1862: Legislation that shaped the West

Published March 1, 2007  | March 2007 issue

Homestead Act

Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862, the Homestead Act encouraged western migration by providing settlers 160 acres of public land. In exchange, homesteaders paid a small filing fee and were required to complete five years of continuous residence before receiving ownership of the land. After six months of residency, homesteaders also had the option of purchasing the land from the government for $1.25 per acre. The Homestead Act led to the distribution of 80 million acres of public land by 1900.

Pacific Railway Act

The Pacific Railway Act was signed into law by President Lincoln on July 1, 1862. This act provided federal government support for the building of transcontinental rail lines through the distribution of land grants along the lines. A second act, in 1864, doubled the size of the land grants adjacent to the rights-of-way and allowed the railroads to sell bonds to raise more money. The first transcontinental railroad was completed on May 10, 1869. Congressional investigations later showed that some railroad owners had illegally profited from the railway acts.

Morrill Act

Sponsored by Vermont Congressman Justin Morrill, the Morrill Act was signed into law by President Lincoln on July 2, 1862. Officially titled "An Act Donating Public Lands to the Several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts," the Morrill Act provided each state with 30,000 acres of federal land for each member in its congressional delegation. The land was then sold by the states and the proceeds used to fund public colleges that focused on agriculture and the mechanical arts. Sixty-nine colleges were funded by these land grants, including universities in all Ninth District states.

Return to: Claire Strom on James J. Hill's legacy and influence on the northern Great Plains