Study Guide

Homestead Act Themes

By Congress

  • Manifest Destiny

    This one's a gimme. If we’re talking any form of westward expansion in the mid to late 19th century, we’re talking Manifest Destiny. The land was only put there so the U.S. could conquer it, after all.*

    (*Sarcasm.)

    The adventurous spirit of the American was blatantly played upon in the propaganda around the Homestead Act. Be bold. Be adventurous. Go forth and seek your own fortune in the wilds of the West. There was a persistent idea that the true American could saunter into the wilderness and make a go of it all by their lonesome and that free land from the benevolent government was just the ticket.

    Besides all the advantages of cleaning out the cities and slums by moving settlers out yonder, it was a God-given right in most Americans’ minds that the West would be settled. The Homestead Act was the perfect vessel to start that long-term process.

    Hey, offer free land out West and over time, 10% of the government-held land gets settled through about four million claims. In other words, keep those wagons rollin’.

    Questions About Manifest Destiny

    1. How was the country changed geographically and spiritually opening the frontier to settlers?
    2. If you’ve left home and civilization to head to the Wild West and make your fortune, is there a band of brothers type mentality with other settlers that folks back home just wouldn’t understand?
    3. How do settlers, motivated by a directive from God and enabled by the government and the Homestead Act, react when things go horribly wrong, like disease or injury?

    Chew on This

    If God intended the U.S. to spread across the continent, opening the West to homesteaders was a pretty good start.

    The U.S. must only have been able to seize land from Mexico and Native Americans if it was intended by God to be settled by Americans.

  • Equality

    Sure, there's a lot to be said about how the Homestead Act was iffy…but it's still absolutely amazing that a legal document about land rights in the mid-19th century was so focused on granting those rights equally.

    Especially considering the bulk of the focus was on fighting a bloody conflict.

    But, the Homestead Act did indeed allow for men, women, freed slaves, and immigrants to partake of the joys of homesteading. Sure, restrictions like age and citizenship, not to mention a lack of traitorous activities, applied, but otherwise, this was one of the most egalitarian doctrines of its time.

    Questions About Equality

    1. Do you think there was any advantage or disadvantage to a being female or Black homesteader?
    2. Being out in the wilderness, a homesteader needs to rely on their closest neighbors. Would prejudice from the cities cause problems with people of different genders and races who were all trying to eke a living in the West?
    3. How does a law meant for equality in owning federal land exclude a very specific group of people, like say, Native Americans already living there?
    4. Did all-Black towns, like Nicodemus in Kansas, which formed from neighboring homesteads, defeat the spirit of the law by becoming targets for racism?

    Chew on This

    Congress wouldn’t let women or freed Blacks vote…but they started down the right path by writing the Homestead Act broadly enough that they could at least own a homestead (with certain provisos).

    Equality runs right through the Homestead Act, provided we’re only talking about potential citizens of the U.S. and not those of older nations who might just already be living on land out West.

  • Perseverance

    Perseverance isn't directly thematic, but the spirit of the Homestead Act and its guidelines make it clear that a homesteader needed perseverance in spades. The journey out West itself was an exercise in endurance…and that’s even before the requirement of spending five years out in the sticks improving the land and trying to live off it.

    Not to mention that the land rushes, where thousands of people rushed and jockeyed for the best land the second the territory opened, were liable to turn deadly at the drop of a hat. Yep, a settler had to be of hardy stock both physically and mentally to pull off homesteading. This is why only 40 percent of homesteaders who filed a claim made it to the big payoff. (Source)

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. What kind of setbacks could a homesteader face that made perseverance a critical trait?
    2. Why was the minimum requirement five years? Why not three or seven?
    3. Does the requirement of five years indicate a belief in the American spirit from Congress?
    4. Could anyone prepare for the mental, physical, and emotional toll homesteading took? How?

    Chew on This

    Only 40 proved of homestead claims were "proved," but that’s still over one million determined Americans who managed to persevere in the face of danger, disease, and disaster.

    Five years, countless hours of backbreaking toil, and constant problems from weather or neighbors all add up to one fact: Homesteaders were pretty boss.

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