The first Homestead Act had originally been proposed by northern Republicans before the Civil War, but had been blocked in Congress by southern Democrats who wanted western lands open for settlement by slave-owners. The Homestead Act of 1860 did pass in Congress, but it was stopped by President James Buchanan with a presidential veto. After the Southern states seceded from the Union in 1861 and their representatives left Congress, the Republican Congress passed the long-delayed bill. It was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862. Daniel Freeman became the first person to file a claim under the new act.
Between 1862 and 1934, the federal government granted 1.6 million homesteads and distributed 270,000,000 acres (420,000 sq mi) of federal land for private ownership. This was a total of 10% of all land in the United States. Homesteading was discontinued in 1976, except in Alaska, where it continued until 1986.
About 40 percent of the applicants who started the process were able to complete it and obtain title to their homesteaded land.