Western guidebooks described the plains area as a place with little water or firewood. But when the Homestead Act of 1862 was declared, even these dire descriptions couldn’t discourage settlers looking for a better way of life.
- Anyone was allowed to claim a tract of 160 acres. The rules stated that homesteaders must build a house and live on the land for at least five years. After five years, the land would be theirs.
- Railroad companies also sold the land around the railways cheaply because they wanted settlers to build towns along the railways. These towns would provide customers for the railroads.
- Speculators bought land and then resold it. They advertised the land in European newspapers, drawing immigrants from England, Germany, and Holland.
- Homesteading life was very difficult. Summers were often long and hot; winters were bitterly cold. Droughts and insects ruined crops. In 1884, huge swarms of grasshoppers ate all the crops.
- Many of the homesteaders lived in houses made from sod, thick layers of decomposing prairie grasses cut out of the soil. These houses were dark and damp, but they were cheap and relatively quick to build. Homesteaders had to break up the sod before they could plant crops anyway.
- Improvements in farm technology allowed homesteaders to prosper in spite of harsh conditions. John Deere invented a plow that could cut through sod. Windmills drew water from deep in the ground. Farmers grew a new type of wheat that could survive bitter winter weather.
- In 1889, in the Oklahoma District, at the firing of a gun, thousands of people were allowed to rush into open land, claiming their stake. At day’s end, 50,000 people had staked about two million acres of land.
- By 1890, there was no more land to be claimed. The Western frontier was closed. Frederick Jackson Turner, an American historian, said that the homesteading movement had created independent, self-reliant people that understood and defended democracy.
- Frontier: an area of land that is unsettled
- Dire: dismal, troubling, dangerous
- Speculator: someone who buys land or other products with the goal of selling them for a profit
Questions and Answers
Question: Did the homesteading movement benefit everyone?
Answer: The Homesteading Act drew millions of people to America. Hardworking farmers eventually turned the desolate plains area into a fertile “bread basket,” an area known for its grain crops. These crops fed (and continue to feed today) Americans. But the Homesteading Act ended the days of cattle grazing over large expanses of open ground. As farmers fenced in their lands, ranchers were forced to keep their cattle in smaller areas and the days of the cattle drives ended. Native Americans were driven by the thousands off their homelands and forced onto small reservations.
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