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Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862, The Homestead Act required three simple steps: file an application, make improvements on the land, and file for deed of title. An occupant had to be 21 years of age, the head of his household, and had to show proof that improvements were made to the land. The size of the Federal land being utilized was usually 160 acres. This act created a scenario, wherein independent farmers could farm the land, as opposed to slave owners continuing to use slaves to do the work. This practice was to take place west of the Mississippi River.
By 1900, most of the low-lying land along the rivers had been homesteaded, so The Enlarged Homestead Act was passed in 1909. This allowed dryland farming by increasing the number of homestead acres to 320. Then, in 1916, the Stock-Raising Homestead Act was passed by congress to allow settlers 640 acres of public land for ranching purposes.
About 40% of the settlers who started the homestead process were actually able to complete it, and obtain title for the land. In later years, these homestead acts were abused. For example, some land was used for timber production or oil drilling, when it was supposed to be utilized for farming. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 ended homesteading, with the exception of Alaska, which allowed homesteading until 1986. Ken Deardorff was the last homesteader in Alaska to receive his title deed in May 1988 for land he claimed under the homestead acts, although his requirements were met several years prior to receipt of his deed of title.