The various Homestead Acts created a unique opportunity in American society. Starting in 1862, it was suddenly possible for American citizens to lay claim to their own piece of the vast amounts of public land held by the United States government, and to hopefully carve out a family farm from the vastness of the American West.
The reality, of course, was that homesteading was a mixed bag. Easily abused in some areas by big ranchers or timber concerns, and often involving marginal land that required a lot of work to make productive, homesteading was a mixture of the American Dream and a new form of nightmare.
Persons making the westward trek in search of free land and a new life faced all manner of difficulties. Not all people were financially secure and set off with just what they owned in their wagons. Others were better off and carried better equipment and supplies. But they all had one thing in common – once they left civilization they were on their own.
While homesteading has long been over in the United States, the legacy and memory of the homesteaders live on. Because these people were carving out homes and farms on unimproved land using just human and animal muscle power, there are a lot of great survival lessons we can learn from them. The era of homesteading spanned from the Civil War, into the 20th century. Here are five simple, but practical lessons from homesteaders that are as applicable today, as they were in our great grandparent’s time.
Keep it Simple
Imagine you are loading up your family and heading west. You’ve got an idea where you want to go, and you are eager to start your new life. What are you packing, and why? Well, for one thing, you are packing tools and equipment that do the job and do it well. For a good part of the homesteading era, industrialization was booming – and constantly changing. When you are on your own, it doesn’t pay to be an early adapter of technology that might not last, or will become quickly obsolete. Instead, you want to select gear you know will last you for years to come, even if it isn’t the latest and greatest thing.
We see this today with consumer electronics. What is cutting edge today, is grossly obsolete in a year or two. Complex equipment will fail in complex ways. Simple equipment fails in simple ways. By equipping yourself and your house with simple tools and equipment, along with adapting simple approaches to complex tasks, you save yourself time, labor and loss of productivity.
Our ancestors who crossed the Great Plains understood that they had to not only maintain and repair their gear themselves, but it might have to last them for many years of hard use away from normal supply chains and skilled craftsmen. The same lessons are true today. The more you work to make yourself self-reliant, the more you have to make sure you can take care of your equipment. There may be nobody else who can…
Use The Best You Can
There is an old saying “buy once, cry once.” This means whenever possible, buy the best goods you can, instead of buying cheap stuff that wears out faster. Now, this isn’t always possible, but you should always strive for reliability. It is something of a fallacy that “things” were “made better” in some nebulous and ill-formed idea of “back then” or “the good old days.” Rather, we tend to see what survives the ravages of time, which usually was the best-made stuff. Or at least mass-produced goods that didn’t see enough use to wear out.
Homesteaders set out with what they could haul and carry, and that also meant using the best materials and supplies they could get. Even the poorest farmers knew that cheap goods break and cost more in the long run due to replacement costs, and lost productivity. Do you really want to rely on cheap junk on your rural homestead or in your survival gear?
Alone on an isolated homestead in the late 19th century, everything being used had to stand up to harsh, everyday life. Today, we are blessed with an embarrassing abundance of manufactured goods that are both affordable and of decent quality. However, we can’t always maintain them on our own. Can you build a toaster? A computer? Can you maintain a telephone?
When planning your survival retreat or just setting up your house, ask yourself what the most crucial things are, and make sure they are of the best quality. Have spare parts and the tools to keep them up. Just like our ancestors, you’ll be glad you did.
Good Food Makes For a Good Life
Nothing will destroy you like poor diet. Food-related illnesses killed many pioneers, either through poor diet or poor handling of food. Modern food is often fortified with various vitamins and minerals, which makes it hard to come down with scurvy, or other ailments related to a lack of trace nutrients. However, food poisoning is still a very real problem today.
Often called “kitchen gardens” or in more modern times “Victory Gardens”, homesteaders tended to maintain a vegetable garden that would provide fresh and nutritious food to supplement basics like meat and potatoes.
Surplus vegetables were preserved through drying, canning, pickling, fermentation, or other time-honored means. This ensured a steady supply of healthy food through the winter and early spring months and could help avoid morale-crushing monotony in your diet.
Food choice is not a problem for the modern American, but quality of diet still is. We have to remember that good, healthy food is important for long-term survival success, and in fact for any kind of decent life. If you can, you should grow as much of your own food as you can.
If you can’t, you need to make sure you are eating a varied and healthy diet. And don’t forget preparation. We understand sanitation better today than the homesteaders did. A clean kitchen, is a healthy kitchen, is a healthy homestead.
Homesteaders lived (and sometimes died) by the seasons and weather. Every aspect of life, from planting and harvest to gardening and property maintenance relied on the seasons and weather. On top of that, the nature of small-scale subsistence and commercial farming often meant that cash money was scarce, and usually only available during harvest time. This meant that large-scale purchases of supplies, tools, or debt servicing revolved around that all-important harvest season and sale of crops.
Today, our economic lifestyle is usually different, and we are less bound to the cycles of nature when it comes to planning our day to day existence. But the lesson still stands – you must anticipate the future, and adapt your life to what likely will be facing you. Seasonal weather, even daily traffic patterns all have an impact on our lives and how we live them.
So does our income and how often we get it. Old homesteaders had to plan their lives a year in advance, and everything ultimately came back to the all-important harvest. Today, we should also have solid plans for a year in advance, that way we will be less surprised when life throws a curveball at us.
Don’t Fight Nature
This one was a long, hard lesson to learn and took the Dust Bowl to teach us that. This horrible event, born out of poor land management practice made the Great Depression even worse for many American homesteaders and small farmers. As drought and wind swept the Great Plains tons of topsoil were stripped from the land, and created an apocalyptic landscape never before seen in the United States.
Sometimes considered the worst man-made ecological disaster in US history, the Dust Bowl shows us what happens when we disregard the natural world around us. Every modern homesteader and survivor needs to understand that it is best to work in harmony with nature, instead of against it. Land and water conservation ensures a future for ourselves and our children.
This isn’t to say you have to become some sort of environmentalist extremist, but that you have to take better care of the land around you, and not set yourself up for failure when Mother Nature comes calling.
This can be as simple as living away from hurricane-prone regions, to building easily heated and well-insulated homes in cold regions, or simply replanting trees when you cut one down. How you work with nature is up to you, but what is important is that you do it. Otherwise, you might find your whole world collapsing around you.
There are a lot of broad, and very specific lessons one could pull from the history of homesteading in America. This is just a start and a very broad one at that. But these larger philosophical ideas have stood the test of time, and are as relevant today, as they were a century and a half ago. Each of these five lessons was learned through blood, sweat, and tears as millions of people settled a continent, and they should be applied whenever possible.
Steve Coffman is a freelance writer and consulting historian. He has a BA in US history from The Evergreen State College and lives near Tacoma, Washington. He collects antique telephone insulators and is presently researching labor union relations in Washington State during WWI.