Homestead Acts

View item information

Pamphlet advertising "Montana Free homestead land" published by the Great Northern Railway, 1912. Courtesy of the Montana Historical Society Research Center via Big Sky Country Digital Network.

The Homestead Act of 1862 enabled thousands to claim land in Montana. This act offered 160 acres of public land to US citizens on the condition that they live on, cultivate, and improve it. They could then "prove up" and obtain a deed after five years. The first homestead claim was made near present-day Helena in 1868.

However, the original Homestead Act did not attract large numbers of settlers to Montana due to the small size of land relative to the growing conditions and type of dry farming required. Congress passed several supplementary laws including the 1877 Desert Land Act, which allowed homesteaders to claim 640 acres of land if they irrigated within three years. These claims appealed to cattle companies who acquired land earned through hired individual claimants. By 1882, 370 desert claim filings were made in the Montana Territory covering 122,000 acres.

But it was the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 that brought the greatest influx of homesteaders to Montana. Most were individual farmers. This new act doubled the amount of land available for claim to 320 acres and later shortened the "prove up" time to three years. Railroads launched massive advertising campaigns to bring homesteaders to Montana. More than 80,000 homesteaders arrived between 1909 and the early 1920s. At its peak in 1918, 14,178 homestead claims were filed on 3.2 million acres. When it was over, an estimated 300,000 people had filed for homesteads in Montana with at least eighteen percent of these claims filed by unmarried women.