The Homestead Act was one way settlers acquired land in Kansas and other parts of the west. It was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862. Under the provisions of the Homestead Act, settlers could claim 160 acres of public land. They paid a small filing fee and then had two options for getting title to the land. If they lived on the 160 acres for five continuous years, built a residence and grew crops, they could then file for their deed for the property. The second option was to purchase the land from the government for $1.25 per acres after living on the land for six months, building a home, and starting to grow crops. The head of the household of any citizen or a person intending to become a citizen (immigrants) were eligible to claim land under the Homestead Act. In 1864, the law was amended to allow a soldier with two years of service to acquire the land after a one year residency.
The Homestead Act led to the distribution of 80 million acres of public land by 1900. Many Kansas settlers, however, acquired their farms by purchasing property. some of which was part of railroad land grants.
Homesteaders and other settlers in Kansas were challenged by drought, scarce natural resources, and economic cycles that threatened their survival. Winter was a particularly difficult time for Kansas farm families.
In 1874 the Felton family settled on a homestead in McPherson County. Family members had lumber hauled 40 miles from Salina to build their dwelling, and mother Elizabeth considered their 10 by 14 feet home to be a palace amid so many sod homes with dirt floors.
“We lived in the little homestead house for five years,” wrote daughter Bessie Felton Wilson, “burning corn stalks for fuel both winter and summer.” The family quickly outgrew the first home and her father constructed a larger dwelling. “Not having sufficient means to finish it all at this time we slept in the upper rooms for several years without plaster,” she wrote. “It was not unusual on awaking cold winter mornings to find the covers around our heads frozen and the bed white with snow which had been driven through tiny cracks in the roof by a strong wind during the night.”
With the cold weather came sickness. In January 1886, 13-year-old Bessie contracted diphtheria. With no doctors nearby nor money to pay one, her mother treated the illness. Two years later, the same disease took the lives of four children of a nearby family – all within nine days. (Bessie's reminiscences are part of the Lilla Day Monroe Collection of Pioneer Women's stories housed the the KSHS Manuscripts collection.)
A woman contributor to the Harper Sentinel, identified only as “P.E.T.” wrote in 1889, “It is hard work to come west to make a home. Few have the vim and back-bone to stay long enough to prove up their land under the homestead law. I don't want to brag, but we are going to try to be among the few. I'll tell you how we manage: There are four of us. My husband and two little boys (most too small to be of much use, but a great comfort) and myself comprise our family. This year everything was a failure in this county. Everybody left that could, but we have a few cattle and enough corn stalks to keep them alive till grass comes. I said ‘we must stick to the land, old boy, just as long as we can raise the roughness to winter on.’”
Homesteaders had more to protect than just themselves and their home. P.E.T. wrote that she feared outlaws in a place where there was no law. She and her husband were proud of their team of mules and worried for their safety. “In this country a man's team is his living, and anyone stealing it takes the bread and butter out of his little children's mouths, making them as well as their parents suffer.”
P.E.T. demonstrated the pioneer spirit, as she closed her letter to the Sentinel, “Times are hard, but I am generous and when you come ‘out west’ just stay awhile at our dug-out. You shall have pancakes and meat grease for breakfast – maybe a little coffee. Light bread for dinner, and mush and milk for supper the year round, with occasionally a young jack-rabbit fried with some milk gravy.”
Those farmers who survived the challenges went on to build the state’s agricultural heritage. Their farmhouses, barns, and silos stand as symbols of hardworking people who made Kansas the breadbasket of the nation.
Entry: Homestead Act
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: January 2010
Date Modified: May 2013
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