What is Homesteading?

Posted by Sarah Snipes on January 19, 2023

The homesteading lifestyle is about values like self-reliance, health and freedom. But what does homesteading look like today? Let’s look at the surprisingly deep roots of homesteading in America.

We hear a lot about homesteading these days. 

Many people raise chickens and grow vegetable gardens — some even live off-grid

But why are so many people getting into this lifestyle? And what exactly does it mean to be a homesteader?

Here, we’re looking at the history of homesteading in the U.S. and what modern homesteading is all about. 

Does homesteading sound like the lifestyle for you? If so, you can check out our ideas at the end of this article to get started.

A Nation of Farmers

Historian Patrick N. Allitt, Professor of American History at Emory University, traces homesteading back to America’s early days. 

He says founders like Thomas Jefferson envisioned a country of farmers, with life centered around small, close-knit communities.


At first, the federal government sold public land to citizens who had the money to start farming. But in 1862, Congress passed the Homesteading Act, which extended land ownership to even the poorest Americans.

Public lands in states like Kansas and Nebraska were opened to settlers. For a small filing fee, anyone over the age of 21 — including women, those formerly enslaved and new immigrants — could claim a parcel of 160 acres. Homesteaders would own the land after working on it for five years. 

A wave of migration followed, with families leaving cities to become farmers.

Professor Allitt points out the darker side of this government policy: these public lands had been forcibly taken from Native Americans before the settlement era. This led to conflicts between homesteaders and Native Americans.

Homesteaders faced many challenges settling the land, most of which was prairie or grassland. 

There were no trees — back East, trees were the primary source for building and heating homes. Homesteaders built houses out of prairie sod and used desiccated buffalo dung as fuel for fires.

Despite initial successes and a few years of good rains and healthy crops, the homesteaders were soon plagued with drought, insect infestations and bankruptcies. 


Many homesteaders abandoned farming and sold their land to neighbors.

Quick technological changes (like steam-powered tractors) led to increased crop yields for remaining homesteaders. And new railroads helped to get their crops to markets.

But in the end, homesteading proved more beneficial to those markets than to the farmers themselves. 

The food supply increased for both the U.S. and Europe. Consumers in cities had ready access to affordable food. Railroads and bankers profited, but the farmers saw declining profits because of overproduction and falling food prices. 

They needed help to repay loans that had purchased expensive farming equipment.

Today, most of the land settled and farmed by early homesteaders is owned by agriculture corporations, which is where the bulk of our food supply comes from.

A New American Dream

In the 1960s and 1970s, a new generation of Americans left cities to become farmers. 

This wave of migration was different, however. The movement wasn’t caused by a single event, like a government policy that granted free land.

If there was a common thread for the new homesteaders, it was disillusionment. 


Americans were dissatisfied with the U.S. government and with a consumer-driven culture that wasn’t leading to fulfillment or meaning in their lives.

Writers like Ralph Borsodi and Helen and Scott Nearing wrote about their experiments with land-based living as an alternative to mainstream lifestyles. 

These books became popular after the Vietnam War era as part of the counterculture movement.

Many Americans went “back to the land." They bought acreage in rural areas and learned about organic gardening and raising animals. They aspired to live more simply and naturally.

Maynard Kaufman, a writer and farmer, wrote this definition of the movement in 1972:

“Homesteading must thus be defined as living on a productive, self-sufficient, small farm where needs and wants for boughten goods are reduced to a minimum. And we might emphasize that the aesthetic aspects of homesteading are at least as important as its economic aspects; it appeals to those searching for a simple, healthful and satisfying way of life."

Homesteading in the 21st Century

Modern homesteaders are drawn to this lifestyle for many of the same reasons as earlier generations. 

It’s about finding a simpler life in a chaotic, consumer-driven culture.

But the exact reasons why someone might choose to homestead are as unique as the homesteaders themselves.

As we’ve talked to homesteaders across the Southeast and beyond, some common themes have emerged. 

Here are some real homesteaders’ reasons (and links to their stories):

Health and well-being

Raising kids in the country

Fulfilling a lifelong dream

Passion for raising animals

Lifestyle freedom: lower cost of living, slower pace of life

Harmony with nature

More time with family


What it Takes to be a Homesteader

Homesteaders are passionate about learning new skills and becoming more self-reliant at growing, building and making the things they need. 

It’s much more rewarding than working extra hours to buy necessities from big companies!

Here are some common homesteader skills:

Interested in Getting Started Homesteading?

Does homesteading sound like the lifestyle change you’ve been looking for? Check out our free eGuide: “From City Slicker to Self-Sufficient,” to plan your next steps.

Other helpful resources for homesteaders:

How to Buy Your Rural Hideaway

Sarah Snipes

Sarah Snipes is a freelance writer based in Western North Carolina. When she’s not writing, you can find her outside—usually hunting or fishing with her husband. Sarah is passionate about wellness and enjoys strength training, practicing yoga, and cooking healthy meals in her free time.

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