Historical and Modern Homesteading
by Kate Esposito
Homesteading, or living
off the land, will never be seen as a particularly modern lifestyle; many
dedicated homesteaders trade their iPods and HDTVs for rain buckets and trowels.
However, it is interesting to note that homesteading -- as it's thought of today
-- is a relatively new practice that has greatly evolved over the past several
How Homesteading Started in the United States
The original homesteading movement started in this country in 1862 when
President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act. The Act gave people 160 to 640 acres
of free land if they met the following requirements:
• They had to file an application to be considered.
• They had to agree to improve the land, usually by building a structure on it.
• They had to file to get an official deed of title.
Virtually anyone was eligible to become a homesteader (including women and freed
slaves) as long as they had never fought against the U.S Government. This
provision helped exclude anyone who served in the British Army -- a huge source
of contention at this period in history.
These first homesteaders were, for the most part, simple farmers. They were more
worried about putting food on the table for their families than building a
sustainable lifestyle. In fact, many damaged the earth by trying to keep water,
lumber, and nutrient-rich soil all to themselves. They dammed up streams,
extracted oil illegally, and claimed land in the names of children who had no
desire to tend it. It's said that irresponsible homesteading actually
contributed to the Dust Bowl by causing mass erosion.
Sadly, if you are looking to claim free land today, you are at least two decades
too late. The Homestead Act is no longer in practice in any of the 50 states. It
was essentially replaced by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976
which ceded almost all unclaimed land to the federal government. Alaska, with
its thousands of acres of virtually unused land, kept homesteading alive until
1986 to attract more residents, but it does not offer up land today. The last
claim was finalized in 1988.
Back to the Land
The second homesteading movement came about in the 1970s, when Americans became
more environmentally and socially conscious. During this time tens of thousands
of people -- the majority young adults -- fled cities and suburbia for more
rural areas of the country.
Unlike the original homesteaders, these people didn't get their land for free.
Most had to start with small farms of less than 20 acres instead of sizable
estates. These homesteaders endeavored to be self-sufficient by selling produce
and handmade goods to make ends meet. Some succeeded, but most didn't and ended
up moving back to the concrete within 5, 10, or 15 years.
The two main sources of the long-term failure of this movement were monetary and
relationship problems. It's not surprising that the people who stayed on their
plots for good tended to be married or in committed relationships and had some
experience with farming or rural living before they set out.
Imagine leaving your entire livelihood behind to live on a tiny farm with
someone you just met, a dollar in your pocket, and a bag of beanstalk seeds. You
have no electricity, no water, and just a vague idea of what to do.
Congratulations -- you’ve just won a return trip ticket to the city.
Today's homesteaders have more in common with the second generation than the
first, yet they are exponentially more prepared. The main difference between
today's homesteaders and the back-to-the-
earthers is that modern homesteaders
are not usually making a social statement against cities, but instead embrace
homesteading for their own reasons. Many live on farms but there are good
numbers of them in cities, suburbs, and anywhere in between. Most have a strong
interest in the environment and the outdoors, forming communities and living on
and depending on less.
Advances in engineering -- such as solar heaters, wind turbines, and hydroponic
gardening -- keep modern homesteaders comfortable, and they have more employment
options than putting up a produce stand. The Internet makes it possible for them
to set up all kinds of businesses from wherever they live and provides a
powerful networking tool to connect them to other homesteaders.
Homesteaders that live in urban areas can grow produce on roofs or in backyards.
Many live off-grid while still in the confines of a city block or townhouse. The
high price of gasoline and of food makes the practice more viable and
economically sensible at this time than ever before. Now instead of being apart
from society, homesteaders have created their own niche within it.