Educator Resources

The Homestead Act of 1862

Teaching Activities

Standards Correlations

This lesson correlates to the National History Standards.

  • Era 5-Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
    • Standard 1A-The student understands how the North and South differed and how politics and ideologies led to the Civil War
  • Era 6-The Development of the Industrial United States (1870-1900)
    • Standard 2A-The student understands the sources and experiences of the new immigrants
    • Standard 4A-The student understands various perspectives on federal Indian policy, westward expansion, and the resulting struggles.

Cross-curricular Connections

Share this exercise with your history and government colleagues.


  1. Provide each student with a photocopy of each of the featured documents, and make a transparency with the following questions: What types of documents are they? What are the dates of the documents? Who wrote the documents? What is the purpose of the documents? What information in the documents helps you understand why they were written? Ask one student to read the documents aloud as the others read silently. Lead the class in oral responses to the questions. 

  2. Instruct students to analyze the documents and make a list of the Homestead Act requirements. Ask them to check their answers by referring to the text of the Act, available in Henry Steele Commager's and Milton Cantor, eds., Documents of American History, and in the Westward Expansion: 1842-1912 teaching packet available from the National Archives, as well as some textbooks. Lead a class discussion using some of the following questions: What were settlers' citizenship requirements? What were their age requirements? Why was there a clause pertaining to never having borne arms against the government? How long did a homesteader have to reside on the property? What was a homesteader required to do to improve the land? Whose names appear on the documents? With what office were these documents filed? In order to locate this property on a map, what additional information is necessary? Did Freeman receive a patent for the land? Why are these documents preserved by the federal government?

  3. The case file for Virgil Earp, Prescott, Arizona (1870-1905).

    The case file for Charles P. Ingalls, father of Laura Ingalls Wilder (1880-1907).

    Encourage students to look at these later files and write a paragraph comparing them to the Freeman documents.

  4. Divide the class into three groups representing each of the three regions of the country in the 1840s: the North, the South, and the West. Ask each group to research and write their region's position on the homestead issue. Ask representatives from each group to conduct a mock congressional debate on a proposed homestead bill.

  5. Invite a local real estate developer, surveyor, or land official to talk to your class about present-day real estate prices and land measurement. Ask them to bring documents describing property locations using section, township, and range. Then ask the students to use local sources to determine the section, township, and range of your school.

  6. Locate and read the article entitled "How to Use an Economic Mystery in Your History Course," written by Donald R. Wentworth and Mark C. Schug and published in the January 1994 issue of Social Education. Divide the class into six groups and assign each group one of the principles of economic reasoning to consider as they begin to solve the mystery of the Homestead Act of 1862 as proposed in the article. Use the jigsaw method of regrouping for students to share information gathered about all six principles to answer the question: why did so many people fail to take advantage of the Homestead Act?

  7. Assign pairs of students different public land states. Inform them that it is 1880, and they have just filed for a homestead in their assigned state. Using information contained in their history books, geography books, and library resources, ask them to determine what crops they will cultivate, if they will raise livestock, how they will obtain water and fuel, and where they will live. Ask them to construct a 12 by 14 (inch) dwelling out of materials that would have been available to them.

  8. Divide the class into three groups. Ask one group to determine the population of the Plains states in 1860, 1870, and 1880, and create a large bar graph with their data. Ask another group to determine how many immigrants came to the United States between 1850-1860, 1860-1870, and 1870-1880, and also create a bar graph with their data. Finally, ask the third group to investigate the miles of railroad tracks in the United States built between 1850-1860, 1860-1870, and 1870-1880, and also create a bar graph with their data. Ask each group to present their findings and hold a class discussion on cause and effect. To what extent did acts of the federal government influence these three factors? Historical Statistics of the United States, almanacs, and other library sources will be helpful for this activity.

Potter, Lee Ann and Wynell Schamel. "The Homestead Act of 1862." Social Education 61, 6 (October 1997): 359 - 364.

Return to Lesson Main Page