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This Week in History

This Week in History

This Week in History: May 15 – 21 – Lesson

homestead frontier

(Getty Images)

The Homestead Act and Amelia Earhart’s flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

“The only history is a mere question of one’s struggle inside oneself. But that is the joy of it. One need neither discover Americas nor conquer nations, and yet one has as great a work as Columbus or Alexander, to do.” ~ D.H. Lawrence

May 20, 1862: The Homestead Act

America in the 1800s wasn’t nearly as populated as it is today. Land was not only a commodity, but also a necessity in many instances since a lot of people grew their own food. On July 4, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln gave a speech saying the government’s purpose was “to elevate the condition of men, to lift artificial burdens from all shoulders and to give everyone an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.” He continued, saying the idea of settlers getting land was “worthy of consideration, and that the wild lands of the country should be distributed so that every man should have the means and opportunity of benefiting his condition.”

On May 20, 1862, the president signed the Homestead Act, which allowed homesteaders to get 160 acres of land at a discounted price. The cost of the land included:

  • A filing fee of $10 – $18, which would give them a temporary claim on the land.
  • $2 for commission to the land agent.
  • A final payment of $6 to get the official patent.
  • Alternatively, some could purchase the land from the government for $1.25 per acre.

There were also a few requirements for potential homesteaders. They had to agree to and follow through with living on the land. They also had to build a home on the property and improve the land. The head of household had to be at least 21 years old and had to prove that he had never taken up arms against the US.

The Homestead Act made it possible for just about anyone to own land, including women and slaves who had not thought to be able to be landowners before the act was put into place. The incentive to move to the West resulted in about four million homestead claims. The largest areas where claims were made were Montana, then North Dakota, followed by Colorado, and Nebraska.

President John F. Kennedy, in 1962, said, “One hundred years ago the Congress passed the Homestead Act, probably the single greatest stimulus to national development ever enacted.”

In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted the Taylor Grazing Act, which regulated grazing on public lands owned by the government. This seriously slowed down claims for homesteading. However, it was the Federal Land Policy and Management Act in 1976 that put an end to the Homestead Act. The legislation stated that “public lands be retained in Federal ownership,” which allowed the Bureau of Land Management to manage the land.


Amelia Earhart (Photo by Getty Images)

The Homestead Act lasted for 124 years. During that time, about 10% of land in the US was claimed or settled (about 270 million acres).

May 20, 1932: Amelia Earhart Became First Woman to Fly Across the Atlantic Ocean

On May 20, 1927, Charles Lindberg became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Five years later, on May 20, 1932, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to do so. She left Newfoundland, Canada on this day and landed in a cow field near Londonderry, Northern Ireland the next day.

When she returned to the US, she was awarded with the Distinguished Flying Cross by Congress for her “heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight.” She was the first woman to receive the cross.

Earhart was also the first woman to fly solo, nonstop, across the United States, and the first person to fly solo from Hawaii to the mainland in the US.

napoleon bonaparte

Napoleon Crossing the Saint-Bernard Pass, 20 May 1800. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

On June 1, 1937, Earhart left Oakland, California on a second attempt to become the first pilot to go around the globe. She had just 7,000 miles to make it back to Oakland when she disappeared and was last heard from during a refueling stop on July 7. President Roosevelt authorized a two-week search, but she was never found and was declared lost at sea on July 19, 1937.

Other Notable Mentions

May 17, 1792: The New York Stock Exchange was established by two dozen merchants. When the weather was nice, they met on Wall Street under a buttonwood tree. If the weather was bad, they conducted business inside a coffeehouse.

May 17, 1875: The first Kentucky Derby horse race was held at Churchill Downs in Louisville.

May 17, 1954: The US Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, ruled against segregation in public schools saying it denied black children “equal educational opportunity.”

May 18, 1804: Napoleon Bonaparte took the crown from the hands of Pope Pius VII during the coronation ceremony. Napoleon crowned himself and became the Emperor of France.


Mount St Helen’s volcanic eruption, Washington State, USA, 1980. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)

May 18, 1980: In the first major volcanic eruption since 1857, Mount St. Helens in Washington state erupted, throwing ash more than 11 miles into the sky.

May 18, 1998: Microsoft Corporation was sued by the government and 20 states for unfair tactics to get rid of competition.

May 20, 1927: Charles Lindberg, piloting the Spirit of St. Louis, left Roosevelt Field, Long Island to try and win a $25,000 prize for the first solo nonstop flight between New York City and Paris. He won that as well as the nickname “Lucky Lindy.”

May 21, 1881: Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross.

Famous Birthdays

Frank Capra (May 18, 1897) was born in Palermo, Sicily. He was a Hollywood director best known for such movies as It’s a Wonderful Life, It Happened One Night, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

mr smith goes to washington movie

(Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)

Pope John Paul II (May 18, 1920) was born as Karol Wojtyla in Wadowice, Poland. He was the 26th pope of the Roman Catholic church and the first non-Italian elected in 456 years. He was also the first Polish pope.

Ho Chi Minh (May 19, 1890) was born in the village of Kim Lien in Vietnam with the name Nguyen That Thanh. He was president of North Vietnam and led the Vietnam War.

Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930) was born in Chicago, Illinois. She was an African American playwright most known for A Raisin in the Sun.

Theodore Herzl (May 20, 1860) was born in Budapest, Hungary. He was the founder of modern Zionism and advocated for a new land for Jews.