The Homestead Act was a federal law offering "free land" to any man (with some restrictions) willing to settle and improve it. Unsettled government lands (purchased from Indian tribes and foreign countries) were divided into townships, each consisting of 36 sections. Each section was further divided into four "quarter-sections" of approximately 160 acres each. A homestead claim consisted of one quarter-section, and could be obtained by paying only filing fees if all conditions were met. Below is the text of the law, stating these conditions:
37th Congress Session II 1862
Chapter LXXV. - An Act to secure Homesteads to actual Settlers on the Public Domain.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such, as required by the naturalization laws of the United States, and who has never borne arms against the United States Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies, shall, from and after the first January, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, be entitled to enter one quarter section or a less quantity of unappropriated public lands, upon which said person may have filed a preemption claim, or which may, at the time the application is made, be subject to preemption at one dollar and twenty-five cents, or less, per acre; or eighty acres or less of such unappropriated lands, at two dollars and fifty cents per acre, to be located in a body, in conformity to the legal subdivisions of the public lands, and after the same shall have been surveyed: Provided, That any person owning and residing on land may, under the provisions of this act, enter other land lying contiguous to his or her said land, which shall not, with the land so already owned and occupied, exceed in the aggregate one hundred and sixty acres.
Sec. 2. And be it further enacted, That the person applying for the benefit of this act shall, upon application to the register of the land office in which he or she is about to make such entry, make affidavit before the said register or receiver that he or she is the head of a family, or is twenty-one years or more of age, or shall have performed service in the army or navy of the United States, and that he has never borne arms against the Government of the United States or given aid and comfort to its enemies, and that such application is made for his or her exclusive use and benefit, and that said entry is made for the purpose of actual settlement and cultivation, and not either directly or indirectly for the use of benefit of any other person or persons whomsoever; and upon filing the said affidavit with the register or receiver, and on payment of ten dollars, he or she shall thereupon be permitted to enter the quantity of land specified: Provided, however, That no certificate shall be given or patent issued therefor until the expiration of five years from the date of such entry; and if, at the expiration of such time, or at any time within two years thereafter, the person making such entry; or, if he be dead, his widow; or in case of her death, his heirs or devisee; or in case of a widow making such entry, her heirs or devisee, in case of her death; shall prove by two credible witnesses that he, she, or they have resided upon or cultivated the same for the term of five years immediately succeeding the time of filing the affidavit aforesaid, and shall make affidavit that no part of said land has been alienated, and that he has borne true allegiance to the Government of the United States; then, in such case, he, she, or they, if at that time a citizen of the United States, shall be entitled to a patent, as in other cases provided for by law: And provided, further, That in case of the death of both father and mother, leaving an infant child, or children, under twenty-one years of age, the right and fee shall enure to the benefit of said infant child or children; and the executor, administrator, or guardian may, at any time within two years after the death of the surviving parent, and in accordance with the laws of the State in which such children for the time being have their domicil, sell said land for the benefit of said infants, but for no other purpose; and the purchaser shall acquire the absolute title by the purchase, and be entitled to a patent from the United States, on payment of the office fees and sum of money herein specified.
Sec. 3. And be it further enacted, That the register of the land office shall note all such applications on the tract books and plats of his office, and keep a register of all such entries, and make return thereof to the General Land Office, together with the proof upon which they have been founded.
Sec. 4. And be it further enacted, That no lands acquired under the provisions of this act shall in any event become liable to the satisfaction of any debt or debts contracted prior to the issuing of the patent therefor.
Sec. 5. And be if further enacted, That if, at any time after the filing of the affidavit, as required in the second section of this act, and before the expiration of the five years aforesaid, it shall be proven after due notice to the settler, to the satisfaction of the register of the land office, that the person having filed such affidavit shall have actually changed his or her residence, or abandoned the said land for more than six months at any time, then and in that event the land so entered shall revert to the government.
Sec. 6. And be it further enacted, That no individual shall be permitted to acquire title to more than one quarter section under the provisions of this act; and that the Commissioner of the General Land Office is hereby required to prepare and issue such rules and regulations, consistent with this act, as shall be necessary and proper to carry its provisions into effect; and that the registers and receivers of the several land offices shall be entitled to receive the same compensation for any lands entered under the provisions of this act that they are now entitled to receive when the same quantity of land is entered with money, one half to be paid by the person making the application at the time of so doing, and the other half on the issue of the certificate by the person to whom it may be issued; but this shall not be construed to enlarge the maximum of compensation now prescribed by law for any register or receiver: Provided, That nothing contained in this act shall be so construed as to impair or interfere in any manner whatever with existing preemption rights; And provided, further, That all persons who may have filed their application for a preemption right prior to the passage of this act, shall be entitled to all privileges of this act: Provided, further, That no person who has served, or may hereafter serve, for a period of not less than fourteen days in the army or navy of the United States, either regular or volunteers under the laws thereof, during the existence of an actual war, domestic or foreign, shall be deprived of the benefits of this act on account of not having attained the age of twenty-one years.
Sec. 7. And be it further enacted, That the fifth section of the act entitled "An act in addition to an act more effectually to provide for the punishment of certain crimes against the United States, and for other purposes," approved the third of March, in the year eighteen hundred and fifty-seven, shall extend to all oaths, affirmations, and affidavits, required or authorized by this act.
Sec. 8. And be it further enacted, That nothing in this act shall be so construed as to prevent any person who has availed him or herself of the benefits of the first section of this act, from paying the minimum price, or the price to which the same may have graduated, for the quantity of land so entered at any time before the expiration of the five years, and obtaining a patent therefor from the government, as in other cases provided by law, on making proof of settlement and cultivation as provided by existing laws granting preemption rights.APPROVED, May 20, 1862.
It seems likely that Charles Ingalls intended to file on a homestead claim in Kansas, but because he settled on Indian lands not yet open for settling, he was unable to file.
While living in Walnut Grove, Minnesota, Charles Ingalls filed on a homestead claim (not the property the family farmed in On the Banks of Plum Creek but another piece of property), but the Ingalls family headed for Dakota Territory before proving up on this homestead, and it was therefore relinquished.
At last, in Dakota Territory near the town of De Smet, Charles Ingalls filed on a homestead claim which he later was successful in proving up on. Laura first writes of this in her book, By the Shores of Silver Lake.
Click here to view Charles Ingalls' homestead file. Almanzo Wilder was also able to prove up on his homestead claim, as were his brother and sister, Royal and Eliza Jane.
The Timber Culture act added to the Homestead Act, allowing an individual to file on a tree claim in addition to (or instead of) a homestead claim. Original terms required 40 of the 160 acres to be planted in trees, which were to be kept thriving for at least eight years, but as the terms were too difficult for most claimants to meet, an amendment was passed in 1878 changing the terms to planting at least 2700 trees per acre on ten acres of the tree claim within four years of filing, and keeping at least 675 of those trees per acre thriving for eight years.
Laura speaks often of Almanzo Wilder's tree claim, and the difficulties in keeping enough trees thriving. Charles Ingalls also filed on a tree claim but relinquished it after only six months. He had previously filed on a tree claim near Walnut Grove, which he had relinquished as well.
The Preemption Act preceded the Homestead Act by two decades. This law allowed individuals (same restrictions as described above in the Homestead Act) to preempt a quarter-section of land at a cost of $1.25 per acre (or $2.50 for land near the railroad).
Charles Ingalls had already taken advantage of this act when he preempted the land on Plum Creek upon the family's arrival to Walnut Grove. Click here to view the land patent for Charles Ingalls' preemption claim.
Almanzo Wilder was able to preempt his tree claim when he failed to meet the terms to prove up on it, so that he could retain the land.
Carrie Ingalls took advantage of the public land acts years later in the Black Hills. Click here to view her land patent.
And all the afternoon, while Pa kept driving onward, he was merrily whistling or singing. The song he sang oftenest was:
“Oh, come to this country,
And don’t you feel alarm,
For Uncle Sam is rich enough
To give us all a farm!”
“Oh, come to this country,
Although the prospect of "free land" seemed enticing to many pioneers such as the Ingalls and Wilder families, it is clear from reading of the great challenges these settlers faced in attempting to prove up on this land that in reality, the land was far from free. Almanzo's and Laura's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, makes this point in her novel, Free Land, which is based on her parents' experiences in the Dakotas.