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Homesteading: Balancing Self-Reliance and Community

The experiences of homesteaders represent a significant chapter in America’s westward expansion history. Although pioneers had moved west through what would become Idaho between the 1840s and the 1860s to settle in Oregon Country, the 1862 Homestead Act became one of the first federal land laws that spurred greater economic growth and development of the American West. This law allowed adults, including women and intended citizens, to claim 160 acres of surveyed lands within the public domain. It also required individuals who staked claims to live on the property and make certain improvements to the land to secure the deed and see the land transfer from federal to private ownership. The Homestead Act was a departure from previous laws requiring upfront land payment, and through this legislation, the federal government distributed millions of acres of western land to individual settlers. In Idaho, its impact was significant. Over 60,000 people filed homestead claims between 1862 and 1976 when the federal government repealed the legislation. While the public’s perception of homesteading has, since 1862, expanded to include a more general philosophy of self-sufficient living in both rural, urban, and suburban environments, the 1862 Homestead Act, perhaps as much as any other piece of federal legislation, ensured the settling of Idaho.

The promise of land and the ideology of Manifest Destiny fueled the allure of the West in the 1800s for many individuals of various backgrounds, ethnicities, and classes. Pioneers saw themselves as brave settlers rather than trespassers, seeking new beginnings despite the risks. However, their journey westward was not without its challenges, stemming from encounters with Native Americans and the harsh realities of an unfamiliar landscape. Yet, these settlers felt entitled to their promised rewards, often expressing frustration when encountering setbacks that ultimately revealed the duality of pioneer life—one where individuals alternately played the roles of intrepid adventurers and aggrieved victims.

The United States acquired sole title to what would become Idaho’s “public lands” in 1846, with the signing of the 1846 Oregon Treaty with Great Britain. This action ended a 28-year joint occupation of the Pacific Northwest. However, it wasn’t until 1866, when Lafayette Cartee became Idaho’s first Surveyor General, that systematic surveying of the region began. Cartee’s work started with establishing an Initial Point near present-day Kuna. Surveying radiated out from this point and included work to survey the boundaries of the Indian reservations within the territory. This meticulous process was essential before pioneers could homestead in Idaho and attempt to turn sagebrush into productive farmland.

Despite the perception that pioneers and homesteaders often made it entirely on their own, many of Idaho’s earliest homesteaders survived because they sought community. Idaho’s rural places are a testament to this effort, and many of the state’s farms and ranches still in operation today trace their origins to homestead claims. This revolutionary act aimed to democratize land ownership and promote westward expansion. The intricate web of motivations, legal frameworks, and historical events that shaped Idaho’s settlement throughout the late 19th and most of the 20th century offers a rich tapestry of stories that continue to resonate today.


Written by HannaLore Hein

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