Homesteading means different things to different people and sometimes the word is bandied about, perhaps out of context by those who haven’t taken a notion to adopt the old ways. Where did the word originate and what did it mean? Let’s take a brief look.
In 1862, Congress passed the first of several Homestead Acts to encourage settlement of America’s prairies. It was effective on January 1, 1863. Other laws were later passed with “Homestead” in the title, but none were ever quite as sensational as the one from ‘62. It is notable that this took place during the first half of the Civil War which explains why Southerners weren’t initially able to file claims.
The East had long since been densely populated and gold seekers and adventurers had crossed the plains to settle on the West Coast, but few had stopped to carve out a life for themselves in the Heartland. The Homestead Act of 1862 offered up to 160 acres for settlers of land with only a small filing fee required. The settlers had to live on and improve the property for a period of five years in order to take ownership of it.
Any adult who had never taken up arms against the government could apply including women and immigrants who applied for U.S. citizenship.
Not all homesteads were in the mid-west although a larger number were. Southerners were not allowed to take up homesteads under the 1862 law, but in 1867 they could file for homestead land if their loyalty to the Union was not questioned during the war. Through the Southern Homestead Act lands were made available in five Southern states. The Southern Homestead Act was repealed in 1876. An Act in 1866 made it possible for Blacks to homestead land as well.
People from all walks of life filed claims and made the trek west. The land was often isolated and far from stores and transportation hubs so, like today, homesteading often meant making the most from a few materials on hand and a lot of grit and determination. Anyone who did not possess common logic and basic skills soon realized they’d better learn fast how to dig a well, plant and harvest crops, care for poultry and farm animals, keep bees, make candles, preserve food, sew clothing, and a hundred other tasks. Bartering goods or services was more common purchasing outright.
The following is part of a letter found in a book written by Elinore Pruitt Stewart, titled “Letters of a Woman Homesteader”. Note that Mrs. Stewart and her daughter had filed a claim for their own acreage under the Homestead Act while her husband, Mr. Stewart, had claimed his own. After the five year homesteading period the Stewarts owned twice as much land as they would have had with Mr. Stewart alone making a claim. The letter began with Mrs. Stewart explaining she hadn’t written for a while because Mr. Stewart had suffered an attack of la grippe which had required much tending on her part and thanking the recipient for some magazines she had sent out to her.
“…When I read of the hard times among the Denver poor, I feel like urging them every one to get out and file on land. I am very enthusiastic about women homesteading. It really requires less strength and labor to raise plenty to satisfy a large family than it does to go out to wash, with the added satisfaction of knowing that their job will not be lost to them if they care to keep it. Even if improving the place does go slowly, it is that much done to stay done. Whatever is raised is the homesteader’s own, and there is no house-rent to pay. This year Jerrine cut and dropped enough potatoes to raise a ton of fine potatoes. She wanted to try, so we let her, and you will remember that she is but six years old. We had a man to break the ground and cover the potatoes for her and the man irrigated them once. That was all that was done until digging time, when they were ploughed out and Jerrine picked them up. Any woman strong enough to go out by the day could have done every bit of the work and put in two or three times that much, and it would have been so much more pleasant than to work so hard in the city and then be on starvation rations in the winter.
To me, homesteading is the solution of all poverty’s problems, but I realize that temperament has much to do with success in any undertaking, and persons afraid of coyotes and work and loneliness had better let ranching alone. At the same time, any woman who can stand her own company, can see the beauty of the sunset, loves growing things, and is willing to put in as much time at careful labor as she does over the washtub, will certainly succeed; will have independence, plenty to eat all the time, and a home of her own in the end.
Experimenting need cost the homesteader no more than the work, because by applying to the Department of Agriculture at Washington he can get enough of any seed and as many kinds as he wants to make a thorough trial, and it doesn’t even cost postage. Also one can always get bulletins from there and from the Experiment Station of one’s own State concerning any problem or as many problems as may come up. I would not, for anything, allow Mr. Stewart to do anything toward improving my place, for I want the fun and experience myself. And I want to be able to speak from experience when I tell others what they can do. Theories are very beautiful, but facts are what must be had, and what I intend to give some time.
Here I am boring you to death with things that cannot interest you! You’d think I wanted you to homestead, wouldn’t you? But I am only thinking of the troops of tired, worried women, sometimes even cold and hungry, scared to death of losing their places to work, who could have plenty to eat, who could have good fires by gathering the wood and comfortable homes of their own if they but had the courage and determination to get them.
I must stop right now before you get so tired you will not answer. With much love to you from Jerrine and myself, I am
Yours affectionately, Elinore Rupert Stewart. January 23, 1913.”
So, my friends, perhaps we see that the biggest difference in homesteading now and homesteading in 1863 is that land isn’t free for the asking anymore and we work more for the self-satisfaction of producing more of what we need ourselves rather than heading for Mr. Walton’s Mercantile.