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Everybody gets a piece of the American pie, basically.
The Homestead Act was enacted by the U.S. government to settle the open West (for the North, because this went down during the Civil War). It also had the side benefit of reducing population in over-crowded eastern cities by enticing people to hit the trails and head out west. Getting people out of cities by offering (nearly) free land out West would decrease poverty, crime, unsanitary conditions, and strained resources in a country occupied with fighting a bloody war with itself.
Another benefit? Putting U.S. citizens in otherwise unoccupied U.S. territories, making it difficult for other countries with interests in North America (cough-the Confederacy, Mexico, and Canada-cough) to seize land.
Waste not; want not. If you’re going to the effort of passing a law, you may as well have it multi-task.
The Homestead Act offered free land over yonder…if you don’t mind living in the wilderness and sweating and freezing for five years to actually make a home.
Manifest Destiny got a jumpstart when the Homestead Act opened up the West for people willing to take a chance on frontier living.
Head out west, young man or woman (!), and get land for free.*
No, please, ignore the bloody Civil War to go settle the open western territory and lock it down for the U.S.
*Terms and conditions apply.
Want to get away from all the dirt and corruption in the cities and try your hand at living off the land? For a modest filing fee and five years of work, you too can own up to 160 acres of government land in the western territories. Provided, of course, that you're at least twenty-one years old, the head of your household, and not a traitor to the U.S.
Okay, so some other restrictions apply, too. You have to file with a specific government office ($10 for the filing) and then prove you’ve done something on the land and have actually lived there the whole time. If you kick the bucket before the five years, your heirs can keep the claim after jumping through legal hoops. If you haven’t lived there the full five years or haven’t made enough improvements, the government takes the land back. You also can’t use the worth of the land to repay any debts until you have the title to it in your hot little hand.
Oh, and if you happen to be under twenty-one, but served a few weeks in the U.S. military, then the government is benevolent enough to let you file a claim. If you get bored or just impatient to own the land, you can always pay up the price of the land ($1.25 an acre for more than 80 acres or $2.50 an acre for 80 acres or less) after at least six months.
In other words, please come take the land the government has to spare.
Break your back for five years, pay a filing fee, and get 160 acres for free…all to help the government settle the West.