The Frontier HouseProjectFrontier LifeThe FamiliesResources

overview prep for teachers steps: class one class two extensions


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

Learning Objectives

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 repercussions;
  • Describe the day-to-day life of homesteaders.

From the United States History Standards for grades 5-12, available online at

Standard 2E:
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.

Standard 5A:
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.

Media Components

Web Sites
Sprocketworks Timemap of US Borders load.asp?SprMovie=ustimemapweb
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

"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:
  • Become a Billionaire Information Sheet
  • Pencil and paper
  • Computer with Internet Access

    Next >>

    The Homesteaders
    Animation of homesteaders
    Media Showcase

    [an error occurred while processing this directive]Pledge
    The Video Diaries
    email frontier house
    Print this page
    print this page email this url to a friend