OMAHA, Nebraska (Reuters) - The United States on Sunday marks the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln signing the Homestead Act, the law that gave away 270 million acres of land and transformed the vast American interior.
Representatives from 30 states will take part in a ceremony at the National Monument of America in the Nebraska town of Beatrice, representing the states where nearly 2 million people each received 160 acres of free land under the program.
The monument is the site of what is considered the nation’s first claim under the act by Daniel Freeman, a Union Army scout, on January 1, 1863.
The law, signed by Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War, led to a rush of European settlement of Plains states such as Nebraska for farming, and the emergence in the 19th century of what some historians called the “breadbasket of the world.”
Some 93 million Americans, or nearly a third of the U.S. population, are descended from “homesteaders.” They include comedian Whoopi Goldberg, band leader and television personality Lawrence Welk, agricultural chemist George Washington Carver, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida and former University of Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne.
Individuals, including immigrants, women and former slaves, were eligible for the 160 acres. Applicants received a deed to the land after living on it for five years and cultivating crops.
Only 40 percent, or 1.6 million homesteaders, improved on their claims and earned a patent, or deed of title, for the land from the federal government.
Descendants of homesteaders will carry state flags, among them Harry Alford, president and chief executive of the National Black Chamber of Commerce in Washington. Alford is a descendant of Louisiana homesteaders.
The events coincide with a rare public display of the Homestead Act. The four-page document is on loan from the National Archives in Washington through May 28.
Visitors from more than 40 states and Mexico, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands and England have viewed the document since it went on display at the monument in April.
“It’s neat to see people excited about a part of American history, a document that had a profound impact on the nation and world,” said Mark Engler, monument superintendent.
Not everyone benefited from the Homestead Act. Engler said the law accelerated the removal of Native Americans from some states, especially across the Plains. With few exceptions, they were not allowed to homestead until 1924, when Native Americans were able to become U.S. citizens.
The act was in effect for 123 years. Homesteading ended in the continental United States in 1976. It ended in Alaska in 1986. In addition to the American West, homesteading took place in the South because land confiscated from plantation owners after the Civil War was deemed public land. Texas had no homesteading because it did not have federal public land.
Engler said the Homestead Act contributed to the expansion of the U.S. economy, spurred immigration and advanced transportation and communications networks.
Editing by Greg McCune and Xavier Briand