Homestead Act of 1862
In the mid-19th century, countless Americans moved west, exploring uncharted territory and creating settlements where there was only wilderness. Having recently purchased an enormous swatch of land in the Louisiana Purchase, the federal government stepped in and passed a legislation designed to encourage and reward settlement in the area: the Homestead Act of 1862. This government program provided 160 acres to any “homesteader”, or head of household, that would promise to live on the land and develop it for a period of five years; homesteaders could be male or female, and only needed to be 21 years of age. The goal was to encourage the settlement of the region by individual families and farmers, one of the key tenets of the Free Soil Party.
This program was specifically designed to benefit the average white individual rather than the wealthy southern plantation owner for a number of reasons. For generations, the underlying goal of American society was self-sufficiency; in order for an individual to be able to support himself, he needs to have access to land on which he can grow crops. Without such land, he was destined to become a “wage slave” to wealthy planters and, later, industrialists. Additionally, northerners who opposed the spread of slavery felt the Homestead Act would prevent the spread of this “evil institution” into unsettled territories in the west. Because of the Homestead Act, the Midwest experienced a significant growth in population, comprised of individuals from a variety of backgrounds. Increased immigration to the country was supported by this government endeavor, as was the movement of poor white farmers from the South. Such legislation provided individual Americans with the means necessary for survival, while expanding the breadth of the nation in the process.