In an effort to populate the Western part of the United States, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862.
There had been several earlier attempts to pass this Act. The Southern Democrats were slave owners and feared that the settlement of the West by small farmers would create an agricultural alternative to the Southern slave system. The Northern Republicans brought the Act up for vote in 1858 where it was defeated by one vote. In 1859 the bill passed but was vetoed by President James Buchanan. The passage was very important to President Lincoln, and with the secession of the Southern States, causing the loss of Southern Democrats in Congress, the bill was finally passed and signed into law.
The Homestead Act gave a male applicant who was over the age of 21 and head of a household ownership at no cost to farm land, typically 160 acres, west of the Mississippi. The law required three steps: file an application, improve the land, and file for a deed of title. In order to own the land outright you had to build a 12'x14' dwelling and improve the land for five years. Only about 40 percent of the applicants who started the process were able to complete it because of blizzards, drought, grasshoppers, disease, and loneliness on the open prairies.
The first applicant was a physician and veteran of the Civil War by the name of Daniel Freeman. He attended a New Year's Eve party where he met some local land office officials and convinced a clerk to open the office shortly after midnight on January 1, 1863, in order to file a land claim by telling him he was leaving early that morning for St. Louis on military duty and would not be able to file his claim otherwise. There is speculation that the St. Louis story was untrue, and that Freeman just wanted to be the first to file. He was successful in his farming endeavor. Daniel Freeman was also the first to sign a "Proof Required Under Homestead Acts May 20, 1862..." at the end of the first 5 year requirement. His witnesses were his neighbors, Joseph Graff and Samuel Kilpatrick.
In 1936 the Department of The Interior recognized Daniel Freeman as the first claimant and established The Homestead National Monument on his homestead near Beatrice, Nebraska. Today, the monument is administered by the National Park Service, and the site commemorates the changes to the land and the nation brought about by the Homestead Act of 1862.
The Homestead Act was discontinued in 1976, except in Alaska, where it continued until 1986.