May 20, 1862: UNION CONGRESS PASSES HOMESTEAD ACT. The Union Congress passes the Homestead Act, allowing an adult over the age of 21, male or female, to claim 160 acres of land from the public domain. Eligible persons had to cultivate the land and improve it by building a barn or house, and live on the claim for five years, at which time the land became theirs with a $10 filing fee. The government of the United States had long wrestled with the problem of how to get land into the hands of productive farmers. Throughout the 19th century, politicians had pursued a variety of schemes to raise revenues from land sales, but the results were always mixed.
By the 1830s, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton proposed a program that would allow citizens to claim land from the public domain to develop farmland. By 1890, only about three percent of the lands west of the Mississippi had been given away under the act. This measure was far less effective in making vacant land productive than were liberal mining laws and grants to railroads. Nevertheless, it stands as a shining example of legislation that passed in the North while the South had seceded from the Union.