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What is a Homestead . . . The Origins of Our Private Land

From the beginning of our settlement in North America, people sought land to live on, and make a living. After our country became an independent country, citizens pressured the government to open up unsettled western lands generally for the purpose of raising livestock, and farming.

The Homestead Act of 1862 has been called one the most important pieces of legislation in the history of our country. It was enacted in response to the demands of the American people, and was signed into law by President Lincoln only after the secession of the southern states. The Act was a major part of the Republican Presidential political platform in the 1860 election. The Civil War, which began in 1861 allowed the federal government to begin the homestead process, which had been stifled by southern legislators up until then, as the southern block feared the western lands would be added as 'free' states.

The process set in motion a method to turn over vast amounts of the public domain to private citizens. 270 millions acres, or 10% of the area of the United States was claimed and settled under the act.

As the process went into effect, defeated miners were retreating east, and the Homestead Act allowed them hope for a new life in the Colorado Territory. 1862 was 14 years before Colorado became a state.

The lands offered in the Act were surveyed by the federal government, and allowed citizens to claim 160 acres. Territories were divided into 6 mile square increments, referred to as townships. A township was divided into 36 sections, each measuring 1 mile square, roughly 640 acres each. Most of the Colorado lands were described as being certain distances north (or south) of a line created by extending westward from the boundary between Kansas & Nebraska (which now is referred to as Baseline Road. in Boulder, Colorado).

landofficePeople interested in homesteading first had to file their intentions with the nearest Land Office. The acreage was usually described by its survey coordinates. A brief check for previous ownership claims was made for the plot of land in question. The prospective homesteader paid a filing fee of $10 to initally claim the land, and a $2 commission was paid to the land agent.

To qualify as a 'Homesteader' and receive a deed from the government (known as a patent), the settler was required be a U.S. citizen:

Union Civil War vets were given a credit for the time they served toward the 5 year requirement. By living in the dwelling for 6 months and 1 day of each year, the land could then be purchased from the government for $1.25 per acre.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), through the Government Land Office, managed the process. The General Land Office was underfunded and unable to hire a sufficient number of investigators for its widely scattered local offices. As a result, overworked and underpaid investigators were often susceptible to bribery.When all requirements had been completed and the homesteader was ready to take legal possession, the homesteader found two neighbors or friends willing to vouch for the truth of his or her statements about the land's improvements, and residency requirements, by signing a "proof" document. Some of the settlers hired phony claimants or bought abandoned land. Scoundrels took advantage of the lack of enforcement, and often went undiscovered.

After successful completion of this final form and payment of a $6 fee, the homesteader received the patent for the land, signed by the current President of the United States. This paper was often proudly displayed on a cabin wall and represented the culmination of hard work and determination.

While early Colorado homesteading centered around more productive, fertile valleys along the edge of the mountain corridor, subsequent acts pushed the limit, and often left homesteaders with land in mountainous areas with difficult winter climates and land lacking access to the beneficial use of water. Physical conditions created extreme difficulty. Wind, blizzards, and insect invasions wiped out crops. The lack of fuel and water supplies made living in the mountains quite difficult. While 160 acres may have been sufficient for eastern farmers in areas of plentiful annual moisture, it wasn't enough land to make a living in the dry Colorado mountain climate.

The strongest survived, to the detriment of the weakest. As the weaker holders were forced out, larger ranches with economy of scale began to prosper.


The 1st claims filed under the initial Homestead Act were initiated on January 1, 1863. The 1862 Act began a process that would continue for roughly 50 years, and determine private land and public boundaries in Colorado, still recognized today. The mountain lands not homesteaded remained as government lands, which we now refer to as National Forest, or BLM.

Eventually Congress began to allow homesteading on parcels with the limited intention of providing for additional grazing lands (320 to 640 acre homesteads); these acts reserved the right to prospect and remove gold, silver, and other minerals to the federal government.

Proving up a mountain homestead, while initially looking to be a wonderful opportunity, often ended in disappointment. Congress ended the homesteading practice in 1977, with a ten year Alaskan exception.

Today we live, camp, recreate and enjoy these private lands, and can only ponder the lifestyle of these early Colorado citizens as they toiled "live their dream." Today we're the beneficiary of their dream, as we improve and enjoy our lands.

My childhood was spent on the family homestead in Fremont County. I've been selling mountain ranches, land and cabins in Larimer County, Colorado for several generations.

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