As most of you know, I recently bought a new house here in Ralls, Texas. At the closing I filed a homestead exemption on my property. That means I’m protected against the forced sale of my home to meet demands of creditors and it provides a $15,000 tax exemption so I only pay taxes on a portion of my home’s value. It’s easy to quality for this. It has to be my primary residence and I can’t have a homestead exemption on any other property whether in state or out.
Much has been written in western novels about homesteading in the old West and it’s been the subject of western movies. The unscrupulous land agent, the large ranch owner who’s intent on running out homesteaders, and the Oklahoma land rush.
So what about homesteading back in our forefathers’ day? I recently took a look at the Homestead Act that was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862.
- The man or woman had to be 21 years of age or the head of a family
- Be a U.S. citizen or in the process of becoming one
- Had never taken up arms against the U.S.
If they met all of those qualifications, they could claim up to 160 acres of free land. Up for grabs were hundreds of thousands of unappropriated public acres, primarily west of the Mississippi River. The government saw this as a way to settle the country fast and boy, did it work. People rushed to cash in. Foreign immigrants flooded into the country. This was the chance of a lifetime to have something few had even dreamed of.
Stipulations that had to be met:
- Had to make improvements which usually meant farming
- Build a home on it
- Had to reside there for five years
Once they played nicely by the rules, the land would become theirs free and clear. Anyone not wanting to wait the five years to get a clear title could pay $1.25 an acre and the land became theirs
There was also the Timber Culture Act of 1873 which provided claimants to secure an additional 160 acres of land if they planted and kept growing 40 acres of trees for 8 years. That obligation was reduced to 10 acres in 1878.
The Desert Land Act of 1877 was a ploy by the government to attract settlers to the arid regions. It was similar to the Homestead Act except a person could claim up to 640 acres that needed irrigation before it could be cultivated. It was cheap though-only 25 cents per acre with the stipulation that they live on it for 3 years. Or they could purchase it outright for a dollar an acre.
Most early homestead shacks were small, some as few as 8′ X 8′. And building materials were whatever was available. From log homes and frame structures to sod houses and dugouts. The settler was pretty inventive.
The homesteading process went something like this. A claim was filed at the nearest Land Office stating the homesteader’s intention. After checks for any ownership claims, the person would pay a $10 fee as well as a $2 commission to the land agent. Then the prospective homesteader would round up two friends who’d vouch for the truth regarding the stated land improvements and pay another $6 fee when he signed the “proof document.” In exchange, the homesteader received a patent for land. The paper was often proudly displayed on the cabin or dugout wall. And he was in business.
An interesting side note: 12% of all homesteaders were single women. Yay for us!
But the Homestead Act wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
1.) It often attracted unscrupulous people who used the free land giveaway as a scam. They sometimes got the immigrants to file for land too bad to farm on, often in the middle of the drought-stricken plains. Not many homesteaders lasted the mandatory 5 years in this case.
2.) A problem arose with the Native Americans. When homesteaders pushed them off land they’d lived on for thousands of years, they oftentimes pushed back with results the homesteader didn’t like.
3.) The homesteader could clash with the established rancher which often led to range wars.
4.) Not all land was available. Eight years after the Homestead Act passed, 127 million acres were granted to railroads with another 2 million for wagon roads and canals. Land adjacent to such grants could not be homesteaded and had to be purchased outright with cash. They were also limited to 80 acres rather than the 160.
5.) Only surveyed land was available. No one could gain a title to unsurveyed land.
For all its advantages and faults, the Homestead Act of 1862 lasted until 1976. Although it continued in Alaska until 1986. Millions of acres of land was given away for a little of nothing. It stands as the biggest government subsidy program in American history.
How many of you have read a book or seen a movie where homesteading was part of the plot? Or do you have a homestead exemption on your house?
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