The homesteading era in the United States began in 1862, when Congress passed new provisions for the settlement of public land under the Homestead Act. Under the terms of this act, by paying modest fees (originally a $10 filing fee and a $4 application commission) US citizens (or those who were intending to become citizens) who were either a head of a family, or single and over twenty-one years old, could claim 160 acres of public land available for entry. If married, a couple could double the claim to 320 acres. Once a claim had been made to the local General Land Office, the entrant was required to live on the land for five years, and carry out certain "improvements." Improvement was usually judged by the evidence of residence, whether living quarters of a certain size had been built, and the cultivation of a percentage of the land for agricultural crops. A claimant had seven years to fulfill these terms if they didn't abandon the homestead. If after paying a $4 final proof fee the claimant had "proved up" in the judgment of the Land Office agents, a land patent or title to the land was granted. In the decades that followed Congress amended and expanded the scope of homesteading legislation with such supplemental laws as the Timber Culture Act, the Desert Lands Act, and the Expanded Homestead Act. Over the next hundred years some 2 million applicants tried their hand at homesteading. About forty percent proved up, and gained title to 273 million acres across thirty states. Technically, this was homesteading.
Homesteading was only one method among many of acquiring land, and in time, came to mean something more than its legal definition. The homesteader was part of a westward movement of the American people that included those commonly called "pioneers" and "settlers." Emigrants came west with various plans to build businesses, to prospect, to trap, to meet families, and to farm. Some sought homesteads, others intended to buy land from earlier entrants, an option that became more common as land available for homestead entry decreased. When Ford Van Voohis wrote about The Homesteaders of Chelan Butte, some of the memories and histories he recorded came from those who had purchased homesteads from the original claimants. Many who bought homesteads led lives that were hard to distinguish from their predecessors: they shared the same hardships, farmed with the same methods, and raised their children in ways that varied little from farm to farm. But the late comers could not lay claim to the "free soil" and anti-monopolistic ideology that underlay the spirit of homestead law. The idea of "free soil for free men" had been part of the American political landscape long before 1862, and even formed the basis for the establishment of the Free-soil Party in 1848.
Many Americans took this principle into their own hands by occupying western lands beyond federal surveys and often beyond United States authority with the assumption that their legal right to the land would eventually follow. Although the government hoped to control land settlement with proper surveys and titles, in many cases, particularly in the northwest, the squatters' presumptions were validated. The Donation Land Law passed in 1850 granted every male citizen (or who had declared their intention to become a citizen) over the age of eighteen in the Oregon Territory who had cultivated land for the past four years a half-section, or 320 acres. In addition to conferring legal ownership to earlier squatters, the law encouraged settlement by granting 160 acres to those arriving in the territory between 1850 and 1853 (later extended to 1855). Married settlers could double their acreage by securing another claim in their wives' name. An amended form of the Donation Land Law was eventually extended to the Washington Territory after it split from Oregon in 1853. Although the Donation Land Law had a limited area and time period of application, it was an important test case and predecessor to the Homestead Act, and established a tradition of free land grants in the northwest.
From the early days of the republic federal land policy brought many of the hotly debated political issues of the day into the foreground, particularly the question of whether slavery should be extended into the territorial lands of the West. Plantation and conservative slave-holding interests viewed the settlement of the West by thousands of homesteaders establishing small farms as an anathema. Against such opposition, prominent spokesmen including George Henry Evans, Horace Greely, and Galusha A. Grow argued that the availability of free or cheap land under the right terms would relieve the eastern states of the burdens associated with a surplus landless population, encourage the settlement of public land and the growth of new States, generate federal income, spread the public lands among many rather than few hands, and provide opportunity for any citizen (sometimes qualified in racial terms) willing to take up farming. A number of homestead proposals were presented to congress between 1830 and 1860 but were defeated by slavery interests or presidential veto. Secession of the southern states in 1861 removed the main opposition, and a Republican congress easily passed the Homestead Act in 1862.
Homestead law forged a compact between people and the land. Its terms revealed many characteristics of its authors; their politics, their economic theories, and their cultural attitudes toward settlement. As one historian of public land law put it, "the Homestead Act breathed the spirit of the West, with its optimism, its courage, its generosity and its willingness to do hard work." Yet if the act was proof of a commitment to improving the prospects of its citizen farmers, it was also proof that the land itself and its former occupants figured less significantly in the bargain. The law attempted to apply one format for farming in a vast territory of different soil conditions, climate, and topography. What may have seemed adequate acreage in Ohio or Georgia to support a farm proved untenable in many areas where the act applied, such as the eastern counties of Nebraska where rain fell in short supply. Because few states possessed a greater variety of landscapes and climate than did Washington, the state showed in a microcosm many of the problematic aspects of applying the Homestead Act to an uncooperative land. The diversity of environment was in turn a distinctive characteristic of homesteading in Washington, particularly in the Olympic Peninsula. Here on the far western edge of Washington was a landscape varied by massive old-growth forests, mountains, rain forests, river valleys, and rocky coastlines. Those coming from east of the Rocky Mountains to seek claims among the tall cedars, firs, and spruce faced the daunting task of clearing enough land to fulfill the terms of homestead law. In this context, agricultural clearings were more than spaces in the woods. Farmlands hewed from the timbered claims in the Olympic Peninsula stood as tangible markers of the complicated and multifaceted legacy of homesteading in the United States. As a crucial requirement of "proving up," clearings reflected a federal policy that mixed several competing elements, including an enduring faith in supporting the small independent farmer and a bureaucratic framework and approach to land management. As evidence of the effort put forth to farm on difficult lands, clearings showed the lure of the homesteading in America. That hopeful settlers tried to make a space and life for themselves among the forest giants of the mountainous Olympic Peninsula testifies to the strength of this ideal.