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The Civil War: The Senate's Story

Landmark Legislation: The Homestead Act of 1862
Poster advertising the Homestead Act

To help develop the American West and spur economic growth, Congress passed the Homestead Act of 1862, which provided 160 acres of federal land to anyone who agreed to farm the land. The act distributed millions of acres of western land to individual settlers. Until the Civil War, opposition from Southern legislators, who feared homesteaders would work to prevent slavery in new territories, and some Northern legislators, who feared the cheap land would lower property values and lure laborers west, prevented passage of the legislation. But with the dramatic departure of the Southern senators in 1861, supporters finally succeeded. Similar legislation, the Southern Homestead Act of 1866, offered the same promise to loyal Southerners and freedmen who could settle public lands. Passage of these acts encouraged farming of more land during the war years and continued to do so for decades to come. By 1890 the federal government had granted 373,000 homesteads on some 48 million acres of undeveloped land.

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