Homesteading in America

linda-sig.jpgAs 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.

It stated: 

  •  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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Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!

35 thoughts on “Homesteading in America”

  1. Great information, Linda. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. It was interesting to me that single men and even women who file for a land grant. I think I’ve read stories where a marriage of convenience was arranged so the man or woman could claim the land they wanted. Maybe those weren’t homestead act issues as much as private landowner requirements. Hmmm…I’ll have to go back and reread some of those. Did states ever add their own restrictions to the Homestead Act?

    Thanks for sharing your research with us!

  2. Good morning, Karen!

    Glad you enjoyed the post. As for your question, I’m not sure that states could add their own restrictions. I didn’t find that when I was reading about this. But, you know, since the West was so vast and didn’t have much law enforcement, it’s entirely possible that the rules were often bent and molded into what certain officials wanted.

    Here’s an interesting scenerio…suppose a woman married a man to obtain land and then discovered she had a legal right to file for it without the marriage. That would certainly make her fighting mad. Lots of conflict in that “what if.”

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Have a great day!

  3. The Homesteading makes me think of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
    I use Homesteading in several of my books. It’s inspiring, really, all those people who set off across a dangerous continent dreaming of farm land. A chance to work nearly to death in exchange for freedom and land and a future built with the strength of their backs and the will to make a better life for themselves.

  4. Very informative post, Linda. Hope you’re loving your new home. I had no idea about the homestead exemption you filed. Smart move.
    When I read your facts, the movie that came to mind was the one with Tom Cruise (?) and Nicole Kidman where they had that wild land race and people were literally killing to get the piece they wanted. Can’t even remember the title now.
    Years ago I my family drove the Alaska highway and met quite a few modern day homesteaders. What a tough life!

  5. P.S. Just read Winnie’s comment. The trip I mentioned was in the mid 1960’s so the law would have still been in effect, and Alaska was one place that could still be homesteaded.

  6. Hi Linda – I have no idea if my home has an exemption. But I sure like the movies about homesteading. The movie with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman comes to mind and like Elizabeth, I can’t recall the title.
    And Little House on the Prairie too.
    Great research on this. I had no idea the Homestead Act was still in existence until recently…

  7. Hi Mary,

    Homesteading played a huge part in the settlement of the West. Fortunes were made and lost because of land deals. It’s an easy thing to incorporate into a plot. Glad you make good use of it in some of your stories and hope you keep writing those wonderful books you’re beoming known for. When I pick up a Mary Connealy book I know I won’t be disappointed.

  8. Hi Winnie,

    Elizabeth’s right. Alaska was the last bit of free land available for homesteading. People could still obtain free land up to 1986. But one of the big land giveaways was the Oklahoma Land Rush in the late 1800’s.

    Glad you enjoyed my post.

  9. Hi Elizabeth,

    I think the movie you’re talking about was “Far and Away.” It was about the Oklahoma Land Rush. An excellent movie. I’d love to have seen the Alaska wilderness dotted with those homesteads. What a neat experience. You’re such a traveler and have seen so many places.

  10. Hi Charlene,

    Glad you enjoyed my blog subject today. There are so many good movies and books that portray people homesteading. And for good reason. It provides instant conflict- man against man, man against the land and the elements. The possiblities are endless.

    Have a great day!

  11. Good morning, Linda, what a terrific post. And congrats on your new home. I hope you’re pretty well settled in. And being close to grandkids is such a wonderful thing.

    I actually have homesteaders in two of my books. Nebraska, actually. I didn’t know about the Timber Act. What a great idea! Thanks for the great information today. oxoxox

  12. I think I’ve heard a few places have opened back up to homesteading. Some small towns struggling to survive, with homes to sell but no buyers. So not 160 acres of land maybe, but instead, free house if you promise to live in it for five years.

  13. Wow, interesting, Linda! I agree with Mary–hearing about homesteading immediately made me think of the Little House books. Laura’s family and the Wilder brothers struggling to survive on their plots of land… Definitely much fodder for storytelling!

  14. Hi Tanya!

    I’ve got my hands full today. I’m babysitting my four year old granddaughter. She’s a mess but I love her to death. We’ve been playing nonstop since she got here. She says she doesn’t take naps anymore. Ha!

    Did you know that the very first homestead recorded was in Nebraska? Yep, that’s true. It was David Freeman in Beatrice, Neb. His farm continues to stand as the Homestead National Monument. I’d love to go see it one of these days. Yes, we always find little juicy nuggets in the strangest of places to use for our stories. Hope you write one with the Timber Act as a plot.

  15. Hi Fedora!

    Great to see you here. Hope I’ve given you some great ideas. I love stories where there’s lots of struggle involved in reaching a goal. There’s no worse struggle than trying to carve out a life on a homestead. Yes, Little House on the Prairie books and tv movies were exceptional. Loved them and still watch reruns of them when I can find them.

  16. Hi Linda! I had to smile at your four-year-old granddaughter saying she doesn’t take naps anymore : ) Somewhere I turned a corner and now I *love* naps! Here’s hoping you have the best “grandma” day ever.

    I love homesteading stories. Would Jeanette Oke’s books fit? The “Love Comes Softly” series? I’ve only read the first one, but I’ve watched the others on DVD. There’s something amazing about carving a life out of next to nothing. These days, it’s hard to imagine starting with dirt, rain, grass, maybe a few trees and raising everything from crops to kids.

  17. Hi Linda!

    What an enlightening post! Congrats on your new home and well done on homesteading, something that I think is forgotten nowadays.

    Really informative post and again, congrats.

  18. Great post! I recently researched the Homestead Act for a novella and was also surprised to learn it was still in effect until the 70s. I’ve been interested in homesteading ever since my childhood, when I devoured the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

  19. Hi Vicki,

    Yes, I think the Jeanette Oke books are stories of homesteading. I love that series. Everytime it somes on the Hallmark channel I have to watch them. I never get tired of the special characters that spring to life and the panoramatic landscapes. If only I could write like her!

    I had a great grandma day. I really enjoyed keeping my granddaughter. This is an exceptional privilege.

  20. Hi Karen, glad you enjoyed my post. I learned a few things by writing it. I honestly don’t think I’ve written a blog without learning something new which is wonderful. I love these little tidbits that add so much depth to a story.

  21. Hi Melinda,

    Glad my post had something for you. Thank you for the congrats on my new home. I’m really enjoying living here. It’s such a homey place. I felt comfortable immediately.

  22. Hi Helen,

    So you’re already knowledgable about the Homestead Act. It makes for great stories. There were hundreds of unscrupulous people who took advantage of the immigrants’ dreams. And the West was too large for law enforcers to really know what was going on a lot of the time.

    Thanks for dropping by to comment!

  23. Unfortunately there have always been people who take advantage of any and all situations!

    Yes, we do have a homestead exemption on our home.
    That was one of the first things we were advised to
    do when we purchased our home forty years ago.

    Pat Cochran

  24. hi Linda, hope your day with the four-year old is going amazingly! We were at Disneyland the last two days with our two-year old grandson, and boy am I beat. oxoxox And so glad you’re feeling at home already. May you have many peaceful happy years there.

  25. Hi Pat,

    I’m glad you were wise enough to apply for the homestead exemption when you bought your home. It really does protect the homeowner. I agree that there was and still are a lot of greedy people who take advantage of others. Just look at Bernie Madoff. He bilked thousands of people out of their life savings. Prison is too good for him.

  26. Hi Tanya,

    My day went amazingly well. Thank you for your good wishes. I thoroughly enjoyed having little Miss Emilee. She’s such a sweet girl. But, like you said four year olds really can wear us out. I’m beat. My heart is humming a happy tune though. I can’t imagine having to take a two year old to Disneyland. Oh my gosh! You’ll be ready for a vacation when you leave there. Hope you’re relishing every moment though. Kids grow up so fast and they’re adults before we know it.

  27. Hi Linda, Great post! No wonder homesteading has figured in so many stories. The possibilities for conflict are endless.

    I had no idea the Act was in effoect so recently. Homesteading in Alaska – now that would be tough!

    Glad you had a great day with the little one.

  28. Linda, what an informative post…great research. Well, when you get old enough (in Texas) you can claim not only a homestead exemption but old age one, too! LOL Some of our special land laws evolved from our Republic of Texas days. By our 1845 agreement to be annexed to the Union, certain lands were set aside to be applied to repayment of debts and liabilities of the Republic. The underdeveloped regions of Texas (love that one…meaning Panhandle in particular) was divided up into land grants in various categories; school and university, railroad, veterans, etc., some leased out, some used for specific purposes. This is all back story to something I find particularly interesting. They broke up the land into a checkerboard pattern (check board system of surveying), alternating each specific piece of land between categories, anticipating that would keep land from being consolidated into one large block ie: big ranches. Except for the XIT which was exempt, in large part, this proved unsuccessful in preventing large conglomerates from gathering up land. Nobody else may find this interesting, but I did. Guess it’s the researcher in me. Enjoy your time with your granddaughter. I’m so thrilled you made the move, so you can see your kids and grandkids more frequently.

  29. Nice post. We did have a homestead exemption on our house in Orlando, Florida. Am not sure of the exact terms of it. We were in the military and it was our home of record (my mother-in-law lived in it). We sold it shortly after we retired and moved to TN.
    Can’t think of any of the titles, but I’ve seen several movies involving homesteading. The same with books. It has been a plot element in several. Ranchers raid the farms at night, burning barn and homes, tearing down fences.
    Nice ti know that women were able to take advantage of the program and were not shut out. They had few enough opportunities back then.

  30. Excellent post, Linda. I knew about the homestead exemption from living in Texas for 25 years. I didn’t know the Homestead Act was in effect until 1976! I wonder if anyone every took advantage of it in those last couple of decades?

  31. Hi Phyliss,

    What interesting facts about the Panhandle land. Wow! You’re really up on your history in that part of Texas. Between you and Jodi, I’ll bet you know everything that can be known about the Panhandle, something I’ll definitely make a note of in case I need some quick facts.

    Hope you’re making progress on WIP. Sounds like a fun story. Can’t wait to read it.

  32. Did you know there is a National Park site devoted to telling the story of the Homestead Act of 1862? To learn more about what may be the most influential piece of legislation this country has ever created go to or visit Homestead National Monument of America. Located in Nebraska, the Monument includes one of the first 160 acres homestead claims but tells the story of homesteading throughout the United States. Nearly 4 million claims in 30 states were made under the Homestead Act and 1.6 million or 40 percent were successful. The Homestead Act was not repealed until 1976 and extended in Alaska until 1986. Homesteads could be claimed by “head of households” that were citizens or eligible for citizenship. New immigrants, African-Americans, women who were single, widowed or divorced all took advantage of the Homestead Act. It is estimated that as many as 93 million Americans are descendents of these homesteaders today. This is a story as big, fascinating, conflicted and contradictory as the United States itself. Learn more!

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