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Have you ever heard the phrase there’s no such thing as a free lunch? Well, it turns out that there is no such thing as free land, either. The Homesteaders, farmers who took advantage of a government policy called the Homestead Act, found that out the hard way. Beginning in the 1860s, they moved West on a promise of land to settle on. The impact they had on America's colonization is one of the greatest legacies in U.S. history of resilience and independence.

The Homestead Act


The definition of a Homesteader comes originally from the mid-1800s and takes its name from a law called the Homestead Act, which allowed people to settle in the "unoccupied" West to cultivate the land. It promoted the American ideal of self-reliance and, to this day, denotes the self-sustained agrarian lifestyle in the United States, and other places, like Canada and Australia.

Homestead Act History

homesteaders, history & definition, StudySmarter

The Homestead Act. Source: The United States Postal Service (Public Domain). Wikimedia Commons.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law. The Homestead Act was a government policy that allowed future farmers to gain land through government funding and build farms from scratch.

There are several aspects that make this significant. The first is that this happened after the Southern States began to secede from the Union. The second is that this brand-new way of distributing land led to over 10% of American territory being settled by U.S. citizens. This leads to another significant aspect: the Homestead Act allowed women and immigrants to become landowners.

The original Homestead Act allowed Americans to settle on land in the Great Plains. Homesteaders headed west, displacing indigenous people who had their settlements on the Plains. Homesteaders had hoped to find financial security through farming and protection from the U.S. Government.

The Great Plains

The name Great Plains describes a large area of grassland in the central part of the United States. The Great Plains run from Canada in the north to Texas in the South. They are bordered by the Rocky Mountains and Appalachian Plateau. One-third of the continental United States is made up of the Great Plains.

Despite its name, the Great Plains are not all flat. There are rolling hills, mountains, valleys, and gorges. The climate is warm in the summer and cold in the winter.

Part of the Great Plains, nicknamed Tornado Alley, has the highest number of tornadoes a year in the United States.

Homesteading in American History

The Homestead Act

The Homestead Act of 1862 granted parcels of land to farmers. The Federal Government gave 160 aces to those who applied for the land and agreed to work the land for five years.

To apply for the Homestead Act

  • You had to be an adult citizen or an adult intended citizen.
  • You never fought in a war against the U.S. government.
  • You had to agree to live on the plot of land for a minimum of five years.
  • You had to promise to cultivate the land.

Problems with the Homestead Act

Few farmers and laborers could afford to claim land under the Homestead Act. Not only was there a filing fee, but tools, livestock, and seed were expensive for those hoping to escape poverty by farming.

The low entrance requirements did however allow a good deal of fraud to take place. Land went to cattle owners, miners, loggers, and railroad companies. There were few people who could investigate the claims, which made it easier to defraud the government.

Many of the homesteaders were new to homesteading and had not farmed before. Learning how to build and run a farm was part of becoming a homesteader in the Great Plains.

Women Homesteaders

Those claiming the land included women. It is thought that anywhere between 5 to 20% of claims in North Dakota were filed by women.

Lifestyle of Homesteaders

Homesteaders of America

Homesteaders moved west to the land they claimed from the Government. They found that life there was far more difficult than expected. Many homesteaders were new to farming and had to learn how to cultivate the land. The Homestead act encouraged settlement in the Great Plains, with the majority of settlers ending up in the Dakotas, Kansas, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Nebraska.

Homesteaders, Great Plains Nebraska, StudySmarterGreat Plains, Nebraska. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Challenges facing homesteaders

The natural environment of the Great Plains provided lots of challenges for those looking to farm there. Some common challenges for Homesteaders include

  • Grasshoppers destroying crops
  • Prairie fires
  • Ice storms
  • Tornadoes
  • Blizzards
  • Little access to water and lumber
  • Little knowledge of farming and having to learn how to raise crops and animals

The Difficult Life of a Homesteader

It turns out that farming on the Great Plains was not as simple as it was made out to be. Homesteading was tough work! Many had to learn how to farm. The initial homesteaders had been lucky when they settled in the Great Plains –they just happened to settle during a particularly rainy season–. The land desperately needed infrastructure for watering crops. When the climate naturally transitioned into a drier season, many of the homesteaders gave up and moved somewhere else.

Financial Challenges

Homesteaders spent very little money on their land. The government funding allowed them to get the land for free, and essentially all they had to pay were fees. However, the expenses related to all the other parts of running a farm were hard to pay. Homesteaders had to pay for animals and their feed. They had to create fencing and purchase seeds and fertilizer. They had to build wells and wagons.

Homesteaders were taken advantage of by railroad companies who overcharged them for lumber and livestock.

Over time, homesteaders began to produce more and more. While this sounds great, it actually made their financial woes worse. As the supply went up, demand went down. Profits from food and livestock went down.


The first homes were made of mud and sod, with thatch roofs. Homes were made out of earthen materials because there was little lumber in the area. When the inconsistent rain came, it made it hard for homesteaders to stay warm and dry in their homes.

Sod: a piece of the ground covered in grass and roots.

Thatch roof: a roof made of leaves, straw, or reeds.

The End of the Homestead Act

Homesteaders of the America West

The Taylor Grazing Act, enacted in 1934, regulated livestock grazing on federal land. This really complicated life for homesteaders.

The Homestead Act was repealed in 1976, after nearly 125 years of helping American citizens become landowners. Over 10% of the United States was settled by the Homestead Act. There were over four million land claims in thirty states. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act was enacted to keep public land under the control of the Federal Government. After this, the only place homesteading was allowed was Alaska until the 1980s.

However, the settled land was not unoccupied land. Native Americans had occupied the land prior to it being settled by Homestead farmers. As a result, Native Americans were forced onto reservations.

Did you know? Homestead National Park in Nebraska is located where the first claim under the Homestead Act was established.

Southern Homestead Act

The Southern Homestead Act was passed in 1866, four years after the original Homestead Act encouraged white homesteaders to farm in the Great Plains. The Southern Homestead Act was an extension of the original act.

The Southern Homestead Act was passed on the heels of the Civil War in an attempt to reduce the unfair effects of slavery by helping former slaves gain access to their own land.

Initially, former slaves were able to claim up to 80 acres of land from the government. In 1867, the government opened the program to Southern whites. In 1868, applicants were able to claim up to 160 acres.

The Southern Homestead Act was as flawed as its predecessor. Former slaves were unable to afford the application fees. Southern whites discouraged sharing information about the homesteading program to keep former slaves as sharecroppers on white land. Lastly, the actual land itself was inadequate –a lot of the land being utilized by the program was located in forests or swamps.

Homesteaders: A Summary

The Homestead Act of 1662 encouraged homesteaders to migrate to the Great Plains for farming. Farming in the Great Plains was generally difficult and expensive, complicating life for farmers who thought they would be able to use the government land grants to escape poverty.

To apply for the land, you had to be an adult citizen (or intended citizen) who never fought against the U.S. Government in a war. In exchange for 160 acres of land, future homesteaders had to promise to live on the plot of land, improve it, and farm it for a minimum of five years. While this sounds great, it was deceptively expensive. Farmers had to pay filing fees on top of the money they had to spend to build a farm from scratch.

Life for homesteaders was quite difficult. Not all of the land was great for farming as there were irrigation issues. Grasshoppers and locusts often destroyed cross, as did fires. Crops could be wiped out by a tornado, ice storm, or blizzard. There was little access to lumber for building structures on the land.

The Homestead act was repealed in 1976, however, the policy allowed for some land in Alaska to be available for homesteading until the 1980s.

Homesteaders, facts and history, StudySmarter

The Great Plains. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Homesteaders - Key takeaways

  • The Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged settlers to migrate to the Great Plains for farming.
  • Homesteaders faced a variety of expenses as they build farms from scratch.
  • Farming was not only expensive, but it was hard work. There were numerous challenges for farmers from the insects to the weather.
  • There was improper infrastructure for crop irrigation and little lumber for building.
  • This practice of incentivizing the population and farming of "unoccupied" land lasted more than a century in the United States, being Alaska the last state to offer land through this program.

Frequently Asked Questions about Homesteaders

Homesteaders moved west to take advantage of a government policy allowing them to claim land to farm. 

The program was ended in 1976. The last homesteads were settled in Alaska in the 1980s. 

Life for Homesteader in the West was hard. They had to learn how to farm and there were a lot of factors outside of their control that could lead to their crops being destroyed. 

Final Homesteaders Quiz


The name of the policy authorized by President Lincoln aimed at helping farmers settle the west was called 

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The Homeowners Act 

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When was the Homestead Act passed?

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Which of the following factors made the Homestead Act significant? 

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The legislation was passed after southern states began to secede from the union.

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True or False: The Homestead Act allowed Americans to settle on land in the Great Plains. 

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How much land did the Homestead Act give to farmers? 

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80 acres

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You could apply for the Homestead Act if...

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You were an adult citizen or intended citizen

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True or false: The minimal requirements for the Homestead Act allowed for a great deal of fraud to take place. 

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True or False: Up to 20% of claimants were women.

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Upon moving to their homesteads, farmers found that 

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harvesting crops on their new land was easy

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One of the reasons homesteading was so difficult was that 

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It was surprisingly expensive to farm

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When was the Homestead Act repealed? 

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