The Homestead Act was a piece of legislation passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. Under the law, people could lay rightful claim to a set amount of land if they lived on it for five years while also farming it. At one point, an estimated 10% of the land in the United States was owned through homestead claims, and the act contributed significantly to westward expansion in North America, encouraging people to establish footholds well outside the original 13 colonies.
Several attempts at writing and passing a homesteading act were made before 1862, but these attempts were vigorously opposed by the Southern states. These states feared that homesteading would create more free states and territories, creating a voting bloc that could be used to outlaw or severely curtail the practice of slavery in the American South. These early attempts were also confounded by a debate over land use and land rights. After the South seceded in 1861, however, the path was cleared.
Under the Homestead Act, the head of a family could lay claim to up to 160 acres (65 hectares). He didn't need to be a citizen; the only requirement was the ability to pay a small registration fee and to occupy the land for the required amount of time. For those in a hurry, the land could be purchased for $1.25 US Dollars (USD) an acre after six months. Many freed and escaped slaves took advantage of the law, as did Civil War veterans.
The goal of the act was to get immigrants and poor urban Americans out into the countryside to farm and expand the country. Most people who claimed land under the Homestead Act were farmers and their children, however, because they had the skills needed to improve the land, while immigrants flocked to cities to ply the skills they already had. Some claims were also spurious, used to control things like water and timber rights for a profit.
In 1976, the Homestead Act in the continental United States was repealed; Alaska followed suit a decade later. The last deed of title turned over to someone under the law was dated 1988, bringing about the end of an era in American history. Many of the areas claimed continue to be farmed today, albeit as part of large corporations, rather than small, family-owned operations.