18 Jan

The Opportunity of Homesteading

“ Poverty in America Month:” The second in a series exploring the history of poverty


My grandfather homesteaded in Wyoming in 1890, married my grandmother in 1892 and moved to Nebraska to homestead again.  When my grandmother traveled back to Nebraska from New Mexico as a widow, she homesteaded with her children in 1912.  Records in the National Archives which I found from my genealogical search (see The Journey to Fiction series for the full documentation), provide a brief description by the government agent who came to inform her she was not going to receive widow’s benefits.  He filed a sensitive descriptive report of his meeting with her south of Thedford, Nebraska where she had filed her land claim.

“She hopes to establish a home for herself and children; but it looks like a most hazardous undertaking as she is practically an invalid because of rheumatism (sic), and her children are undersized puny looking little fellows, and they are more than a mile from the nearest water….In their present desolate surroundings their condition is pitiable in the extreme.”

The “pitiable” conditions the government agent described, could be the current conditions of poverty as well as throughout our history.  Despite the negative images we see or hear about those living in poverty, America has a long history of offering opportunity to the economically disadvantaged through such government programs as The Homestead Act, the New Deal, Social Security and the War on Poverty.  Even in the beginning, the early colonists and settlers not only looked for religious freedom.  They also wanted the opportunity to own property and achieve some material comfort and perhaps even success from their own industriousness and hard work.  Land ownership in the early years of our country was based on the assumption that the land was free.  Our ancestors offered no acknowledgement of the rights of the Native people to that land.  Initially, methods for allocating unsettled land was arbitrary and chaotic.  Boundaries were established by stepping off plots from geographical landmarks.  Overlapping claims and border disputes were common.

The sale of public lands became a means to generate revenue for the Government, not an opportunity to acquire property by the poor.  By the mid 1800’s pressure was building to change the land distribution policies.  People in the West and poor people everywhere supported the demand for free homesteads.  Finally, with eleven states seceding from the Union the slavery issue was removed from the opposition. The Homestead Act of 1862 was passed and signed by President Lincoln.  It has been called the most important welfare act ever passed in the United States.

Homestead Act

Wagon_train 3

Men or women or the head of a family over 21 could file an application and lay claim to 160 acres of Government land, land frequently brutally taken from Indian tribes on the frontier.  Homesteaders were required to live on the land, build a dwelling and grow crops for five years before they could claim a deed to the land.  Three generations of my family, including my grandmother, took advantage of this opportunity.  Despite being an invalid, she completed her homestead claim, went back to teaching school and became what is reputed to be the first woman school superintendent in her part of Nebraska.

Homesteading provided an opportunity for the poor in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  My family benefited many times from the welfare of the Homestead Act.  Two of my grandmother’s sons homesteaded in Wyoming in 1918 after irrigation was established and opened arid land to farming.  The land was free but it required hard work, sacrifice and surviving the harsh conditions of the American plains.

As the frontier moved west, some changes in the laws increased the land claim to 640 acres and reduced the homestead requirement from five to three years.    By the end of the nineteenth century ninety million acres of public land had been distributed.  Very little of the 570 million acres that still remained open to settlement was usable for agriculture.  By 1934 over 1.6 million homestead applications were processed and more than 270 million acres or 10% of all US land had passed into individuals hands

Strong communities with a commitment to social values, education and personal responsibility were spawned through the territories covered by the Homestead Act.  The economic, agricultural and social stability generated by the Homestead Act was utterly inconceivable in other times and place.  It was a huge contribution to the American prosperity of the twentieth century.   I, for one, am very grateful for the opportunity it gave to my ancestors.  I am also very proud of their stamina, grit, perseverance and hard work to overcome the challenges they faced.

Next time we will explore life in dugouts and sod houses, common homesteader shelter on the prairie.

Did your ancestors homestead?  Do you have family stories?  What was their life like?



  • I enjoyed reading this (and the previous) post about homesteading. My homesteading family settled in the Red River Valley of North Dakota, where the story of Yankee and European settlement is a complicated narrative about bonanza farms, the railroad, and homesteading (and always, politics, politics, politics. I told this story through fiction in my most recent novel, DAKOTA, OR WHAT’S A HEAVEN FOR. Although I can tell that you are in the midst of your own research, I think you might enjoy a quick glance at some of the photographs from late-19th century Dakota Territory that I have on my website. (If you want to see them all at once, just go to the bottom of the page and click on Photos and Permissions.) Good luck with your project!

  • Brenda,
    Thank you so much for your message. The pictures are great. Would love to know more about your sources. I am going to order your book. Sounds intriguing.
    You are right I am in the midst although I hope to publish this year. Thanks for your encouragement. Always helps.


    • Bev,
      I would be happy to talk about sources. I spent a couple of years just doing research before I began writing DAKOTA (the entire process, from beginning research to publication, took about 10 years), and continued the research throughout the writing and revising process: diaries, letters, scholarship, newspapers from the time of the novel on microfilm, museums and on an on. North Dakota State University runs an Institute for Regional Studies that has an amazing archive of photographs, and of course the state historical society was a great resource. I imagine that there are similar resources available to you in your states of interest. There is a (very partial) bibliography on my website that you might find useful: Regarding women homesteading, the Lindgrenn, Handy-Marchello, Lensink, and Young might be worth a look. You probably already know about some of these books; they are fascinating reading even if not immediately pertinent to your project.

      One other thought, regarding ordering my book: because DAKOTA was published by a university press, there was very little marketing done, and had it not been for Amazon, a wide readership would not have been possible. That said, they take 55% of the cost of the book off the top. Then the publisher gets its share. Then the agent, and THEN, the author. All of which is to say, if you purchase directly from the publisher (whether NDSU for cloth–and the beautiful cover by the scratchboard artist with an international reputation, Scott McKowen–or Untreed Reads for e-book or paper), more pennies go to the author. Ordering info is on my website. Again, thanks for your interest, and if you want to talk in more detail, please feel free to contact me directly by email. Happy reading and writing!

      • Hi Brenda,
        Thank you for the long and informative message. I have purchased your book from you website and I look forward to reading it. I am also going to follow-up on some of the resources. Some days it feels like I could continue doing more research forever. Thank you for sharing some of your sources and research.


  • Wow. What a story! The picture really helps. Seems like your family was literally hanging on.There must be a story behind why she did not get a widow’s pension.
    Nice job of research and well written.

  • Thanks for your message. I really appreciate your support. And yes there is a story behind not getting the widow’s pension. More to come.


So, what do you think?

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