1. The word homesteading often brings to mind visions of early American settlers, horse-drawn wagons, log cabins, and outdoor cook fires. With homesteading becoming a popular and growing trend in recent years, it is important to understand the history of homesteading, how it started, and what it has meant to so many. While rugged self-sufficient living has always been part of the American culture and heritage, the actual origins of homesteading can be traced to the Homestead Act of 1862. This act expanded and adapted on the Preemption Act of 1841.

    The Preemption Act of 1841

    In the Preemption Act of 1841, squatters living on federally owned land for a period of 14 months or more had the preemptive option of purchasing said land for drastically reduced prices before the government put the land up for sale. At the time, these squatters could purchase up to 160 acres for a minimum of $1.25 per acre. The Homestead Act of 1862 was an effort by the U.S. government to increase the number of farmers outside of the original 13 colonies by expanding and liberalizing the Preemption Act. The American farmer, at that time, was an integral part of American politics, society, industry, and culture. The Homestead Act expanded on what the Preemption Act started, allowing farmers to claim up to 160 acres of government lands free, provided the farmer met three requirements: formally apply for the land, make improvements to the land, and then file for a deed.

    Civil War Opened the Way for The Homestead Act of 1862

    The Homestead Act took several years and numerous unsuccessful attempts to get it through Congress. The primary roadblock came from Southern delegates who feared free land for farming would endanger their chances of keeping slavery intact. It was only after the South ceded the Union that the path was cleared for the Homestead Act to be passed. Over the years, the Act was modified and improved. In 1909, homesteaders could get up to 320 acres for dry land farming. In 1916, homesteaders could get up to 640 acres for ranching. Homesteading in the lower 48 states continued until 1976 when the program ended. Homesteaders could still get 80 acres free in Alaska until 1986. In fact, the last land deed issued under the Homesteading Act and its various enlargement and changes was issued to Ken Deardorff in 1988.

    Many popular tales of early American pioneers center on the race to find good land, improve it, and ultimately claim valid title or deed to the property. For example, Little House on the Prairie, the story of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Ingalls family, followed the true life trials and tribulations of the Ingalls family. Her father first claimed land in Kansas, only to move to the Dakota Territory to try again. Similarly, the play Oklahoma features prominent depictions of the Oklahoma Land Rush where families attempted to be the first to claim the best lands available in that territory.

    The Challenges of Early Homesteading

    It is estimated that less than 40% of applicants for free land made it all the way through the arduous process of finding good land, improving it, and laying claim to a deed or title. This is due, in large part, to the lack of irrigation and proper equipment, as well as the remote locations of much of the land available to applicants. Many homesteaders, being several days journey from any semblance of civilized society, struggled to find ways to set up their farms. Many were forced out of necessity to design and build their own tools and equipment, or find ways to solve water delivery problems, sanitation, and other life necessities on their own. Unfortunately, many early homesteaders had neither the skill nor the money to make necessary improvements to their land. This further increased their need to find workable solutions on their own, with nothing more than what the land provided.

    The Rebirth of Homesteading

    It is this same creative, determined, self-sufficient spirit that propels many of today’s homesteaders. Propelled by rising food prices, health warnings about industrial farming practices, and the push for green living, they want to do for themselves or minimize their dependence on others. Additionally, today’s homesteaders enjoy the peace and tranquility of a farm and promote a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. Homesteading families pride themselves on their self-sufficiency and sustainable lifestyles. The ability to make do with what they have, improve their lives through organically grown food and livestock, not to mention the satisfaction of knowing they can survive even the toughest times is a powerful source of pride for today’s homesteaders. They are known for their simplistic lifestyles, frugality, hard work and ingenuity.

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