Manifest Destiny, The Homesteader And Homestead Exemptions

manifect destiny

As a Homesteader who lives on a homestead today and has always loved history, I would like to share with you what Manifest Destiny was and how Homesteading was the result.

What is Manifest Destiny? It was a belief held by many people in the mid-19th century in America. Basically the belief was that the U.S.A. was destined to expand from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Pacific Ocean as an agrarian example to the world.

What is a Homesteader? A dictionary definition includes the following:

  • A person owning a homestead
  • A person in the United States or Canada acquiring land under a homestead law
  • A person who takes part in a homesteading scheme

What is a Homestead Exemption? Many States have Homestead Exemption Laws where a portion or even all of a homes value can be protected from creditors, reduce annual property taxes and give a surviving spouse a head start in life if they can not afford the living expenses after the death of their mate.

The History of Manifest Destiny

Historians each have their own take on the western expansion of the U.S.A. in the 1800s. Some emphasize the displacement of Native Americans, others the possibility of expansion of Slave States. Still others point out their beliefs that expansion came at the cost of war with Mexico instead of through political means.

There is truth in each of these different viewpoints. America's westward expansion is generally considered to have started with the Louisiana Purchase made by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803. This alone nearly doubled the size of the fledgling country.

The exploration by Lewis and Clarke of this vast new territory in 1804 to 1806 brought about a desire in many to go westward. Also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, Lewis and Clark actually explored more than just the Louisiana Purchase.

You see, the Louisiana Purchase did not include land that went all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Yet Lewis and Clark explored all the way down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean and wintered at a facility they build near present day Astoria, Oregon. This facility was called Fort Clatsop and was named for the Native Americans in the area.

A little known piece of American History was made on November 24, 1805. Lewis and Clark held a vote to determine where the Expedition thought it best to spend the winter. For the first time in American History a Black man, York and a woman who was also a Native American, Sacagawea, were allowed to take part in the voting!

Where did the Term Manifest Destiny Originate?

The basic ideas that formed the belief later called Manifest Destiny had been around for some time. In December 1845, John O'Sullivan, editor of the New York Morning News used the term manifest destiny to express his belief that the U.S.A. expansion should include the Oregon Territory.

An 1842 Treaty between the U.S.A. and Great Britain left open the question of where the boundary of the Oregon Territory between the U.S.A. and Canada would be drawn. The Oregon Territory included an area compromising the present day States of Oregon, Idaho and Washington as well as most of British Columbia.

In 1846 a compromise was reached with Britain where the boundary would be the 49th parallel.

Manifest Destiny and War With Mexico

In 1846 the spirit of Manifest Destiny led to a war between the U.S.A. and Mexico. The war was over some 525,000 square miles of land including all or part of what is now California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

The Mexican-American War ended in 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo. This treaty gave the U.S.A. the disputed 525,000 square miles.

The last piece of land that makes up the lower 48 States was obtained in 1854. It is known in history as the Gadsden Purchase or Gadsden Treaty. For a payment of $10,000,000.00 the U.S.A. purchased 29,670 square miles from Mexico. This land became part of Arizona and New Mexico.

So in a period of time from 1803 to 1854 the U.S.A. expanded to over 3 times its original size at the end of the Revolutionary War. This set up the necessity of settling this new territory of the United States of America. Out of this necessity was born the Homesteader.

What is a Traditional Homesteader?

Homesteader...someone who settles lawfully on government land with the intent to acquire title to it. Vocabulary.com

The traditional definition of a homesteader was someone who makes certain improvements to land, lives on the land for a specified period of time, grows crops and is given the land by the government. In most cases a small fee was paid when the Land Patent from the government to the homesteader was recorded.

traditional homestead

A traditional Homesteader was self-sufficient to the extent that they grew their own food. They built their own shelter and made as much of the items needed for survival with their own hands. The traditional homesteader sold produce they grew, things they made or timber from their land to have the funds to purchase what they could not make from the nearest General Store.

Likewise, a Homestead wife and mother was self-sufficient to the extent that she could be. She often helped in the fields and helped care for livestock and sold eggs from their chickens.

She preserved food from their garden for the winter and also made much of the clothes her family wore. She made quilts to keep her family warm at night and obtained what she could not make from the General Store.

In America the Homestead Act of 1862 was the primary method of settling land in the mid-West and West. Under this Act any person who had not borne arms against the U.S.A. could claim 160 acres of government surveyed land in the mid-West or West.

To claim the land one had to live on it for 5 years, build a 12 x 14 dwelling with one window, dig a well, make a road and raise crops. After 5 years the homesteader could pay a small registration fee. At this time he would file for a Land Patent (like a deed) at a local land office by showing proof of residency with no absences longer than 6 months and proving he had made the required improvements.

The Homestead Act of 1862 did not specify that the dwelling was to be 12 feet by 14 feet in size. It merely said 12 by 14. This made for some interesting sized dwellings since the measurement device could be most anything!

Another interesting fact under the Homestead Act of 1862 was that some of the land that was homesteaded was not suitable for large scale farming because the land was rocky. It was possible to clear enough rocks from an area to grow a garden but it was not possible with the technology of the time to clear enough land to make extra money from selling the produce the homesteader didn't use for their family.

When that was the case the homesteaders could meet the requirement for growing crops by growing a garden. But other methods of earning money to purchase items from the General Store was needed.

In the Northwestern area of what is now Western Montana, North Idaho and Eastern Washington many of the the homesteaders turned to horse logging as a way to earn money.

Those areas of the Northwest are replete with stories of grandpa or great grandpa who horse logged to make money. In fact, my wife's grandfather logged this way of which we've heard many interesting stories of those experiences.

Over all about 40% of those who started out with a Homestead Claim under the 1862 Act were able to meet all the requirements and receive the land from the government.

More than 270 million acres (1.1 million km2) of public land, or nearly 10% of the total area of the U.S., was given away free to 1.6 million homesteaders; most of the homesteads were west of the Mississippi River. Wikipedia.org

What is a Traditional Homestead?

Traditionally, under the 1862 Act a Homestead was the land and improvements required to qualify for and receive the Homestead.

Under the 1862 Act, the word Homestead meant the act of settling, farming and claiming land under the Act. As time went on the word Homestead eventually came to mean a farm house with adjoining buildings and land. Even if the land was not settled under the Homestead Act. A Homestead also came to mean simply the place where one's home was located.

autumn homestead

The Difference Between a Homestead and a Homestead Exemption

As we have seen above, a homestead is the place where you live, even if it was not acquired under a Homestead Act.

A Homestead Exemption is where the State has a law that can protect a home from property taxes, creditors and some of the problems that can come about after the death of a spouse.

Each State's Laws of Homestead Exemption will vary. Some States may not have a Homestead Exemption. It is the homeowner's or prospective homeowner's duty to research and see what the Homestead Exemption is in their State. This is done by a simple query of your State's Homestead Exemption.

Homestead Exemptions usually provide for:

  • Preventing forced sale of a home due to creditor's demands unless the forced sale is a foreclosure, to satisfy a mechanic's lien or a sale to pay property taxes
  • Provides either an exemption from property taxes or a reduction in property taxes
  • Can help a surviving spouse after the death of their mate.

To qualify for a State's Homestead Exemption the property has to be your primary residence and be titled in your and your spouse's name. A primary residence is usually defined as the home at the address on your driver's license. If you move from that residence, that residence loses the Homestead Exemption.

Homestead Exemption and Forced Sale of a Home

A Homestead Exemption does not prevent a foreclosure sale of a home by a bank or mortgage company that financed the house. The financing involved a contract that takes precedence over any Homestead Exemption Law.

Likewise, a mechanic's lien for work done on the property but not yet paid for is not prevented by a Homestead Exemption. Failure to pay property taxes is also exempt from protection under a Homestead Exemption.

Under a Homestead Exemption the amount of the exemption is protected from creditors who would force a sale of the home. If the exemption was say $100,000.00 and the home had $125,000.00 equity, a creditor could only get $25,000.00 out of a forced sale of the home. The homeowner would get $100,000.00 in this case.

Homestead Exemption and Property Taxes

A Homestead Exemption can reduce the amount of property taxes a homeowner has to pay. The way this works is the assessed value of the home for property tax purposes is reduced by the amount of that State's Homestead Exemption.

So if the Homestead Exemption for your State was $100,00.00 and the home was assessed at $200,000.00 you would only pay property taxes on $100,000,00 instead of on $200,000.00.

To get a Homestead Exemption the property has to be titled in the name of the people living on it. I do not know of a State that will give a Homestead Exemption to a property titled in a Trust, Limited Liability Company or Corporation.

In some States a Homestead Exemption may be automatic. But in most States you have to apply for a Homestead Exemption.

Homestead Exemptions and the Surviving Spouse

It is typical for husbands to die before their wives. In many cases this is due to longer lifespans for women than men. Many times the death of a husband places the surviving spouse in a position of economic hardship.

If the couple lived in a home in a State with a Homestead Exemption and they took advantage of that exemption, when one spouse dies the surviving spouse can benefit from the Homestead Exemption.

If it becomes necessary to sell the house because of bills the surviving spouse can not pay, the surviving spouse gets the Homestead Exemption amount. This gives this surviving spouse an amount of money to help start their life over.

What is a Modern Homesteader?

A modern Homesteader is also living a life of self-sufficiency much as the traditional Homesteader did. However, in the modern sense there are various levels of Homesteaders and each level has a different aspect of self-sufficiency. These levels include:

  • Urban Homesteaders
  • Suburban Homesteaders
  • Country or more traditional Homesteaders

Urban Homesteaders

Many potential Homesteaders start out as Urban Homesteaders. Their dream is to live on a Country Homestead and be as self-sufficient as possible. Problem is they are currently living in the city. Maybe even in a high rise apartment complex.

Nevertheless, they start becoming as self-sufficient as possible given their circumstances. They may start a container garden in a kitchen window sill or on their balcony. If there is a roof garden available they participate in it.

They purchase and read books on Homesteading or Subsistence Farming. They devise methods for getting out of debt. They research what skills are in demand in the country and see if they can get training in those skills without interfering with their day job.

Other Urban homesteaders could be those who know they will probably live in the city all their life but want to develop as much self-sufficiency as possible. All Urban Homesteaders are to be commended for doing what they can in their present situation!

Suburban Homesteaders

This is Homesteading that falls between Urban Homesteading and Country Homesteading.

A Suburban Homesteader usually lives in a house with a yard. Unless there are regulations prohibiting it, a Suburban Homesteader grows a garden, maybe plants a dwarf fruit tree or two and some grapes, raspberries or blackberries.

Where it is possible and there is the room to do so, a Suburban Homesteader may raise some chickens and possibly a couple of small goats. For years my dad was a Suburban Homesteader with a large garden and grape vines. They canned and froze produce from their garden which improved the nutritional value of the food they ate and markedly reduced their food bill.

Some Suburban Homesteaders are able to have a small greenhouse on their property and increase their growing season and the produce they grow. Many Suburban Homesteaders grow enough produce or have enough eggs to share with family members and friends. They are getting valuable experience and benefits that will serve them well as Country Homesteaders.

I remember a neighbor, some 40 years ago, who had only a 50' x 50' lot with a small 2 bedroom house on it. He had a beautiful garden in the back yard that was probably 15' x 30' in size. He grew enough corn, tomatoes, beans and a few other vegetables to supply him and his wife all year round and even had some to share with me.

Suburban Homesteading is as much of an art as Country Homesteading and I take my hat off to those kindred spirits who are Suburban Homesteaders.

rural homestead

Country Homesteaders

This is the modern group that most closely resembles the traditional Homesteaders who settled land under the Homestead Act of 1862.

The modern Homestead Movement began in the 1960's. Those who moved out of the cities and suburbs were called back to the landers. They wanted the peace and quiet of the country, to be able to raise as much of their food as possible, to reconnect with their ancestral roots and to become as self-sufficient as possible.

As technology improved with time many of the back to the lander's went off grid. They used solar, wind and hydroelectric power to generate their own electricity without depending upon a public utility. They heated with wood in cold weather. They developed their own water supply with many of them learning how to improve the water flow from a spring.

Depending on your wants, needs and the lifestyle your family lives, you can raise all your own food, keep chickens and small goats so you have a source of eggs, milk and meat and be fairly self sufficient on as little as 2 acres of land.

Some claim to be able to live on one acre or less. If they have the time and especially the funds to carefully develop a one acre plot of ground for its peak efficiency, that can be accomplished. If they live on one acre in the country the health regulations effectively remove half of that acre from being used to grow food.

Most people who desire to become Country Homesteaders, especially those desiring the self-sufficiency in northern climates and mountainous areas need more than one acre of land to homestead.

I know several people who successfully homestead on 10 acres of land. Many of these people live in mountains close to the Canadian border. They have 5 acres or a little more that is used as a wood lot for winter fuel and the rest is for garden, orchard, small livestock and room for a home and yard.

When you homestead in a climate that is cold in the winter it is nice to have at least a 5 acre woodlot. As many of you know, the rule of thumb for heating a 1500 square foot cabin that is well built and has the proper insulation for the climate is 5 cords of wood per winter. Properly managed, a 5 acre woodlot will provide 5 cords of wood for a lifetime.

As the back to the land movement grew, the terminology changed from back to the landers to Homesteaders. I have met Homesteaders who only go to a grocery store to buy the few things they can't grow or produce at home - things like sugar, salt, and flour for instance.

Homestead ladies today are re-learning the traditional homestead skills such as sewing, quilting, canning, dehydrating food and much more. We frequently see homesteaders selling their produce, breads and various homemade items at farmer's markets and flea markets.

If you desire a home-based business that can result in a full time income yet be worked around Homesteading chores or as a way to get out of debt and into Homesteading, consider this option.

Homesteading versus Prepping

In America today there is also a movement called prepping. Some of the adherents of the prepping movement fancy that they will be able to bug out to the hills if there is ever to be a societal collapse. They spend time gathering equipment, learning backwoods ways and how to treat themselves if injured or sick.

They are to be commended for their wanting to learn all they can about survival. I understand a lot about them. In my earlier years I was an instructor in a Wilderness Survival School. I enjoyed those years and learned many valuable lessons.

When I became a Homesteader I realized that everything I learned and taught as an Instructor in that Wilderness Survival School had an application as a Homesteader.

I have come to believe that if there was to ever be a situation where push comes to shove, I'd rather be a Homesteader than a Prepper. As a homesteader I am already out of the city or suburbs and in the mountains.

In their language I have already bugged out. Additionally my everyday living experience places me in a better position to survive if there ever was to be a push comes to shove situation.

I would like to say to the Preppers, I appreciate your dedication and enthusiasm. If you want to be the ultimate Prepper, think about becoming a Homesteader. You can do much worse than Homesteading and for being a self-sufficient person, you can't do any better than to be a Homesteader.

Related Questions

What President expanded the boundaries of the United States the most under Manifest Destiny?

James K. Polk, the 11th President of the United States settled the dispute with Great Britain over the northern boundary of the Oregon Territory which became the 49th parallel and went to war with Mexico over 525,000 square miles of disputed land. At the end of the war Mexico ceded that land to the United States.

Can you still use the Homestead Act?

No. It ended for the lower 48 States in 1976 and in Alaska in 1986. but it is still possible to be a modern homesteader.

What qualifies for a Homestead Exemption?

The primary residence of citizens in those States that have a Homestead Exemption Law.


About The Author

John Brownlee

A retired Lawyer and Health Care Provider, he teaches people how to locate, evaluate, and purchase Country and Homestead Property. He and his wife, Linda, have taught hundreds of people how to suture wounds in an emergency. He teaches both Preparedness and Health Care Classes and has been a Presenter at Sustainable Preparedness Expos. He holds a General Ham Radio Operator's License.