Family with Their Covered Wagon During the Great Western Migration, in Loup Valley, Nebraska – 1886
President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862. The new law established a three-fold homestead acquisition process: file an application, improve the land, and file for deed of title.
Any U.S. citizen, or intended citizen, who had never borne arms against the U.S. Government could file an application and lay claim to 160 acres of surveyed Government land.
For the next 5 years, the General Land Office looked for a good faith effort by the homesteaders. This meant that the homestead was their primary residence and that they made improvements upon the land.
After 5 years, the homesteader could file for his patent (or deed of title) by submitting proof of residency and the required improvements to a local land office.
Physical conditions on the frontier presented even greater challenges. Wind, blizzards, and plagues of insects threatened crops. Open plains meant few trees for building, forcing many to build homes out of sod.
Limited fuel and water supplies could turn simple cooking and heating chores into difficult trials. Ironically, even the smaller size of sections took its own toll.
While 160 acres may have been sufficient for an eastern farmer, it was simply not enough to sustain agriculture on the dry plains, and scarce natural vegetation made raising livestock on the prairie difficult.
As a result, in many areas, the original homesteader did not stay on the land long enough to fulfill the claim.