This post was originally published in 2016 and updated on January 15, 2020.
A land grant is an award of land to a recipient with the requirement that a public purpose, as defined by legislation, is served through the grant. In Part 1, we covered land grant colleges and universities, which are great examples of land grants achieving lasting benefits in the United States of America.
Land Grants for “Homesteading”
The passage of the Homestead Act of 1862 established a land grant program that allowed individuals, both U.S. citizens and intended citizens, to apply for 160-acre plots of land. “Homesteading” was a term referring to the process of moving west onto land in unsettled territories and cultivating the land.
Recipients of the Homestead Act land grants were required to live on the land for 5 years and improve it by growing crops and building a dwelling of at least 12 by 14 (the legislation didn’t specify feet or inches, which presented some problems—current grant policies are more thorough and careful now). After five years, recipients could apply for the deed of title to own the land permanently.
It is worth noting that the Homestead Act of 1862 and the Morrill Land-Grants Acts of 1862 & 1890 were signed into law amidst the historical backdrop of one of the most important and transformational periods in U.S. history. These land grant programs were created and implemented during the American Civil War, Reconstruction Era, and industrialization of the United States.
You can learn more about this historical context from these U.S. National Archives resources: Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877) and The Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900).
Enough history…are there still any land grants?
Past land grants still make news from time to time, such as in New Mexico, where claims to lands covered by the property protection provisions of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo prompted the U.S. General Accounting Office to issue a report in 2004 (h/t @JKNByram).
But new land grant programs are different than the historical land grant programs we’ve covered here.
For example, the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has the National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grants program, which “…provides grants of up to $1 million to coastal and Great Lakes states, as well as U.S. territories to protect, restore and enhance coastal wetland ecosystems and associated uplands.”
The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) also has the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which supports a similar public cause as the Morrill Land Grant Acts—only through education rather than land.
For acquiring land, federal financial assistance has shifted from direct grants to loans. To learn more about USDA grants and loans, check here.