Acts of Congress that opened up the American West
The Pre-emption Act of 1841 was intended for settlers who had established themselves illegally on land ahead of government surveyors. When the surrounding land was eventually surveyed and made ready for public sale, the “squatter” had the right to appear at the local land office and purchase up to 160 acres of their illegal holdings for $1.25 per acre to pre-empt or prevent any subsequent claims, as long as the settler could show proof of a dwelling and improvements to the land.
The Pre-emption Act, repealed in 1891, legalized early pioneer settlement on unsurveyed lands, and recognized squatting as a legitimate means of establishing a homestead.
Many homestead files contain documents of proof related to the Pre-emption Act.
Beginning in 1862, the United States Congress enacted a series of laws that totally transformed the American West.
Land grants were given to the four transcontinental railroads to extend rail transportation from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Native American peoples were removed from open land to reservations, opening up the west to white settlement.
Thirteen new territories, including the Dakota Territory, were admitted to the union.
Land grants were given to each state and territory to establish agricultural colleges to encourage productive farming.
The Homestead Act of 1862 — Title Transfer Authority Code: 251101, May 20, 1862, 12 Stat. 392. The Homestead Entry Act offered 160 acres of land (80 acres within the railroad grant areas) free to any head of family or any person over 21 years of age who was a citizen of the United States, or any foreign-born person who had filed a declaration of intent to become a citizen of the United States, in exchange for simply residing on the land for five years and improving it. Quarter sections of land (160 acres) were distributed free, provided the property was lived on and improved for five years.
Specifically, the Homestead Act offered 160 acres of land (80 acres within the railroad grant areas) free to any head of family or any person over 21 years of age who was a citizen of the United States, or any foreign-born person who had filed a declaration of intent to become a citizen of the United States, in exchange for simply residing on the land for five years and improving it.
Quarter sections of land were distributed free, provided the property was lived on and worked for five years. There was also an option to purchase the land after six months of residency for $1.25 per acre. Originally, the Homestead Act applied to surveyed land, but in 1880 it was extended to include unsurveyed land. Railroads spearheaded the onslaught of land seekers, bringing trainloads of homesteaders into the heart of the western frontier. Every homestead file contains documents related to the Homestead Act.
The Timber Culture Act of 1873 — Title Transfer Authority Code: 251105, March 3, 1873, 17 Stat. 605. The Timber Culture Act was another law that encouraged homesteading, and the planting of trees, in the west. If a settler planted 40 acres of timber (reduced to 10 acres in 1878) and fostered their growth for 10 years, the individual was entitled to that quarter section of land.
The Timber Culture Act also permitted homesteaders who occupied their land for three years, with one acre of trees under cultivation for two of those three years, to receive a patent (first deed) to the land. The law was eventually repealed in 1882. Many homestead files contain documents of proof related to the Timber Culture Act.
The Desert Land Act of 1877 — Title Transfer Authority Code: 252000, March 3, 1877, 19 Stat. 377. The Desert Land Entry Act was designed to encourage settlement of the arid and semi-arid regions of the west, specifically in Arizona, California, the Dakotas, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.
The Act allowed anyone to purchase 640 acres of land for 25 cents per acre if the land was irrigated within three years of filing. A rancher could receive title to the land any time within the three years upon proof of compliance with the law, and payment of one additional dollar per acre. The homestead files of cattle ranchers in the region west of the Missouri River contain documents of proof related to the Desert Land Act and Timber Culture Act.
Sale-Cash Entry Act of 1820 — Title Transfer Authority Code: 272002, April 24, 1820, 3 Stat. 566. The Sale-Cash Entry Act allowed direct cash sales of land from the General Land Office (GLO) to the public for the first time.