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 Women and the Homestead Act: Creating a
Place for Themselves
In the West

by Stephanie E. Trebesch
Boise State University

Grade: 8th Grade
Time Allotment: Two 50-minute class periods
Subject Matter: U.S. History

White American women's roles in the seventeenth century were continually evolving. However, the Homestead Act of 1862 dramatically changed the projected opportunities for women in the West. Single women of twenty-one years of age or older could make their claim on a homestead on the condition that they live there for at least five years and cultivate a minimum of 10 acres. Women that took this opportunity had the option of the land, as well as various positions throughout the small rural communities were they lived.

Throughout this lesson, students will learn about the Homestead Act of 1862 and its relation to women in the West. A portion of the lesson will be spent on examining primary sources and their impact on history. Students will create a modern day business propaganda pamphlet.

Learning Objectives:
Students will be able to:

  • Recognize the basic elements of the Homestead Act;
  • Describe the gender make-up of the West before and after the Homestead Act.
  • Connect the Homestead Act with women's suffrage;
  • Model forms of primary sources - either a postcard or modern propaganda.

From the Idaho Administrative Code for Grades 9-12, available online at

  • Standard 489
    Critical Thinking and Analytical Thinking.
    Students will acquire critical thinking and analytical skills.
  • Standard 494
    Exploration and Expansion. Students will understand the role of exploration and expansion in the development of the United States.

From the National Standards for History available online at:

  • Era 4 - Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
    Standard 4C - Demonstrate understanding of changing gender roles and ideas and activities of women reformers.

Media Components:
Sun River Homestead Directed by Maggie Carey. Videocassette Dist. By PBS Home Video,

Web Sites

  • Sun River Homestead
    This web site, written by the creator of the Sun River Homestead documentary, is a detailed outline of Esther Strasburger (featured in the documentary) and her sisters. Students will use this site to become familiar with the content of the documentary.
  • Archives of the West - The Homestead Act of 1862
    This web site features the actual Homestead Act of 1862. Students will read the Act to identify it as a primary source.
  • Jeanette Rankin
    This web site overviews the life of feminist and suffragist supporter Jeanette Rankin. Students will familiarize themselves with her life and her connection to Montana.

For each student: Pencil and Paper
For each group of 4 students: Card Stock; Markers; Color crayons; Colored Pencils

Prep For Teachers
The day before teaching this lesson, bookmark the Web sites used in the lesson on each computer.

Introductory Activities
Guide the students in discussing and brainstorming about women during the turn of the nineteenth century. What kind of opportunities did they have? To what level were they educated? Socially, were they accepted as single women? Were they able to voice their opinion in their community?
What were women's roles in the West? Were they able to homestead? What positions did they hold in the West? What obstacles did they face?

Ask your students to log on to the Archives of the West web site at Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them if single women could homestead.
(Be it enacted, That any person who is head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and is a citizen of the United States…)

Have your students to log on to the Jeanette Rankin biography web site at Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to identify the connection between Rankin and Montana's suffragist movement.

Have your students log on to Sun River Homestead web site at Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to identify what they consider a common characteristic between the Strasburger sisters. Clarify again, that single white women were able to homestead. Explain that women were allowed to homestead and the history of women homesteaders.

Have students write an entry from a single white women homesteader's perspective in their journal. She may be writing to a friend or a family member. Students should note some obstacles that she may be faced with, as well as some of the rewards she may feel from leading a seemingly independent lifestyle.

Learning Activities
Ask your students what their images are of the West during the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century. Identify what some romantic images are versus potential real images.

Describe to your students that there was a great expansion movement after the Civil War. This was due in part to another wave of immigration along with the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862 and the Railroad Act of 1862. Tell your students that they will now watch a video of a story of such a single white woman's and her sister's immigration and homestead in the Montana.

Insert Sun River Homestead, into your VCR. Start the video on the black and white photograph of a large family. Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them what are the major generation changes between Esther Strasburger and her great granddaughter, Rebecca Lee. PAUSE the screen when Rebecca Lee finishes her barrel race, (4:40). Discuss the focus question.

Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to reflect on women and education at the turn of the century. PLAY the video from where you last paused the tape until you reach a black and white photograph of Esther's classmates at Cheney State College, (6:45).

Discuss the focus question. (All six graduating seniors in Esther's class were women. Three quarters of the 500 students at Cheney were women). Provide more information of women and their dedication to education at that time. What options were readily open to women at this time? Ask the students their impressions. So far, what are they most/least surprised by? Why are they surprised?

Ask the students what their image of propaganda is. Have them identify potentially negative and positive propaganda. Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to identify various forms of propaganda in the next segment. PAUSE the video on the article titled, "Women are Going to Homestead." Have students identify propaganda in that segment. Check for understanding of the requirements for women and homesteading.

Provide the students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to predict whether or not the sisters are going to be successful with the homestead. PLAY the tape where you last left off. PAUSE the video at the Easter Greeting Card. Discuss the women's suffrage movement.

Culminating Activity
While the reasons of migrating to the West for women were different for everyone there were significant pushes from the railroad companies and the government's propaganda. The next activity students will create their own "positive" propaganda for a land development project.

Divide the students into groups of four. Have the students decide what kind of propaganda would they like to create. After they have decided, distribute the card stock, markers and color crayons. Have the students create their own propaganda pamphlet.

After 15-20 minutes have the groups explain their propaganda pamphlet. Why they chose it? What push elements are there? And whether or not they think that this would be an effective form of enticing someone.


Read Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart, N.C. Wyeth and Gretel Ehrlich. The book is a compilation of Pruitt Stewart's letters to family members and friends. The letters detail her continuous struggle as a homesteader widow on the Wyoming frontier.

Write about the primary sources used in the documentary. How did these sources develop the story of Esther and her sisters?

Community Connections

  • Interview a female family member - preferably your grandmother. Ask her what were the choices she felt she had as a 19-year-old young woman. What was her education like? What opportunities did she have? Did she feel pressured to have a family? Create a pictorial timeline of your grandmother's life and map the choices that she had and those that she made.
  • Women's suffrage was granted in 1920. Since then we have had women senators and representatives. However, there has been no woman president or vice president. Contact a woman politician and interview her about the challenges she faces as a woman in politics.

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