Document Deep Dive: How the Homestead Act Transformed America

Compare documents filed by the first and last homesteaders in the United States

Daniel Freeman's Proof of Improvements

Daniel Freeman's Homestead Certificate

Ken Deardorff's Proof of Improvements

Ken Deardorff's Homestead Patent

One hundred and fifty years ago this month, President Abraham Lincoln launched the greatest land giveaway in U.S. history and destined Ken Deardorff for one of the longest nights of his life.

The Homestead Act, signed by Lincoln on May 20, 1862, embodied a radical promise: free land for the masses. Until then the federal government had generally sold its unoccupied property, favoring men with capital. As a result, by the 1840s big farms were consuming smaller ones, and efforts to change the system were gridlocked as Congressional debate over slavery intensified. The problem became so pressing that Representative Galusha Grow, a Pennsylvania Republican, warned in 1860 that the nation was courting “a system of land monopoly—one of the direst, deadliest curses that ever paralyzed the energies of a nation or palsied the arm of industry.”

Then Lincoln was elected to the White House, and 11 Southern states seceded. Absent opposition from plantation owners, Congress passed the Homestead Act.

Beginning January 1, 1863, any U.S. citizen—or intended citizen—who had never taken up arms against the United States could claim up to 160 acres and take title by living and farming on the land for five years. Total charge: $18. Female heads of household were eligible. African-Americans would be eligible after they became citizens under the 14th Amendment in 1868. Native Americans would be displaced.

From the moment the first homesteader, Daniel Freeman, stepped foot into his local land office in 1863 to apply for 160 acres in Beatrice, Nebraska, to the day in 1979 when the last homesteader, Ken Deardorff, of Alaska, filed for a title to his 50-acre claim, four million settlers—men and women, former slaves and new immigrants—attempted it. About 1.6 million succeeded, homesteading a combined total of 270 million acres, or 10 percent of the country.

The Homestead Act, says Blake Bell, historian at the Homestead National Monument in Beatrice, Nebraska, “set the stage for the rapid development...into the global power we became after World War I.” Nor did it stop there: The law’s basic provisions remained in force until 1976—and 1986 in Alaska.

Though a century and thousands of miles separate Freeman and Deardorff, as homesteaders, they underwent a similar legal process. The following documents give a glimpse into each of their experiences “proving up,” or testifying that the changes they made to their land demonstrated a commitment worthy of an official title to it. The documents are annotated based on conversations and email exchanges with Bell, Robert King, Alaska’s state archaeologist for the Bureau of Land Management and homestead historian, and Deardorff himself.

Ken Deardorff, a Vietnam veteran and Southern California native, packed a nylon pup tent when he started his Alaska homestead in 1973. Homestead National Monument Of America, National Park Service

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