What: The Homestead Act was a federal program giving land grants to farmers. It opened western lands for settlement in the United States allowing Americans to apply to claim up to 160 acres of government owned property to live on and improve through the construction of buildings and farming. After 5 years of living on and cultivating the land, settlers would apply for their deed of title (or right to the property) by proving their residency and necessary improvements to a land office and therefore obtain the land without large payments. Settlers could gain possession of the land after only six months if they paid $1.25 for each acre.
When: May 20th, 1862 - after the secession of the Southern states from the Union. Previous to the civil war, the South had gone against homestead legislation because they feared it would speed up the process of moving westward into territory that would increase the free states' power and influence over the slave states (consequently the passage of this act increased sectional tensions leading up to the Civil War).
Who: This opportunity for expansion was available to all U.S. citizens or those in the process of becoming citizens, including freed slaves, who had never fought against the American government and were heads of households. Most of the land quickly fell into the hands of wealthy land speculators, which did not give the urban poor the chance at a new life like they had hoped because they did not have the resources to create a successful life out west. President Abraham Lincoln signed it into law and seven months later Daniel Freeman was the first to establish claims to this land.
Freeman's Proof of Improvements
Why: To increase incentives for Western settlement, as inspired by the idea of manifest destiny.
Due to the difficulties of life out west, such as the harshness of weather conditions, as well as the dry arid soil making the ability to grow crops and raise animals hard, many people that set out to create successful homes did not last the five years needed for their claim to be realized.
The Railroad Act was signed six months after which increased ease of transportation and the accessibility of manufactured goods making life in the west easier and future migration to the west more attractive.
It allowed nearly all American men and women a chance of living the American dream. More than 1.6 million homestead applications were processed and more than 270 million acres (10 percent of U.S. property) passed into the hands of American citizens by 1934. The Homestead Act remained in effect for more than 100 years- the final claim was approve in 1988 for 80 acres in Alaska.
According to the National Park Service website, "The Homestead Act of 1862 is recognized as one of the most revolutionary concepts for distributing public land in American history. Repercussions of this monumental piece of legislation can be detected throughout America today, decades after the cry of "Free Land!" has faded away."
Read the full Homestead Act here: https://www.nps.gov/home/learn/historyculture/upload/MW,pdf,Homestead%20Act,txt.pdf