The Homestead Act
Come along, come along, don't be alarmed;
Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all farms
- Popular Camp Song of the 1870s
Interestingly, and appropriate for our story, the first Homestead entry in Montana was made by a woman in 1868. In fact, the Homestead Act provided a unique opportunity for women to claim property, so long that they meet the "if they were divorced, widowed, or single" requirements. Any women in one of these categories would fulfill the criteria stipulated in the Homestead Act that an individual could claim a homestead if they were the head of their households. And this is exactly what many women did.
Homesteading in early America was a way of life created, in effect, by the US government. Signed by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862, the bill was a 20-year undertaking that has roots in the ideals of Manifest Destiny that came out in the mid 1800s.
John O'Sullivan, father of Manifest Destiny believed that the United States must acquire abundant land for the "free development" of its "yearly multiplying millions." Without expansion, free government and free enterprise might collapse. Incredibly rich in resources, the continental US provided American with new opportunities to make their fortunes.
The Homestead Act granted anyone (provided they were of legal age, and had never taken up arms against the US) 160 acres of land. Applicants simply had to reside on and improve the land by planting at least 10 acres of crops. After six months homesteaders could begin purchasing the land from the US Government - one acre at a time - for $1.25. This process of land acquisition provided much more order to what was once an arbitrary and chaotic method of westward expansion.
In November 1862 the Railroad Act was passed and citizens were quick to take the opportunity to homestead. The rail created jobs, ready access to manufactured goods, and easy transportation for eager homesteaders.
While there were over 600,000 claims, equaling 80 million acres of land, issued by 1900 many settlers never fully owned their loaned property. The hardships and loneliness of prairie life proved too much for many homesteaders. In fact, by the Act's repeal in 1976, more than two million individuals had filed claim, but only 783,000 (approximately 151,600 in Montana) ultimately obtained the deeds.