Homesteaders in the 19th Century

By: Matt McClintock & Jay Tally

In the mid-1800s, expansion westward was a huge deal for the colonists in America. Many families wanted to move west because it offered much more land and new opportunity. They were considered a higher class in society if they owned land, and they also could start new lives and have more freedoms. What they didn't realize was the amount of setbacks they would have to deal with on the new land. The Homestead Act took effect in 1862, and colonists rushed out west to claim land for their families. They had to adjust their lifestyle to fit their new homes, as change for the colonists was inevitable. They had to build homes and survive with the little that they had. There were no stores or civilization around, so they were completely on their own. So, despite the change for a new life and new opportunities, some of the disadvantages that came along with it sparked problems with their new way of life.

In the mid nineteenth century, life on the prairie was politically reassuring for the settlers who moved west; however, despite their hopeful expectations, the problems that they faced in the Midwest at times outweighed the benefits of establishing a home on new land. (MM) (1)

The following image gives some insight as to what the Homestead Act of 1862 really was and did. (MM)

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This picture shows an actual application written by a man named Daniel Freeman. He was applying for land ownership. (2) (MM, infograph also by MM)

Location: ''The Middle of Nowhere''

The homesteaders moved to a place that had never been settled by modern day people before. People were going everywhere out west to get their plots of land, some settlers were going as far as Oregon. (3) (JT)
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This picture gives an idea as to how vast and plentiful this land in the west actually was. (MM)
The most successful areas for these settlers were on the prairie in the middle of the country (Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma). These prairies offered no wood for building a traditional house and the homesteaders couldn't afford to ship would from the east. The solution to this problem was to cut pieces of the earth and to pile them one on top of the other to make the sod house. This style of living was difficult in many areas. If a family member became sick it would take days for a doctor to reach them. During the winters the family would stay inside for long periods of time to give their best attempt (which often didn't work) to stay warm. The only time they would venture outside would be when they needed supplies. (JT)
This infograph shows some statistics about homesteading in the 1800s. It includes some fun facts along with some of the states that were included in homesteading. (infograph created by MM)

Construction of the Property

There was no wood for miles in the parts where people settled. They're solution was to make the homes out of whatever they found on the land. They would cut pieces of earth and build their small, one room houses. Sometimes, the houses the homesteaders built wouldn't even stay together. Problems with the house included: The weak roofs that were made of sod allowed precipitation to seep through and also for snakes to get in. Also, some plant life was used in the construction of the house. The problem with this was that grasshoppers and other insects were fully capable of taking over an entire house when they would eat the entire plant life used in the home. (JT)

Not only did the poor construction of the houses cause animals and small insects to invade, but the weak wall structures had no shelter from the weather. Temperature was constantly a problem. During the winter, if the temperature got low, the homesteaders were undoubtedly affected. Other than fire, there were few ways to stay warm. The inability to stay warm caused lots of health issues in the people. The weather and poor conditions caused disease in many people, sometimes leading to death. (5) (MM)

This video shows actual pictures of the sod houses and living quarters that homesteaders in the mid-1800s had to live in. The overall conditions of the houses were very poor, because all of the supplies used to construct the houses were scarce. (6) (MM)

Poor farming

Poor farming was a major problem on the prairie. Settlers could not have a steady food supply due to the poor soil that was offered to them. The land was dry which means that the seeds for the crops would not plant well and would blow away in the wind. Of course this dry land was caused by no rain. No rain means bad soil and no possible way for crops to grow. This poor soil and no trees to offer blockage from wind caused dust storms. These would cover the prairie and make it almost impossible to see when you went outside. This would also take away the top soil which makes worse conditions for crops. (7) (JT)

No law or order

The homesteaders pretty much had to build their own society from the ground up during the time. They even had to start new governments. No local government had excited in the area but local sheriffs had been appointed. These sheriffs were not meeting the standards they were supposed to and they could be just as bad or worse than bandits. During this time theft was also a problem. No authority gave way for many thefts from bandits. During the Oklahoma land rush people called ''sooners'' would camp out at a plot of land they wanted and would make it look like they had gotten there the same time everyone else did. If they were caught doing so they would be shot on sight. (8) (JT)

Little or no supplies

Since the homesteaders settled in the middle of nowhere there was nowhere to buy supplies or food. There was no wood or fuel to make a fire and there were no stores around the area. Living with close to no supplies was tough but the homesteaders made the most of it. A normal house would have two buckets, some crockery, and a cracked cup. There was also little water and food for the people also. (9) (JT)
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This small picture shows some of the supplies that the homesteaders showed up with on their new land. (MM)

Link to graph

file:///home/chronos/u-9bc2f8762e82f0b1b81244e9c04df722feeabb01/Downloads/graph%20(1).pdf (JT)
To sum things up, the homesteaders in the mid-1800s had many difficulties to face when they arrived on their new land out west. They were far away from civilization, meaning that supplies and food had to be taken care of on their own. They also faced problems with the weather as they had to build and live in small homes that were not very durable. Despite all of these problems and dilemmas, the homesteaders made the decision to find this new land. Politically, they were considered a higher class in society for owning more land. They also would benefit from the land's space and resources. In the eyes of the homesteaders, the incentive to leaving and finding new land was too great to pass up. Little did they know the intensity of their problems would be so great...

If it weren't for the homesteaders expanding westward in the mid-1800s, things in the United States would be very different than they are now. Land could still be owned by Indians or some other group of people. The homesteaders who valued land so much (for the money?) caused the value of land to still exist today. Even today, owning land is a quality of someone in a higher social class. The homesteaders of the 19th century contributed to this. Nonetheless, the difficulties faced by the homesteaders during those times were often discouraging. (MM)