One of the more vital pieces of government policy in terms of its overall effect on the settlement of the Black Hills and the West River country of South Dakota was the Homestead Act.
When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law on May 20, 1862, he created a method of westward expansion that would exist for the next 123 years and eventually be responsible for the settlement of over 270 million acres of the American landscape. The act also fulfilled the long-held hopes and dreams of many free land advocates who had for years been lobbying for the passage of some form of a homesteading law.
The Homestead Act had an immediate and enduring effect on America. Ten percent of the area of the United States was claimed and settled under this act. It eventually would affect public lands in 30 of the 50 states. It brought about vast changes to nearly every aspect of life in this country, and helped to define the world in which we now live.
A homesteader had only to be the head of a household and at least 21 years of age to claim a 160-acre parcel of land. Settlers from all walks of life, including newly arrived immigrants, farmers without land of their own from the East, single women, and former slaves came to meet the challenge of “proving up” and keeping this “free land.”
People interested in Homesteading first had to file their intentions at the nearest Land Office. A brief check for previous ownership claims was made for the plot of land in question, usually described by its survey coordinates. The prospective homesteader paid a filing fee of $10 to claim the land temporarily, as well as a $2 commission to the land agent.
With application and receipt in hand, the homesteader then began the process of building a home and farming the land, both requirements for “proving up” at the end of five years. When all requirements had been completed and the homesteader was ready the take legal possession, he or she found two neighbors or friends willing to vouch for the land’s improvements and sign the “proof” document.
After successful completion of this final form and payment of a $6 fee, the homesteader received the patent for the land, signed with the name of the current President of the United States. This paper was often proudly displayed on a homesteader’s wall and represented the culmination of hard work and determination.
Much of the territory (other than existing Indian Reservation lands) between the Black Hills and the Missouri River was opened for homesteading from the mid-1880s through to the early decades of the 20th century. Thousands of people from all over the country and the world came to the region to “prove up.” Some were successful, and some were not. This way of life was not for the faint of heart, but it was certainly a chance at a piece of the American dream.
The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 substantially decreased the amount of land available to homesteaders in the West. Because much of the prime land had been allotted decades earlier, successful Homestead claims dropped sharply after this time. The Homestead Act remained in effect until Congress repealed it in 1976.
The Homestead Act is still recognized as one of the most revolutionary concepts for distributing public land in American history. The enduring results of this pivotal legislation can be seen throughout America even today, decades after the cry of “Free Land!” has faded away