In colonial America, a homestead was understood to be a plot of land adequate to support a family. The Homestead Act of 1862 granted a quarter-section (160 acres) of U.S. public land to any head of family, on the condition that the settler live on the parcel for five years and “improve” it, typically by clearing fields for cultivation and by erecting buildings. In Wolf Willow, Wallace Stegner, recalling his boyhood on the Canadian border, writes: “The homestead, though it was a stead of sorts, was never a home. There was only a handful of real homes on either side of the Line. Most houses were like ours, shacks made to be camped in during the crop season; and some were like Pete and Emil’s, never meant to be lived in at all, but only to satisfy the law’s requirement.” The act eventually carved out hundreds of thousands of farms in the West, many of them far too small, in such dry country, to maintain a family. Although agrarian in origin, homestead has come to be defined in the laws of many states as a person’s principal residence, whether urban or rural. So defined, a homestead may be exempt from certain taxes and protected from seizure by creditors.

Scott Russell Sanders