The Homestead Act and How America Migrated West
Prior to 1860, America was mainly in the eastern portion, population wise. All the major population centers and large cities were there, mostly on the east coast.
The Homestead Act of 1862 was a reward to the free Union Army soldiers and those Confederate states that surrendered to the North. Abraham Lincoln signed the bill that gave 160 acres of free public land to settlers who promised to live on it, farm it, for at least five years. You just had to 21 yr. old. Once passed, the Act was well advertised by states, railroads, steamship companies to attract settlers westward. Nebraska's slogan was, "The Garden of the West", "Free land for the homeless!". Many staked out claims in Kansas, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska. Because the civil war and ended slavery, many black families also migrated west to stake a claim where there was less prejudice than in the South. Many of them would become sheriffs, mayors or business owners. In the first few years, over two million moved west by wagon or train. As more and more settlers moved west, so did the railroads, which built more track across to the Midwest to carry them. By 1900, 80,000 miles of track had been built between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains. Eventually, one billion acres would be granted into private ownership.
As time went on to the turn of century and beyond, four million settlers would file claims to 270 million acres in 30 states. If the settler was located in drier areas, such as, Nevada, Arizona and such, the size was increased to 640 acres. Hundreds still staked claims in the 1960's and the last one was in 1979. One of the earliest all-black towns was at Nicodemus, Kansas, 200 miles from Topeka.
Life was tough on this free land. One had to deal with local Indians who fought to keep the land theirs. The Army soon tried to create reservations for them. The elements were extreme at times, one had to grow their own food usually.
Without the Homestead Act, there would be a much slower migration to the West Coast.