The various Homestead acts, yes there were more than one, essentially gave an individual, called an applicant, ownership of land, with stipulations attached, without paying cash for it in the United States. The first act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. A person was given a grant for 160 acres or 65 hectares, which was considered a one quarter section.
People from all walks of life applied for the grants, and this included farmers from the eastern States that had moved west, single women and former slaves came to meet the challenge of “proving up” as well.
The requirements were that a homesteader had to live on the land, build a home, and make improvements and farm the land for 5 years before they were eligible to “prove up”. It cost 18 dollars for the filing fee and this was the total amount ever required.
The act was intended to encourage individual farm ownership. At the time if you were 21 years of age or older, and had never taken up arms against the United States then you were eligible. Women and freed slaves did take advantage of this act.
Following acts signed into law, such as the Timber Culture Act required a person to plant trees, but did not have a residency requirement, in other words, the applicant did not have to live on the land, only plant trees.
In 1904 the number of acres granted was increased to 640 for homesteaders settling in Western Nebraska. In 1916 an amendment to the previous act was passed to encourage applicants to raise livestock and the acreage granted was again 640 acres.
The Homestead Act remained in effect until it was repealed in 1976, with provisions for homesteading in Alaska until 1986 (National Park Service, 2015).
Today it is considered a lifestyle, one of self-sufficiency. You would of course need to be well versed in agriculture, food preservation, butchering, hunting, and in some cases, you would make your own clothing, school your children, make tools, and do extensive craftwork and have other “trade skills” to make things for home use and for selling.
Even homesteaders need cash flow, so marketable skills pertaining to the lifestyle are ideal for anyone considering moving to a rural area to lessen their dependency on a municipality.
Renewable energy sources are important for homesteaders, such as solar, wind, hydro and even wood. Homesteaders would use heirloom seeds, for example, so they could harvest the seeds from plants for the next growing season, ensuring a self-sustaining food source for generations to come.
Homesteading is not necessarily defined by where someone lives today, but by the lifestyle choices he or she makes. In the past a homesteader might be isolated socially and geographically, because federal lands were in remote areas, out west as it were.
A homesteader and their family in the 1800’s, for example, may not encounter another human being for months or even years at a time, in some cases. It was hard work, back breaking work in fact, and Nature was cruel to many, but some made it and others did not make the five year mark.
To homestead in suburbia today would be difficult to say the least. Many cities and towns have codes and laws that govern how homes are to be built and how they are connected to electrical, sewer and water sources, and so there are limits to how independent you can actually become.
You probably could not dig or drill your own well or put up a windmill to draw water from deep in the ground. The lot would probably not be big enough to provide a family with daily sustenance, let alone have enough surpluses for preservation or for selling. Livestock is usually not permitted to be kept or raised within most city limits, so fresh meat would likely have to be provided by local retailers.
Green energy is the new buzzword, and yet many municipalities make it difficult to erect, or outright ban wind turbines. There are laws governing solar panels, and mini hydro plants would be out of the question in most suburban neighborhoods. The burning of wood in fireplaces and wood stoves is even regulated in some areas.
You can of course move out of the cities and towns, but today there is no longer a homestead act, so any land you settle on would have to be purchased by you, before you settle. Once on the property, and not governed by codes or laws that are pervasive in towns and communities, you could, however essentially homestead in the traditional sense of the word.
Would You Save Money If You Homestead?
When someone homesteads they typically want to give up social and governmental support systems if favor of self-reliance. With the right mindset, and this includes the mindset of every member of the family, you can break free.
The degree of independence is determined by you, and sometimes by other family members. Medical needs, the need for social interaction, and the need for certain goods and services you cannot provide for yourself will require homesteaders to have a financial game plan. You need cash flow in other words, and this means you cannot sever the connection completely.
Some homesteaders have a leg up, so to speak, because they come to the lifestyle after or during successful careers. This means often times, they have the financial resources to purchases farm equipment, solar panels, generators, windmills, and more importantly, they can afford to buy the land they choose to live on. Keep in mind there will always be taxes, maintenance on equipment and housing upkeep that will require money.
The savings come from lower material costs, in most cases. This does not necessarily mean a lower standard of living, but a different standard of living, because there will be less material things needed.
You will learn conservation methods, food scraps will turn into fertilizer, for example, and clothing will be mended instead of replaced. You will likely eat healthier, if not better by eating fresh produce and farm raised or hunted meats. Best of all, the lifestyle overall is much more rewarding for most people.
If you were to step back and look at the homestead movement, if it can even be called a movement, you might say it is a back-to-the land-movement, which according to historians can be traced back to the Roman Era.
Cities go up and people from the country migrate there looking for a better life, and more financial opportunities. The next generation however, looks around and says we need to move back to the land, back to our roots, and stop giving so much over to the cities and towns, and so as it has for thousands of years, the cycle continues.
National Park Service. (2015, October 10). Retrieved 2015, from http://www.nps.gov/home/learn/historyculture/abouthomesteadactlaw.htm