The Life of a Homesteader

A pioneer family posing outside their sod and mud home in the late 19th century.
... Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1862, the U.S. Congress passed an act that transformed the nation and provided thousands with a new opportunity. The Homestead Act granted 160 acres of essentially free land to anyone over 21 years of age who could pay a small filing fee and complete a series of housing requirements within five years. From its passage until 1900, more than 400,000 people migrated west to take advantage of the act. However, life on the frontier was difficult, and one-third of homesteaders gave up before the five years were over.

1 Living Under the Homestead Act of 1862

To secure their claim under the Homestead Act, settlers needed to dig a well, build a road and build a house at least 10-by-12 feet with one glass window within five years. With limited resources and the monumental task of taming the prairie into a productive farm, homesteaders often waited several weeks to begin building a home. When they finally built shelter, they typically used sod, the dense roots and dirt of prairie grasses. Sod homes, typically only one to three rooms in size, were dark, damp, and prone to insect infestation and flooding. When families could afford to upgrade to wooden homes, they did, especially after the transcontinental railroad improved settlers' access to materials. Homesteaders were required to dig a well, but sometimes well-water was not potable. Settlers sometimes traveled miles to haul water back home or resorted to collecting rainwater, which they used and reused, sharing bathwater and literally licking plates clean. Outhouses were spartan and unsanitary, often infested with insects and filled with unbearable stench.

2 Challenging Life on the Plains

The life of a homesteader was unpredictable and challenging. Earning a living by farming was unreliable when summer droughts and insect infestations destroyed crops. Harsh winters brought vicious blizzards that killed livestock and isolated families. Yet settlers proved ingenious, resourceful and determined. They repurposed empty barrels into rocking chairs and upended trunks into closets, built sleeping shelves of scrapwood, made mattresses out of prairie grass or buffalo fur, and burned grass and corn husks for fuel. They farmed and harvested the majority of their food, supplementing when they could with goods from a mail-order catalog or a trip to the general store. To survive the winter months or crop failures, homesteaders cured and smoked meat and canned and pickled vegetables and fruits. The homesteader life was a constant struggle to ensure survival in the months and years to come.

3 Women on the Plains

Homesteading could be especially challenging for women. Charged with maintaining the home, women swept dirt floors and constantly worked cooking and preserving foods, in addition to caring for children and helping their husbands with the farm. Women often felt isolated and some lacked social interaction. Still, the west offered women more opportunities. Single or widowed women could take advantage of the Homestead Act themselves, and many did. According to some reports, women counted for up to 12 percent of homesteaders in the Rocky Mountain states. Moreover, many western states granted women the right to vote decades prior to the passage of the 19th amendment, which extended suffrage to all American women.

4 Building a Community on the Plains

Life as a homesteader was often incredibly lonely, boring and tiresome. Sometimes separated from others by dozens of miles, homesteaders depended upon reading books, newspapers and catalogs for entertainment. Families anxiously waited the mail, often delivered irregularly, so they could read the next episode of a serial story out loud to one another. Homesteaders also turned labor into fun, community-building activities. Men gathered together for barn-raisings, women participated in quilting bees, and everyone joined together for corn-husking. In the spring and summer, homesteaders gathered for picnics and dances. As more homesteaders settled in a particular area, they created schools, churches, libraries and fraternal organizations, as well as less wholesome establishments like saloons, all of which helped build community and bring life to the frontier.

Based in Dallas, Exa von Alt has been working in education and the social sciences for nearly 10 years. Her lesson plans are published on the University of Oklahoma's K20ALT website and she has written several entries in "American Centuries: The Ideas, Issues, and Trends that Made U.S. History"(MTM Publishing). Exa von Alt holds a Master of Arts in history from the University of Illinois at Chicago.