The Homestead Act

In this lesson the students will learn about westward movement after the Civil War and the economic opportunities offered to people who moved. The focus of the primary source activity is the Homestead Act and how it changed our nation and the lives of the people during that time.

Historical Background

In 1862, the Homestead Act was passed into law. Any US citizen or intended US citizen could file an application with the government. If accepted, the person would receive 160 acres of government land. The homesteader had to live on the land for five years, build a home, and grow crops. After five years, the homesteader could file for the deed to the land by submitting proof of living there and making improvements to the land.

The Homestead Act was attractive to many people from within or outside of the country. The goal was to get immigrants and poor urban Americans out into the countryside to expand the country. However, most settlers were farmers and their families because they had knowledge of farming. Exodusters or African Americans who wanted to get out of the Jim Crow south took advantage of the act.

The physical conditions on the frontier presented a huge challenge for the homesteaders. Crops were threatened or destroyed by wind, winter, or insects. The Great Plains presented a challenge when building a home for there were few trees. Limited fuel and water made daily life difficult. The dry plains made it difficult to raise crops. As a result, many homesteaders did not stay on the land long enough to receive the deed.

Lesson Objective

The student will demonstrate knowledge of how the nation grew and changed from the end of Reconstruction through the early twentieth century by explaining the relationship among territorial expansion and westward movement of the population.



  1. Preview: The teacher should review why settlers came to the new world (Unit 1 colonization notes). Allow students time to answer the following question: You are living in Virginia in 1862. Why might you want to move west to Nebraska?
  2. The teacher should use the power-point on the Homestead Act to begin a lecture on westward movement after the Civil War.
  3. Pass out the student packets and primary source analysis worksheets to each student. The primary source activity will be completed prior to getting into the details of the lecture.
  4. Students should be placed in groups of 2-3 and provided with enough time to complete the primary source analysis worksheet for each of the primary sources in the packet.
  5. After students have had a chance to examine the sources in groups, the teacher can lead a class discussion on the sources included in the packed. Historical thinking skills questions that may guide the discussion include: Close Reading– What to do you see? What questions do you have? Sourcing– What can you learn about the author’s motives or intentions? Who was the author? Who was the audience? Contextualizing– What was the climate at the time of this writing? Corroborating– How are the sources similar and different?
  6. Once students have completed the activity, continue notes on westward movement.
  7. Show clip about settling in the west.
  8. Continue lecture ending with populist movement.


Write a letter back home describing your life in the west. How has the opportunities available to you through the Homestead Act impacted your life?


Sluggett, John. “John Sluggett to Abraham Lincoln, Thursday, January 24, 1861 (Canadian seeks information on Homestead bill).” Letter. From The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. (accessed December 19, 2011).

“Millions of Acres. Iowa and Nebraska. Land for Sale on 10 years Credit by the Burlington & Missouri River R. R. Co. at 6 per ct Interest and Low Prices,” 1872. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress. Call Number Portfolio 134, Folder 13. Available online, (accessed December 19, 2011).

“Daniel Freeman standing, holding gun, with hatchet tucked in belt.” Photograph. 1863. From the Library of Congress prints and photographs division. (accessed December 19, 2011).

“A family poses with the wagon in which they live and travel during their pursuit of a homestead, 1886.” From The National Archives: Teaching with Documents, the Homestead Act of 1862. (accessed December 19, 2011).

“Ho for Kansas! Nashville Tennessee, March 18, 1878.” Copy print of broadside. From the Library of Congress, American Memory: African American Odyssey Exhibit. (accessed December 19, 2011).

“Exodusters in Nicodemus Kansas.” From Legends of America. (accessed December 19, 2011).

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