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Homestead Act

The Homestead Act is a piece of US legislation which gave 160 acres (1 quarter-section) of undeveloped land in the western United States to any family head provided he lived on it for 5 years, or allowed the family head to buy it for $1.25 per acre after six months. The act was signed into law by President Lincoln on May 20, 1862. The first claim under the Homestead Act was made for a farm in Nebraska on January 1, 1863.

As the Frontier moved west onto the arid Great Plains the amount of land a homesteader was allowed to claim was changed to 640 acres. Although a few isolated pockets remained into the 1950s most land in the lower 48 states had been taken up by 1910 or so. Homesteading continued on a small scale in Alaska. Much of the remaining public domain was included in the National Forests or is administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

In Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado homesteading cut into the access of the large ranches to the public domain where hundreds of thousands of cattle were grazed upon the open range. The ranchers fought back by themselves (or their cowboys) homesteading prime spots which gave access to water. At times tensions escalated into violence as occurred in Wyoming during the Johnson County War.