The Homestead Act of 1862 and the regulations that came before it freed up lands for new settlers while allocating Native American tribes to reservations. But where did all this land come from? Most of the United States was already home to vast tribes of native peoples, each with its own culture and traditions.

“They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.” – Red Cloud, Lakota Leader.

When we think of the Westward Expansion of the U.S., we might think of landraces and pioneers looking for new land to claim and farm. Pioneers used the California Trail to move West from about 1845 to 1869 to find gold, escape persecution, and make a fresh start on land of their own away from the crowded cities.

What Was The Homestead Act Of 1862?

According to The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, the Homestead Act gave any adult citizen who had never born arms against the United States government the right to claim 160 acres of land. About 10% of the area of the U.S., roughly 270 million acres, was claimed and settled under this act.

Who Was Now Eligible To Claim & Own Land?

  • U.S. Citizens
  • Freed Slaves
  • New Immigrants Planning To Naturalize
  • Single Women
  • People Of All Races

7 Facts About The Homestead Act

  1. This regulation was enacted during the Civil War in 1862.
  2. Abraham Lincoln signed the act.
  3. You were required to live on and cultivate or improve your plot of land.
  4. You were entitled to the property free and clear after five years for a small fee (about $18).
  5. You could claim the title on your land after just six months for minimal improvements and $1.25 per acre in fees.
  6. Union soldiers could deduct time served after the Civil War.
  7. The act’s wording addresses both “he” and “she” when describing potential claimants.

The Creation Of Indian Reservations

This new boon for Westward Expansionists was a hardship for the nations of tribes originally living on these territories. A series of laws and regulations forced tribal peoples to move to Reservations – small parcels of land managed by the tribe – which severely restricted their ability to gather food, fish, and hunt for themselves.

“The U.S. government’s driving desire to incorporate new territories and continue its western expansion, justified as ‘Manifest Destiny,’ meant further displacement and hardship for most Native Americans.” – Sarah K. Elliot, How American Indian Reservations Came To Be

  • 1830 – The Indian Removal Act
  • The 1830s – The Trail of Tears
  • 1834 – Non-Intercourse Act
  • 1851 – The Indian Appropriations Act

See which tribes were affected and which reservations were created. Britannica shows individual maps for the different regions of the U.S. and the nations that once lived there. In contrast, the map titled: “Map showing Indian reservations with the limits of the United States: 1883” delineates all the reservations created by the 1880s.

Who Benefitted From The Homestead Act?

Despite grand hopes of new, free, accessible land, women, African Americans, and poor farmers weren’t the ones who benefitted from the Homestead Act of 1862. The travel was hard and expensive, and so were the startup costs required to improve upon the land. Most new landowners purchased property close to where they had lived before, many only moving a state over.

The real winners were speculators, railroads, cattle owners, loggers, and miners. “Of some 500 million acres dispersed by the General Land Office between 1862 and 1904, only 80 million acres went to homesteaders.” –, Homestead Act (1862)

Learn More About The U.S. Westward Expansion

Stop by and see us at the California Trail Interpretive Center in Elko, Nevada, today. Explore our immersive exhibits to learn more about the people who braved the journey west and the impacts on Native Americans. Contact us today to find out about upcoming activities and plan your trip.

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