A Short History & Some Considerations
Humans have been homesteading since we have been practicing agriculture, approximately 10,000 years ago. The English words home: "dwelling place, house,” and stead: “"place, position; standing, firmness, stability, fixity" were joined together to describe the acquiring or settlement of land. The word may conjure images of pastoral fields with farm animals, gardens, root cellars filled with preserved food, linens hanging on a line, etc. However, it is difficult to separate the underlying American mythos and dubious history associated with homesteading from its more wholesome characteristics.
Since moving to Fox Hollow and starting our farm, there have been a couple of times when people have referred to me as a “homesteader”. I was taken aback by this because I don’t think of myself as such. This made me consider why my initial reaction was negative. Since then, I have been thinking more about the history of homesteading in America, its benefits and pitfalls and how it is a different practice today, in a world where we can choose from so many different ways to live our lives and get what we need to survive.
A Brief History
European settlers in America began expanding westward in the early 1800’s, prompted by promises of free, fertile farmland. Subsequently, Indigenous peoples were forced off of their ancestral homelands to make space for settlers. This forced removal was made possible by several ideas and actions taken by the U.S. government. Manifest Destiny, the idea that it was God’s plan for the settlers to move into the west, played a significant role in the way that early homesteaders thought about the land they would occupy. Several pieces of legislation also went into place to make it legally possible for early settlers to establish homesteads. Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 set in motion the physical removal of Indigenous people, the Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 established the reservation system, and the Land Ordinance of 1865 created a way to survey and break up public land into townships for private ownership. The idea of land ownership and manifest destiny were therefore imposed onto the landscape. These acts and their ideological underpinnings laid the foundation for early homesteading, and they still affect the ways many people talk about and practice homesteading today.
The Homesteading Act of 1862 promised massive tracts of land for free in the west. All you had to do was claim your spot, pay a small filing fee, be 21 years of age or older, be a U.S. citizen, and swear not to fight against the United States. Among these settlers were families, single men, single women, and formerly enslaved people who wanted to provide for themselves and live off of the land: homesteaders. This privatization of the land happened relatively quickly, with claims dropping drastically after 1930. According to the National Park Service, “this law turned over vast amounts of the public domain to private citizens. 270 million acres, or 10% of the area of the United States was claimed and settled under this act.”
I’m not going to go into all of the effects that settlement and the Homestead Act had, because then this would be an entire dissertation, but I think it is important to recognize the historical connotations of the word “homesteading” and keep this information in mind.
Modern homesteading is about returning to the basics, and these homesteaders range from those who have inherited family farms on hundreds of acres to suburban families keeping bees and gardens. Much of the focus is on being self-sufficient, becoming energy conscious, preserving food, and in some cases, prepping for societal collapse. Using modern tools and technology, modern homesteaders are able to provide for themselves more easily than homesteaders of the past. They are also able to share their experiences with the world thanks to the internet and social media.
If it seems like you’ve seen more and more homesteading families on your socials, you’re not alone– content creators focused on this subject have absolutely skyrocketed since 2020. The internet is saturated with couples, families, and individuals forgoing their day jobs in exchange for a slower, more rural life. These creators cite a number of different reasons for their lifestyle changes, including rising inflation, debt, stress, concern for the quality and ethics of their food sources, and religious or spiritual conviction in some cases. The truth is that the world these days moves extremely quickly, and a rural life is undeniably enticing.
Cottagecore & Romanticization of Rural Life
For me, the romanticization of a life in the country started with being an enthusiastic reader of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series as a child. I grew up in subdivision development in a small town just off of I-40, so a cabin in the country with endless space to play, pet horses, and have adventures was a dream and a form of escapism for me.
I imagine this was the case for a lot of kids of my generation growing up in towns like mine. After all, we became the teens and adults who started the cottagecore trend. Beginning in the mid to late 2010’s on social media, the trend really blew up in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cottagecore is an aesthetic that romanticizes country life, simple and slow living, and traditional skills like knitting, gardening, and baking. Taking from punk and metal scenes’ genre descriptions, adding “core” (there are so many more: fairycore, hobbitcore, goblincore, etc.) to the end of descriptions of aesthetics made it easier to find closely related images and texts on the internet. These aesthetics/lifestyles have evolved to be places of solace and escapism for many.
If an internet trend encourages people to invest time into fulfilling hobbies whose primary purpose is not monetary gain, I think that is excellent. Our world is full of too much: too much advertising, obligations, monotonous chores, repetition, fear mongering, etc. I believe that finding ways to slow things down for yourself and enjoy small pleasures like a cup of coffee in the quietest part of the morning, embroidering your favorite pair of jeans, or going out each morning to tend to your chickens is necessary to help you feel human.
Cottagecore has popularized a life in the country raising animals, growing a garden, and living in harmony with nature with millennials and gen-z, taking this once obscure part of the internet to the mainstream. You could argue that this is problematic in many ways. For example, a lot of content creators sell an idealized version of farm life. It is the nature of social media influencers to carefully curate what they share, and to often steer clear of the difficulties. They also don’t often talk about what they’ve done to get where they are, whether that’s years and years of working a day job, inheriting a family farm, having help behind the scenes, etc. Farming is expensive and very time consuming. Many people dreaming of a simple, rural escape don’t have the means, time, or energy to fully commit to such a life. Personally, I would not be able to grow food, raise animals, and have a foraging space without the constant help of my partner and his skills and experience, my full time job, his job, and help from family and friends. I am, however, extremely stubborn and determined to make things happen, and that helps a lot too.
The last thing I want to do through sharing my experience growing food and raising animals is to prey on anyone’s desire to live well and ethically, close to nature, by resurrecting old American myths of individualism, nature, accessible land, hard work, etc. I would also discourage anyone who hasn’t considered these myths from buying land, sectioning it off, building houses, and/or isolating themselves. That would certainly be more in line with the historic way of homesteading, but I think that such better work can be done. People in urban, suburban, and rural areas can grow food in community gardens, home gardens, apartment balconies and window sills. Communities of all kinds can raise chickens for eggs and share or trade them with neighbors, and can be more self-sufficient as a whole by sharing skills, goods, and time.
It is important to learn about the history of indigenous peoples on this continent, particularly indigenous food ways which were disrupted by colonization. Historically, the impacts of homesteading and traditional agricultural practices have often been a detriment to the ecosystem and human relationships with the natural world. It is our goal to grow healthy plants and animals that support the existing ecosystem, including ourselves and our community, leaving the land healthy and resilient. In most cases, I believe it is best to do less, and instead of spending time devising grand schemes and projects, I will spend time watching and listening to the natural world in order to find ways to become a better companion and protector of living things– while also growing some tasty food.
Thanks for being here.
Until next time,
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