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“Freedom of the Public Lands!!!” petition from citizens of New York, 1860

The acquisition of western territories from Mexico intensified public pressure on Congress to open those areas to settlement. These New York State petitioners asked Congress to end the sale of public land at high prices that resulted in monopolies by large landowners. Instead, they wanted smaller plots to be given freely to settlers for farming.

Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives and Records Administration

“Freedom of the Public Lands!!!” petition from citizens of New York, 1860

The First Homesteaders

The Homestead Act of 1862 made 160 acres available to any head of household who filed a claim, lived five years on the land, and paid a fee. Homesteaders included citizens, immigrants seeking naturalization, women, men, African Americans, and whites. American Indians, who were not recognized as U.S. citizens, were excluded. Daniel Freeman, a Civil War scout in Nebraska, may have been the first to file a land claim when the Homestead Act became effective on January 1, 1863.