive through the rural United States today, and you’ll see tidy farmsteads with neatly painted homes, grain bins, barns and equipment sheds. Lush fields of corn and soybeans thrive under sprinkler irrigation systems, and cattle grow fat in pastures and feedlots. But imagine that same countryside a century or more ago, when homesteaders made the arduous journey west in a horse-drawn wagon.