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A History of the Term "Homesteader"
I’m beginning this channel out of a series of questions I have had about the homesteading movement. And I believe the best place to start may be by defining the term ‘homesteader’.
‘Homesteader’ is a word that means different things to different people, its definition broad and fluctuating, and outside of our community people have many (often unflattering) assumptions about what the word says about the people who use it.
The term comes from The Homestead Act, signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, granting every US citizen aged 21 or older and a head of household 160 acres for a minimal filing fee. It was intended to fulfill Lincoln’s wishes that “…the wild lands of the country should be distributed so that every man should have the means and opportunity of benefiting his condition.”
Once granted the land, the only stipulation for the new homesteader was to improve what they had been given. The homesteader was to farm the land continuously for five years and build a home there. Praised by President John F. Kennedy in 1962 as “probably the single greatest stimulus to national development ever enacted”, the Homestead Act was responsible for 270 million acres or 10%, of the American West being settled by more than 2 million homesteaders.
The use of the word homesteader rose steadily throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, though today we tend to use words like “settler” and “pioneer” to refer to those that went West during that time. Just as today, the word would illicit a different emotional response depending on your audience. To the cowboys already adventuring in the “wild west” the word homesteader was used a bit like “welfare queen” was in the 1990s — someone using a government handout to get what the cowboys considered themselves to have worked for. To many Eastern audiences, a homesteader was synonymous both with dreams and with loss, a path taken by those with stars in their eyes that almost inevitably ended in tragedy. And to others, it meant the ultimate freedom:
He gives to the soil all of the strength of the years;
The soil springs to life at his hand,
And slowly the desolate waste disappears,
And bounties from God crown the land.
With those he may cherish and love,
The homesteader watches the comforts increase
Which are showered on him from above.
— from the 1914 poem “The Homesteader” by Earl Alonzo Brimstool
This western migration of homesteaders and their apparent rights to 160 acres also chipped away at what little land the United States government had left to the Native Americans, who no doubt did not care if they were homesteaders, settlers, or pioneers — they were simple land thieves. American Indians were among a very small group of people who could not take advantage of the Act, which remarkably for the time allowed women, widows, and African Americans as well as anyone who was pursuing US citizenship the right to homestead.
By the 1930s, the number of pioneers following the Homestead Act to western lands had slowed to a trickle. The act would eventually be repealed in 1976 (provisions remained for Alaska until 1986). The use of the term fell out of favor — after all, the 1920s saw the expansion of cities and the draw of sparkling lights and the glamorous life of flappers and jazz brought people back to urban areas. Then the 1930s saw the Great Depression and Dust Bowl end the homestead movement with economic struggle and starvation.
The Dust Bowl was the all inclusive term given to the drought and subsequent dust storms that enveloped the American Midwest in the 1930s. Like todays’ severe weather, there were some natural phenomenon at play (severe, unexpected drought) which were exacerbated by irresponsible human practices. You see, thanks to the Homestead Act the Midwest was a series of 160 acre plots of land that had been cultivated aggressively by inexperienced farmers, farmers following an idiom of “rain follows the plow” and turning up every section of grassland that they could.
In fact many of these farmers had begun as cattle farmers, then moved to plowing and cultivating their land after overgrazing became a problem. Cultivation expanded throughout the early 1900s because of the demands of the First World War and the decrease of farming elsewhere in the world. By 1930 there was no layer of topsoil to protect the loose, dry soil of the Midwest from wind storms. A drought began and failed crops meant more loose soil that blew up in “black blizzards” that lasted for days and buried homesteads. Homesteaders died from dust inhalation and starvation; and by 1940 3.5 million people had fled the Great Plains.
This did no good for the reputation of the word ‘homesteader’. Homesteaders fleeing starvation carried only a few possessions and the clothes on their backs, and faced discrimination. No one wanted to move West and forge their own fortunes, even for 160 free acres. And it could be argued that the homesteaders eager use of their land caused their own crisis.
The word, and the lifestyle, fell out of favor.
And then in the late 1960s and 1970s, the homestead movement began again. The acres weren’t free from the government anymore, but dream of cultivating a life from soil and hard work began to gain in popularity again.
The motivation of 1960s and 70s homesteaders is slightly less clear than in 1862. The trend was borne out of the counterculture movement and protests of the Vietnam War. To “drop out” or be counterculture, a new culture or society had to be created. And to create that, a little homesteading was necessary.
Many 1960s homesteaders focused on ‘community sufficiency’ rather than self sufficiency, designing self contained societies within the larger country. These communes were often led by a charismatic figure, and more than few made headlines in dramatic failure. Nevertheless, plenty of communes quietly faded or even survive today without a headline grabbing tragedy.
And some people chose to become self sufficient, stepping outside of all societies. These people spearheaded the back-to-the-land movement. As the Vietnam War continued, new challenges faced our nation including the energy crisis, Watergate Scandal, and fears about pollution and safe drinking water. And as faith in the government declined, a desire to live off the grid increased.
Helen and Scott Nearing had been homesteading in rural Vermont since 1932, in an effort to live “sanely and simply in a troubled world”. Their book, Living The Good Life, was first published in 1954 but was republished in 1970 and sparked a furor in the counterculture movement — more than 50,000 copies were sold in a single year. Many other homesteading books inspired people to return to the land, The Mother Earth News magazine entered print in 1970 and the Whole Earth Catalog was in regular circulation from 1968 to 1972.
The homesteading movement of the 1960s and 70s was so popular that it was reflected in census statistics at the time. More than a million people practiced an agrarian lifestyle, and the movement among statisticians was called ‘turnaround migration’. A 1975 New York Times article speaks of the movement with curiosity:
“The movement is deeply antagonistic to the American, economic system, whose adherents it sees as controlled by unbridled corporate power, corrupted with surfeit and crazed by an impulse to consume and throw away more and more. faster and faster.”
The article points out some common features among the back-to-the-landers. They are almost all young, and the majority have not achieved self sufficiency but instead rely on money from the wealthy or upper middle class families from which they came. And interestingly, the article calls those tiling the soil for a living farmers (however small their farm), and only those with a cabin in the woods are referred to as “homesteaders”.
The 1975 New York Times article says that by 1980, the back-to-the-land movement would account for a “substantial part of the growing rural population”. However, by the 1980s the movement had stalled out. Maybe the back-to-the-landers were overcome by the challenges of living outside of normal society. Raising children off grid presented new tests. And unlike in the late 1800s, in the latter half of the Twentieth Century it was all too easy to turn on a TV and see what you were missing out on in the hustle and bustle of city life.
But more than any of these factors, the back-to-the-land movement was ended by the 1980s farming crisis. Communes and self sufficient homesteaders here and there survived, but anyone hoping to glean a traditional living out of the land or trying to cash in on the movement with a small farm was put to the test by a combination of a grain embargo, steep land price fluctuations, and drought. In Iowa, 1983 public farm auctions were at 500 a month and by the end of the decade 300,000 farmers had defaulted on their loans (source: Iowa PBS).
While many directly affected by the farming crisis were larger farms, not homesteads, the failure of rural communities during the crisis created a rural exodus. According to Iowa PBS, for every four farms that failed a rural business would fail, creating an environment difficult to live in even if you were not a farmer. And just as the homesteaders fleeing the Dust Bowl were perceived as dirty hicks by their urban peers, farmers in the 1980s began to be regarded as poor businessmen and ‘hayseeds’.
There were homesteaders when I started down this lifestyle path in 2015, just as there were plenty of homesteaders in between the 1930s and the 1960s. But in 2020 the number of people living rurally or attempting to be self sufficient jumped again.
The cause this time was not a mystery. A global pandemic and its ensuing lockdowns made people consider things like prepping and survival in emergency situations. What was your plan if the global supply chain was disrupted? For some this meant starting a small garden and maybe getting a few chickens, for others it mean a full scale devotion to a prepared lifestyle. Out of the city, into the country, growing all your own food and canning and baking became trendy again. Even in the 2020 census rural populations were increasing, and a 2022 study by University of New Hampshire demographer Ken Johnson indicated that in spite of higher death rates due to Covid-19, roughly a third of rural counties gained population between 2020 and 2021.
Modern day homesteaders have their own motivations and goals. Just as the back-to-the-landers were distinct from the Homestead Act homesteaders, today’s movement is motivated and acted upon differently, and faces its own challenges in outside perception. One thing does seem consistent from the 1960s, however. Homesteading is often considered an act of political defiance. To become self sufficient is to thumb one’s nose as the government that tries to provide for you — or control you, as the case may be.
According to Anneli Carter-Sundqvist’s A Homesteader’s Year on Deer Isle (2014) “Perhaps one of the most common motivations to homestead is to gain a sense of security over basic needs such as food, water, shelter and finances – especially when facing an uncertain future.”
There’s no question that today we face uncertainty in the world around us. Our climate is changing and the pandemic brought to light previously unconsidered fears. But is homesteading truly an act of political resistance? Or is it the last refuge of the fearful? In the upcoming essays we will look at Homesteading as an act of political resistance and consider the modern day motivations to homestead.
Note: back-to-the-land movements have much more history than these peaks and valleys. There are examples of more urban back-to-the-land efforts in the early 20th Century, the agrarian dreams of Thoreau long before the Homestead Act, and European movements before then. This essay focuses on the times that agrarian movements have associated themselves with the word “homesteader”.
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