On May 20th, 1862, the Homestead Act was passed, which allowed heads of households and adults at least 21 years old to claim 160 acres of land that had once been in the public domain. A total of 270 million acres, or 10% of the United States was settled under the Homestead Act. In Idaho, 60,221 homestead claims were filed, making a total of 9,733,455 acres settled, or 18% of the state’s land.
A unique aspect of the Act was that minority groups could claim land, including women, former slaves, and immigrants. Claimants were only required to pay an $18 filing fee and had to spend the next 5 years “proving up” the land by living there and building a home. The land may have been practically free, but time, hard work, and trials went hand-in-hand with homesteading, and they could be staggering obstacles. Claims were on unsettled land, so depending on the area where people filed their claim, they would have to clear trees, find water for crops (assuming that the land claimed was even suitable for farming, which much of it was not), fight insects, animals, drought and loneliness. There are many personal accounts of homesteaders around the nation and their experiences—a great online account is the Library of Congress’s Prairie Settlement: Nebraska Photographs and Family Letters, 1862-1912. This collection tells the story of the Oblinger family in Nebraska and their efforts to prove up their homestead claim; it is also a great collection that offers an opportunity to see women’s lives on the Nebraska plains, and the dynamics of 19th Century courtship through personal letters and accounts. Other accounts include:
- Homesteading Legacies, a compilation of stories about various homesteaders and descendants of homesteaders.
- Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart. It’s an account of a woman and the letters she writes to her former employer detailing her life on the ranch.
- My Antonia by Willa Cather. Fictional account of a bohemian family homesteading on the Nebraskan plains.
In addition to these resources, check out the resources available on the Bureau of Land Management’s website about the history of the Homestead Act.
Come back next week for accounts on homesteading in Idaho, and please feel free to share your stories about past family members who homesteaded. Email Brandi Burns, and your story could be featured here!
Have a question about Boise’s history? Ask a Historian.