The American West was built on the Homestead Act of 1862, President Lincoln’s plan to encourage development of western lands. It provided 160-acre homesteads for both men, single women and female “head of households” provided they “proved up” the land by adding a home and improvements and lived on the property at least seven months a year for five years.
Two million people sought patents on land through the Homestead Act, which ran from 1862 to 1976. Historians note the cherished Homestead Certificate was usually framed and proudly hung on the cabin or ranch house wall. But the law was greatly misused (what else is new?). The National Archives reports that of the 500 million acres dispersed under the Homestead act, only 80 million went to homesteaders; the rest went to speculators, cattlemen, miners, lumbermen and industrial interests.
By the way, women saw the act as a way to broaden their lives. In “Staking Her Claim,” Marcia Hensley estimates as many as 200,000 women attempted to homestead and as many as 67,500 were successful. She quotes a study that found before 1900, single women made up 12 percent of homestead claims, and after 1900, about 18 percent.