Friday, March 19, 2010

Rethinking the Woman Homesteader: Married Women and the Homestead Act of 1862

by Blake Bell, Historian
Homestead National Monument of America

I have been here for a few weeks now, and one aspect of the homesteading story that we are all so proud of is that women were allowed to be homesteaders. Most of the books and individuals I have consulted have all claimed women could be homesteaders “if they were divorced, widowed, or single”. Any women in one of these category’s would fulfill the criteria stipulated in the Homestead Act that an individual could claim a homestead if they were the head of their households. And this is exactly what many women did. This interpretation has led us to believe that this was the only way a women could be a homesteader. But is this reality?

The Homestead Act of 1862 states that he or she be the head of a family, or is twenty-one or more years of age. The law is clear, it states that you could be head of a family OR twenty-one years old or older. The Homestead Act has been celebrated for its liberal agenda in that African Americans, immigrants, and women were all allowed to take advantage of this opportunity if they abided by the stipulations of the law. There is only one stipulation that was written in the law that would have effected any one of these groups, and that was the requirement that non-citizens had to declare intention to become citizens. Nowhere in the law does it say that a married woman, twenty-one years old or older, could not claim a homestead. I purpose that it may have been possible for a married woman to have obtained a homestead. There is evidence to suggest that women added to a “husband’s farm or ranch through their homestead claims, or to homestead as part of a family or companionate group.” If they were adding to their husband’s farm, they clearly were married, and they were claiming homesteads.
Homesteads were actually claimed in a variety of ways. There were many land laws on the books in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Many married women took advantage of these various land laws; however, further research may prove that married women took advantage of the Homestead Act. There were instances when husbands had been away for a long period of time, primarily seeking gold on the west coast, in which their wives filed and received homesteads under the Homestead Act. However, this was rare, and even more rare would be a married woman claiming a homestead under the Homestead Act, but the possibility cannot be excluded.

The Homestead Act lasted until 1976. In this time our country progressed greatly in its attitudes towards women’s rights and it is possible that we have organized our story around a specific time period, primarily late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and not considered the entire scope of the law. There is more research, and undoubtedly more debate, that needs to be done on this issue. As the land records project progresses and we gain more access to Homestead records we will be able to find out how many married women, if any, were able to claim their 160 acres under the Homestead Act of 1862.

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