Editor's note: This article was updated by CE staff on 5/19/20 to include impact on indigenous people
Homesteading was the means by which large amounts of land in the Midwest and western United States came under private ownership after it was taken from indigenous peoples. Although the word Homestead can mean a family home and the adjoining land, an ancestral family home, or simply a house, its historical meaning in the United States usually refers to land acquired through the Homestead Act of 1862. In this sense, the definition of a Homestead is land acquired from the US public domain through a formal process of filing an application, living on the land, and making a living from it through farming or ranching.
Land acquisitions through Homesteading had a tremendous impact on Colorado’s agricultural development, as well as on the nation's relationships with native peoples across the American West. Nearly all of the private land in Colorado was unlawfully taken from indigenous peoples, especially the Ute, Arapaho, and Cheyenne. Once the land was in the US public domain, citizens could acquire a parcel through one of several acts, including the Homestead Act, intended to stimulate immigration to the West by individual farmers and ranchers.
Those individuals, in turn, often had to deal with aggrieved Indians, and they petitioned the government for protection. This often resulted in the removal of entire groups of indigenous people to reservations. In this way the Homestead Act accelerated the violent dispossession and removal of native peoples across the West. In 1864 the Hungates, a family homesteading southeast of Denver, was killed by Indians, igniting a wave of panic among whites in Colorado Territory. Governor John Evans created a volunteer regiment to confront "hostile" Indians, but the troops ended up slaughtering more than 200 peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho in the Sand Creek Massacre.
Before the Homestead Act of 1862, similar acts facilitated land acquisition by US citizens. The Land Ordinance Act of May 20, 1785, authorized the Treasury Department to survey and sell portions of the public domain to generate revenue to pay debts incurred during the Revolutionary War. Prior to lands being sold, the government required that they be surveyed, and a standard survey procedure was developed. This was a rectilinear survey that divided land into one-mile-square sections in six-by-six-mile blocks arranged along baselines as Townships and Ranges. The act also stipulated that Section 16 of each Township (6-×-6-mile block) was to be reserved to fund public schools. This is the same Public Land Survey System still in use today. Surveyed lands were to be sold at auction for a minimum of $1 per acre. Few individuals were able to afford the price, so liberal credit was applied, which caused considerable problems later. After the Revolutionary War, Acts in 1790, 1796, and 1811 set aside land in Ohio for settlers moving westward. In order to manage the sale of land within the public domain, the General Land Office was created on April 25, 1812. Various Acts that allowed for payment of military service through bounty warrants were enacted in 1812, 1842, 1847, 1852, and 1855.
Cash Entry sales were first instituted under the act of April 24, 1820. This enabled purchase of 80–160 acres of the public domain for a minimum of $1.25 per acre. Later, the payment of $1.25 per acre, as expressed by the act, was used by entrants wishing to forego the obligation of having five years’ residency under the Homestead Act.
The Homestead Act of May 20, 1862, was the first act that enabled land acquisition from the public domain with no cost except filing fees. The concepts behind the Homestead Act were to facilitate the growth of an agrarian society by encouraging free farmers as opposed to slave-based agriculture. With the Southern states seceding from the Union and the slavery issue removed, the government could pursue such an approach to land acquisition. The act went into effect on January 1, 1863, the same day that President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
The act enabled anyone of at least twenty-one or the head of a family, including single women and freed slaves, to acquire up to 160 acres of land from the public domain. An entrant had to file a claim, reside on the land for five years, build a home, make improvements, and farm the land. He or she also had to be a citizen or acquire citizenship prior to satisfying the entry requirements. After six months, an entrant had the option of foregoing the five-year residency requirement and simply paying $1.25 per acre to acquire title. In return, the entrant would receive a patent transferring the property from the public domain to the private individual. Land acquisition under the act ended in the continental United States in 1976 and in Alaska in 1986.
Follow-Up Acts and Amendments
The Timber Culture Act of March 3, 1873, made it possible for an individual to acquire an additional 160 acres of land if 40 acres of it were planted in trees. Later, only ten acres of trees were required, with eight years allowed to complete the planting; the trees had to survive for at least ten years. The idea behind the Timber Culture Act was that the presence of trees would increase rainfall on the plains. In addition, it was recognized that the trees could be an important resource for fuel, building materials, and windbreaks. Compliance with the act was fraught with fraud and other difficulties, resulting in its repeal in 1891.
The Desert Land Act of March 3, 1877, was an amendment to the Homestead Act that was intended to promote settlement of arid lands through irrigation in all of the western states and North and South Dakota. Up to 640 acres could be acquired for a married couple and up to 320 acres for a single individual. Proof of irrigation was required within three years, and improvements worth $1.25 per acre were necessary.
The Reclamation Act / Newlands Act of June 17, 1902, required that public lands within the area of a federal reclamation project be temporarily withdrawn from the public domain, classified according to their suitability for irrigation, and then returned to the public domain in tracts of 40 to 160 acres as Reclamation Homesteads. All western states plus Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and North and South Dakota were eligible for reclamation projects under the act. Money received from the sale and disposal of the lands went into the Reclamation Fund to pay for operation, maintenance, and construction of reservoirs and irrigation works for specific projects. Land entrants were subject to the requirements of the Homestead Act but were also required to reclaim at least half of the irrigable land on their claim for agriculture.
The Forest Homestead Act of June 11, 1906, was implemented to satisfy opponents of Forest Reserves, who were concerned that land suitable for agriculture was being withheld from private ownership. The Forest Homestead Act allowed for land within Forest Reserves and National Forests to be acquired under the Homestead Act. The Forest Service reviewed entry applications and had the ability to terminate entries it thought noncompliant with the law. The act was amended in 1913 so that only three years of residence were required, rather than the five years required under the Homestead Act.
The Enlarged Homestead Act of February 19, 1909, was enacted to facilitate dry-land farming in all western states except California. Lands suitable for settlement under the act were classified as such by the General Land Office and excluded irrigable lands and land with timber or valuable minerals. Up to 320 acres of land could be acquired under the act.
The Stock Raising Homestead Act of December 29, 1916, was implemented to facilitate settlement on lands unsuitable for agriculture other than animal grazing. Up to 640 acres of land could be acquired with no cultivation of the land required. Entrants needed to meet the general requirements under the Homestead Act as well as complete the process of filing on the land and providing final proof. At the time of final proof, improvements worth $1.25 per acre had to have been made on the land. Entrants received no mineral rights.
Importance of Homesteading
Homesteading had a tremendous impact on the conquest and settlement of Colorado. Between 1868 and 1961, it was reported that 107,618 successful land entries resulted in 22,246,400 acres of land entering private hands there. This does not include mineral lands acquired as Mineral Entry Patents. Despite fraudulent activities associated with some of the acquisitions, the ability of individuals and families to become owners of land through hard work has become a symbol of the promise of the American Dream, where anyone can improve their condition with drive and determination. Agricultural production and taxes on homestead lands stimulated economic development throughout the state, but it came with a human price tag, as indigenous peoples were displaced, dispossessed, and killed. Today, we still see the impact of the Homesteading era in the rural historic landscapes that have endured, as well as in the wide opportunity gaps between indigenous and white Americans.