Timber Culture Act (1873)


Legislation that offered free land in exchange for planting trees.

The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed any adult citizen or resident alien the right to claim 160 acres of newly surveyed land in the public domain, mostly in the Great Plains. The claimant paid a $10 fee and then had to live on the land or improve it in some way over a five-year period. After that time, the land belonged to the claimant free of charge. Many Americans living in the East wanted the Great Plains opened to small farmers; many westerners knew that 160 acres could not support either farming or ranching in the arid land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.

Congress made the first attempt to give settlers in the Great Plains more land through the passage of the Timber Culture Act in 1873. The law allowed individuals to claim another 160 acres of free land if they planted at least one-quarter of the property with trees over a four-year period. Later amendments to the act reduced the amount of trees to ten acres and allowed up to eight years to complete the planting.

The Timber Culture Act had three main purposes. Scientists hoped that more trees on the Great Plains would bring plentiful rainfall into the arid country. The trees would also serve as a renewable source of fuel, homes, and fences. Finally, settlers could acquire a bigger piece of property and so better survive in the harsh conditions of the Great Plains. Some settlers combined their timber culture rights along with their homestead and preemption rights to set up farms and ranches of 480 acres. Eventually the government granted 11 million acres of western land through the Timber Culture Act.

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