Homesteading was not permitted on unsurveyed lands, although it did occur since there was no positive prohibition against it in the Homestead Act of 1862. Although homestead land was free to those who conformed to the residence and improvement requirements of the law, there were fees to be paid. Settlers were allowed six months after filing before they were required to reside on the land, and could receive title to the land upon proof of five years' occupancy and cultivation.
In the 1862 Homestead Act, Congress had made careful provision to safeguard all existing preemption rights by allowing those who, prior to the adoption of the 1862 Act, had filed a declaratory application for a preemption to retain that right and also to gain a homestead right, or to change a preemption claim into a homestead. Thereafter, settlers could gain ownership of 320 acres by entering land in both ways. Preemption entries appear in Forest Service landownership status records as ¨cash entry¨ (sales). Without detailed examination it is impossible to determine whether an inholding was originally acquired through preemption or one of the cash sales laws, such as the Graduation Act. Federal land acquired through the Homestead Acts appear in landownership status records as ¨homestead entry.¨
The homesteading folklore stalled the reform of federal land disposal statutes for decades. Land reformers had tried unsuccessfully during 1858- 60 to get Congress to withdraw the public lands from private entry so that speculators and others with capital could no longer anticipate the settler and purchase federal land through the preemption laws in unlimited amounts ahead of the free-land homesteader. Congress used its judgment to set homestead acreage figures based largely on Eastern experience; however, a 160-acre homestead in the West was inadequate on which to make a living, even though the land was free.
In 1909, the Enlarged Homestead Act increased the acreage to 320 in the nine western states and specified that the land must be non-mineral and non- irrigable and contain no merchantable timber. In 1912, Congress decided five years was too long for a residential requirement, and passed the Three Year Homestead Act. In 1916, Congress attempted to correct the acreage deficiency by raising the limit to 640 acres of non-irrigable land in the Stock Raising Homestead Act.
The Homestead Act revisions were only partially effective. In arid country, homesteading 640 acres was little better than homesteading 160 acres. The last desperate effort was the homesteaders' attempt to farm the Great Plains. This led to the ¨dust bowl¨ days in the 1930s when the soil blew as far as Washington, D.C.
The Timber Addition
In 1873, Congress passed the Timber Culture Act allowing settlers 160 acres if they would plant 40 of those acres in trees and cultivate them for 10 years. Residence was not required on the tract, as it was on both preemption and homestead entries.
We will recapitulate at this point. A settler or land company speculator could have purchased through cash sale any amount of federal land for 12.5 cents to $1.00 per acre under the Graduation Act; an ¨actual settler¨ could have acquired 160 acres of free federal land under the Homestead Acts. Now these citizens or ¨one-in-the-same¨ (settler/speculator/¨actual settler¨) could acquire 160 acres of free federal land under the Timber Culture Act. This law was intended for the prairie states. (Later, eight years were required for ¨proving- up¨ on the 40-acre tree cultivation requirement. Subsequent amendments reduced the number of acres of tree planting to ten.) The purpose of the act was threefold. First was to establish groves of trees in the hope that they would affect the weather (as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other bodies of scientists at the time were espousing) and bring more rainfall to the droughty prairie. Second was to provide a source for fencing, fuelwood, and building materials for the future. And third, the act provided another method by which land could be acquired in areas where larger economic units than the usual 160 acres seemed necessary. Some settlers combined their preemption, homestead, and timber culture entries for an ¨estate¨ of 480 acres. Eleven million acres of federal land were patented (conveyed) through the Timber Culture Act.
In 1878, the Timber and Stone Act was passed. It provided that unoffered, unappropriated, and unreserved surveyed public lands in California, Oregon, Nevada, and Washington Territory, valuable chiefly for timber or stone and unfit for agriculture, could be purchased in quantities not to exceed 160 acres for $2.50 per acre. Similar to the preemption and homestead laws, applicants had to swear that (1) the land was being purchased for their own use and benefit and (2) no agreement had been made with anyone else to whom title would be conveyed upon patent. Fraud and abuse resulting from this 1878 Act was facilitated by a Supreme Court ruling that said settlers who immediately sold the timber and/or land were nevertheless taking it up for their own exclusive use and benefit. Nearly one-third of the privately-owned timberland in the Pacific Northwest was acquired by purchase under this act. In 1892 the Timber and Stone Act was extended to all public land states. A little over 13 million acres of federal land was disposed of as a result. The Timber and Stone Act of 1878 is significant in that it recognized another beneficial use of federal land in addition to military needs, cropland settlement, and mineral development.
The Irrigation and Desert Land Additions
In 1875 individuals in Lassen County, California were authorized by Congress (the Act of March 3, 1875) to file plans for irrigating up to 640 acres of non-timbered, non-mineral land and to enter these lands upon payment of 25 cents per acre. Congress further stipulated that if these individuals could offer proof within two years that they had reclaimed the 640 acres they could take title upon payment of an additional $1 per acre. In 1877, Congress legislated a similar land sale plan throughout the states of California, Oregon, and Nevada and to the territories of Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico (the future eleven ¨western states¨ of subsequent public land law), and Dakota. The Desert Land Law, as the legislation was named, authorized a three-year period between the initial filing and proof of improvements. Nearly nine million acres of federal land were conveyed through the Desert Land Law of 1877.