In May 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act, which
declared that any citizen of the United States could claim
160 acres of surveyed government land, most of it west
of the Mississippi. After payment of a nominal filing
fee, homesteaders were to "improve" their land by living
on it, building a dwelling, and planting crops. If the
settlers fulfilled these requirements, and stayed on the
land for a period of five years, the land became their
property. However, the Act's seemingly lenient requirements
proved impossible for many would-be homesteaders.
Through the activities presented in this lesson, students
will become familiar with the tenets of the Homestead
Act, the shifting borders of the American frontier, and
the life faced by homesteaders. After a class discussion
and examination of a variety of Web sites, students will
complete an written assessment in which they will determine
whether or not the land available through the Homestead
Act was, in fact, "free." This lesson can be used as an
introduction to a unit on American settlement in the latter
half of the nineteenth century, or as a pre-viewing activity
to the PBS series FRONTIER HOUSE. A basic knowledge of
19th-century United States history is required.
Grade Level: 5-8
Time Allotment: 1-2 45-minute class periods
Subject Matter: Language Arts and History
Students will be able to:
- Describe how the concept of the "American frontier"
changed throughout the nineteenth century;
- Identify the purpose of the Homestead Act and its
- Describe the day-to-day life of homesteaders.
From the United States History Standards for grades 5-12,
available online at http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/nchs/standards/era4-5-12.html:
Students will understand how the westward movement changes
the lives of Americans and led toward regional tensions;
that is, the student will be able to explore the lure
of the West and the reality of life on the frontier, as
well as compare and contrast different patterns of settlement.
Students will engage in historical issues -- analysis
and decision-making -- by identifying issues and problems
in the past and analyzing interests, values, and points
of view of those involved in the situation.
Sprocketworks Timemap of US Borders
This Web site examines the shifting political control
of the North American continent from 13,000 BCE to the
present. Included are Indian tribes, major land purchases,
and the development of territories and states. Requires
the Shockwave plug-in, available at http://www.macromedia.com.
"Uncle Sam is Rich Enough to Give Us All A Farm"
This essay on the FRONTIER HOUSE Web site describes who
the homesteaders were and contains facts and figures regarding
The Homestead Act.
Do You Have What It Takes to Be A Pioneer?
This presentation, a portion of the FRONTIER HOUSE Web
site, contains an interactive quiz which determines the
user's suitability as a homesteader.
For each student:
Billionaire Information Sheet
Pencil and paper
Computer with Internet Access