Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Homestead

THE laws of the United States give to every citizen who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the right to a homestead of 160 acres, to be selected at will from any of the surveyed and otherwise unappropriated public lands, without cost, except entry fees. The tract thus taken as a homestead must be located in a compact body, upon land which is agricultural in character, and must conform to the legal subdivisions established by the official survey. It is set apart from the general estate of the householder as a sacred provision for the family, and is protected from alienation by the householder, and from execution for his general debts. The administration of the homestead and other land laws is committed to the general land office, a bureau of the interior department of the National Government at Washington, presided over by a commissioner, the secretary of the interior having appellate jurisdiction. For the convenience of applicants, the States and Territories where the public lands are still to be found are divided into districts, in each of which there is established a local land office, in charge of a registrar and a receiver, whose duty it is to attend to the disposal of the public lands.

To obtain a homestead the applicant must make an affidavit before the registrar or receiver that he is over the age of twenty-one years, or the head of a family; that he is a citizen of the United States, or has declared his intention to become such; and that the entry is made for his exclusive use and benefit, and for actual settlement and cultivation. A homestead entry thus made vests in the settler an inceptive right only. He has a “claim” to the land which no one can dispute so long as he complies with the law requiring him to live upon and cultivate it for five years; but he has no title which he can convey. If he abandons the land, or remains absent from it for a period of more than six months, his entry may be contested and cancelled; and then the tract will be open to the first legal applicant. In such a case the original claimant will not be permitted to make another entry, as the law allows but one homestead privilege. It is essential that the person making a homestead entry should know that no one else has located upon the land and begun improvements as the foundation of a claim under the pre-emption laws, for such a claim would antedate his own. Having resided upon and cultivated his claim for five years, the settler is allowed two years more, but no longer, in which to make his “final proof.” Final proof consists in the affidavit of the settler and that of two disinterested witnesses, showing that the claimant is a citizen of the United States, that he has made actual settlement upon and cultivated the land in good faith for the time required, and that he has never perfected or abandoned an entry made under the homestead laws. This proof is then transmitted to the commissioner of the general land office at Washington, and if the entry is found to be in all respects lawful, a patent is forwarded to the settler, who thus acquires a permanent and absolute title to his homestead.

The public lands are held by the Government at the minimum price of $1.25 per acre; but where alternate sections have been granted to railroads or other works of internal improvement, the reserved sections are held at $2.50. Of this $2.50 or “double minimum” land, formerly only soldiers and sailors of the War of the Rebellion were allowed to enter as homestead claimants of 160 acres, other citizens being restricted to 80 acres. By the acts of March 3d and July 1st 1879, the privilege of entering 160 acres was extended to all citizens and made general; but there are still some portions of Alabama, Mississippi, and other States where no more than 80 acres of $2.50 land can be taken.

Where homestead entries are made by soldiers and sailors who served ninety days or more in the United States army or navy during the War of the Rebellion, the period of their service, or, if they were discharged on account of wounds or disability incurred in the line of duty, the entire term of enlistment, not to exceed four years, is deducted from the five years residence required by law. But no one can receive a title to his homestead under any circumstances without having lived upon it at least one year.[1]

For homestead entries on lands in Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, Dakota, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Florida, commissions and fees are to be paid according to the following table:—

 Acres.   Price per 
Commissions. Fee. Total of
Fee and

 Payable when 
 Entry is made. 
 Payable when 
 final Proof is 
 Payable when 
 Entry is made. 

160  $2 50  $8 00  $8 00  $10 00  $26 00 
80  2 50  4 00  4 00  5 00  13 00 
40  2 50  2 00  2 00  5 00  9 00 
160  1 25  4 00  4 00  10 00  18 00 
80  1 25  2 00  2 00  5 00  9 00 
40  1 25  1 00  1 00  5 00  7 00 

On lands in California, Nevada, Oregon, Colorado, and in the Territories of Arizona, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming, the commissions are 50 per cent. greater, but the fees are as given above.

If the settler does not wish to remain five years upon his land, the law permits him to pay for it with cash, military bounty land warrants, or agricultural college, private claim, or certain other scrip, upon making proof of residence and cultivation for a period of not less than six months from date of entry. Scrip is a paper issued by the Government, either as a gratuity, or in lieu of a claim for lands, and made receivable by the land bureau in payment for other lands. When the land is paid for in this way the homestead becomes virtually a “pre-emption.” Every person qualified to make a homestead entry is also a qualified pre-emptor, provided he is already the owner of 320 acres of land in the United States, and does not abandon a residence on his own land, in the same State or Territory, to go upon the land he wishes to pre-empt; but only one pre-emption can be made by any citizen. Land to the extent of 160 acres may be obtained by actual settlers under the pre-emption laws, by purchase (sections 2257 to 2288, U. S. Revised Statutes). A residence of at least six months, with cultivation and improvement of the land, is required. Pre-emption claims may he initiated upon unsurveyed lands, although in such a case title cannot be obtained until after the official survey has been made. The first step in securing a pre-emption right is to go upon the land and commence “improvements.” When this has been done, if the land is “offered”—that is, if at some time it has been offered at public sale by proclamation of the president, or otherwise—the applicant, within thirty days from date of his settlement, must file with the district land office a declaratory statement setting forth his claim; and within one year from date of settlement he must appear before the registrar and receiver, and make proof of actual residence on and cultivation of the tract. He will then be permitted to obtain title to the land, by locating upon it land warrants or scrip, or by paying for it with cash at the rate of $1.25 per acre, or, if within the limits of a public improvement grant, at the rate of $2.50 per acre. In case the land has not been offered at public sale, the applicant has three months after settlement within which to file his declaratory statement with the local land officers, and thirty-three months from settlement within which to make final proof and payment for the land. If the land is unsurveyed when the settlement is made, the claimant must file his declaratory statement within three months from the date of the receipt at the district land office of the approved plat of survey of the township embracing the tract. Where compliance with the requirements of the homestead or pre-emption laws is rendered difficult or impossible in consequence of the destruction of crops by grasshoppers, an absence of one year is allowed, during which time no adverse right can accrue. Public notice by advertisement must be given, under direction of the registrar, before final proof can be made in homestead and pre-emption entries.

Under the homestead laws the land is virtually a gift to the settler by the Government, in consideration of settlement and cultivation, the fees charged being about sufficient to cover the cost of entry and conveyance. Under the pre-emption laws the right of purchase is conceded to the actual settler only. With regard to the value of improvements which must be put upon the land in order to entitle the claimant to make final proof and obtain a patent, nothing is definitely stated in the laws themselves, and no absolute rule has been laid down by the general land office; it can only be said generally that homestead and pre-emption improvements must be sufficient to satisfy the land officers that settlement has been made in good faith. A habitable house, which must be used as the home of the settler, with his family, if he is the head of a family, is always required, and a part of the claim must be brought under cultivation.

It will be noted that under the homestead laws none but citizens of the United States, native or naturalized, can make final proof and receive a patent, while a pre-emption entry may be made and consummated by a settler who has declared his intention to become a citizen, whether or not he has taken out his final citizenship papers. After a settler has exercised his right of pre-emption, and obtained title to his claim, there is nothing in the laws or in the regulations of the department to prevent him from proceeding to settle upon another tract under the homestead law; and he may

also, during the time he is residing upon his pre-emption or homestead claim, make entry of 160 acres under the “timber culture act.” It is possible for a settler in this way to acquire title to an aggregate quantity of 480 acres; and this is frequently done. The privileges of the land laws of the United States are extended equally to male and female citizens. Lands entered under the homestead and pre-emption laws are exempt from taxation during the term of residence necessary to acquire title; and in a majority of the States such lands are not taxable until a patent has been issued. Upon the death of a claimant under the homestead, pre-emption, or timber culture laws, any rights he may have acquired accrue to his heirs.

Large portions of the unoccupied public lands of the United States are devoid of timber. “To encourage the growth of timber on the western prairies” the following privileges are granted by the Act of March 3, 1873, and subsequent amendments. Any person who is the head of a family or over twenty-one years of age, and who is a citizen of the United States, or has declared his intention to become such, may enter as a “timber culture” claim one-quarter section (160 acres) of prairie land, upon making affidavit to the fact that he desires for his own benefit to plant and cultivate timber upon the tract. The section of land in which such an entry is made must be naturally devoid of limber, and only one-quarter of any one section can be entered. A person making an entry of 160 acres is required to break or plough 5 acres during the first year and 5 acres in addition during the second year. The 5 acres broken or ploughed during the first year he is required to cultivate during the second year, and to plant in timber, seeds, or cuttings during the third year. The 5 acres broken or ploughed during the second year he is required to cultivate during the third year, and to plant in timber, seeds, or cuttings during the fourth year. Land embraced in entries of a less quantity than one-quarter section must be cultivated arid planted during the same periods and in the same proportion, viz., to the amount of one-sixteenth of the area claimed. The trees must be such as are suitable for timber, the cultivation of fruit trees and shrubbery not being sufficient. Provision is made under the act for an extension of time in case the trees, seeds, or cuttings planted should be destroyed by grasshoppers or by extreme and unusual drought. If, at the expiration of eight years from the date of entry, or at any time within five years thereafter, the claimant shall prove by two credible witnesses that he has successfully cultivated the required amount of timber for not less than eight years, according to the provisions of the act of June 14, 1878, he will be entitled to a patent for the land embraced in the entry. At any time after one year from the date of entry, if the applicant fails to comply with any of the requirements of the act, his claim becomes liable to contest, and, upon due proof of such failure, the entry will be cancelled and the land become again subject to entry under the homestead laws, or by some other person, under the Act of June 14, 1878. The fees for timber culture entries are $10 if the tract applied for is more than 80 acres, and $5 if it is 80 acres or less. The commissions on all entries are $4 at the date of entry, and $4 at the date of final proof.

The foregoing statements refer to public lands which are agricultural in character. There are special laws for the disposal of desert lands, mineral lands, town sites on the public domain, and lands which are unfit for cultivation, and valuable chiefly for timber or stone.

By desert lands is meant a class of lands which will not, without irrigation, “produce any agricultural crop.” Title to such lands in any of the following States and Territories may be acquired under Act of Congress of March 3, 1877:— the States of California, Oregon, and Nevada, and the Territories of Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, and Dakota. Any person desiring to avail himself thereof must file with the registrar and receiver of the proper land office a declaration, under oath, setting forth that the applicant is a citizen of the United States or that he has declared his intention to become such, that he has made no other declaration for desert lands, and that he intends to reclaim the tract applied for, not exceeding one section, by conducting water thereon within three years from the date of his declaration; and he must show by the testimony of at least two disinterested and credible witnesses that the tract applied for is desert land. After this proof has been made to the satisfaction of the district officers, 25 cents per acre will be received from the applicant as a preliminary payment for the land. At any time within three years after the date of the filing of his declaration the claimant may offer proof that he has conducted water upon the land, which proof must consist of the testimony of at least two disinterested and credible witnesses. When such proof is satisfactory to the district officers, the final payment of $1 per acre may be made, and the papers will be forwarded to the general land office at Washington, as the basis for a patent.

The laws extending the homestead, pre-emption, timber culture, and desert land entry privileges make bona fide settlement or improvement of the land a condition precedent to obtaining title. The United States Government does not offer at public sale any of

its lands in the western or north-western States or Territories; but in the States of Florida, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana there are still large tracts of land which may be bought at the minimum price of $1.25, or at the double minimum price of $2.50 per acre.

The laws providing for the reservation and sale of town sites on the public lauds are found in title 32, chapter 8, of the revised statutes of the United States. Persons who desire to found a city or town may acquire title by purchase to the extent of the tract occupied for town purposes, depending upon the number of occupants, viz., 100 to 200 inhabitants, 320 acres; 200 to 1000 inhabitants, 640 acres; 1000 inhabitants, 1280 acres; and 320 acres for each additional 1000 inhabitants, not exceeding 5000 in all. If the town be incorporated, the entry must be made by its mayor or legal representative—if unincorporated, by the county court acting as trustee—for the use and benefit of the several occupants. The patent is issued to the mayor or judge in trust for the purchaser, and the State or Territorial legislature must provide the mode of distribution of the lots.

{{EB1911 Fine Print|Mineral lands are subject to exploration, occupation, and purchase by citizens or those who have made declaration of intention to be come citizens of the United States. Indefinite occupation, without purchase, is secured under some circumstances by certain annual expenditures upon a mining claim. There is no restriction by United States laws of the number of locations one man may make or own by purchase from other locators.

The present area of vacant surveyed Government lands in the United States is about 134,600,000 acres, the area unsurveyed being 1,080,000,000 acres.

The public lands referred to in this article are found only in the States of Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, Wisconsin, and the Territories of Arizona, Dakota, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Throughout these States and Territories the land laws are uniform. When Texas was admitted into the Union the disposal of its public lands was reserved to the State, and it has therefore a land system of its own, which, although rather complicated, does not differ essentially from the land policy of the United States as indicated above. Under the laws of Texas, every person who is the head of a family and without a homestead may acquire title to 160 acres of land, by living upon it and cultivating it for three years; and every single man over the age of eighteen years may so acquire title to 80 acres. “Every person over the age of eighteen years, who is a citizen of the State of Texas, and who shall hereafter in good faith settle upon and occupy any part of the unappropriated public domain, not exceeding 160 acres, shall have the right to purchase the same at the sum of $1 per acre.” But this right of pre-emption is not conceded to any one who is the owner of 160 acres of land in Texas, or who abandons a residence on his own land in that State to take up a residence on the public lands. The extensive school lands of Texas are purchasable by actual settlers in tracts of 80 to 160 acres at their actual value, to be determined by appraisement, “but in no case for a less price

than $1.50 per acre.”

(e. p. h.)


  1. A settler who under former laws was restricted in his entry to less than 160 acres is now permitted, except in a few localities, to enter other lands adjoining his original homestead, as an “additional entry,” to an amount sufficient to make with his first entry 160 acres; and in this case the time of his residence on the tract originally entered will be deducted from the five years, so that in making his final proof he need show occupancy and cultivation of his additional homestead for one year only. Entries of this class are made without payment of fees and commissions. Instead of making such an additional entry the settler may surrender his existing entry to the Government, and make another of 160 acres. Soldiers and sailors of the War of the Rebellion, who prior to June 22, 1874, had made homestead entries of less than 160 acres, have the further privilege of selecting their additional entries from any unoccupied lands, whether adjoining their original homesteads or not.