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        Minnesota | Coming to Minnesota Activity 3: Populating Minnesota - The Homestead Life

        In this primary source set activity, students will review primary source documents and answer questions related to the impact of migration and immigration on Minnesota society.

        Lesson Summary

        In this primary source set activity, students will review primary source documents and answer questions related to the impact of migration and immigration on Minnesota society.

        This lesson is part of "Great States: Minnesota | Coming to Minnesota" where students will examine why people from all over the world come to Minnesota, and they will also evaluate their influence on the state.

        Time Allotment

        30 minutes

        Learning Objectives

        Standards:  Analyze the causes and impact of migration and immigration on Minnesota society during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.



        1. Begin by touching on Westward Expansion, how early America started along the east coast and gradually moved west throughout the 19th century and early 20th century, and what Minnesota had to offer newcomers: extensive, fertile farmland. Discuss with the class how people began to move toward the Midwest, encouraged by The Homestead Acts: a series of federal laws that granted up to 160 acres of land to Americans at little to no cost. Individuals had to live on the land, raise crops, and live there for five years—but afterward the land would be theirs.

        2. Play the video, Homesteading | Homesteading Act and Northern Plains [5:02], to give your students background on The Homestead Acts.

        3. Launch the Primary Source Set: The Homestead Acts. Using the provided images and text descriptions in this set, cite specific examples of challenges homesteaders faced. Use the provided answers as prompts to help students pull out notable details in the pictures. Ask the class to think about the following questions while you move through the material and discuss homesteading (write these questions on the board or have them displayed if possible):

          1. Why did these men and women decide to go west? What were the advantages?

          2. What were the disadvantages of homesteading out west?

          3. How did the Homestead Acts impact and affect Minnesota?

        4. Start by showing the excerpt, An excerpt of “Women on the Prairie,” from Homesteading: Two Prairie Seasons, 1918. by Edward West. Read aloud in class and discuss how women’s roles on homesteads might have differed from the traditional roles of women in established towns or cities. Note that while this author is telling of experiences he had further north in Canada, this experience was widespread across the homesteading and farming experience.

          [More work was expected of women on the homestead because it was typically just the married couple working the land, sometimes even just the woman if the husband was off making his “grub fare.” Whereas in a town or city, women were expected to take care of the home and children, on the homestead they were expected to manage these duties and still help out with the farming. Make sure to note that these challenges do not make homesteading impossible—plenty of families did it. It just was an added factor of farming/homesteading.]

        5. Next, show the image, A photo of a “homestead family,” posed outdoors. The photograph is from the Minnesota Digital Library as part of the University of Minnesota Libraries. Note that while the location of this photo is unknown, it portrays a typical, hardworking homestead family. Ask the class: What details does the photo illustrate about homesteading life?


          [Families have one another and stick together to get the work done. Even as the family gathers, you can see one man with an ax and two women with a bowl and kettle; there was always work to be done. Clothes and appearance seem dirty, probably from living off the land and doing extensive work. The photo is not clear about how many sets of parents, but there certainly are a lot of children. Farmers might have more children in order to have more people helping out on the farm.]

        6. Next, show the image, A photo of a social gathering at a school for homesteaders in the Irvine Flats area of Montana, 1913. Note that this picture is from a social school gathering in Montana, but it highlights a well-built homesteading community, like the ones in which homesteaders in Minnesota would also need to depend. Initiate classroom discussion about the following questions:

          1. Why might forming a community be important when living on the prairie?

          2. Could students imagine accomplishing a homesteading life without other people or a community?


            [a. Forming a community was important because: friendship; fun/celebrations; creating schools; communal protection; sharing tools/equipment; help with the following: problem-solving, if someone gets sick, childcare, food storage, etc.

            b. Accomplishing a homesteading life completely on your own would be very difficult, especially if you have little farming experience or equipment.]

            Note some of the difficulties that homesteaders faced in forming communities or socializing: A lot of hard work meant not much time for socializing or meeting new people. Many homesteaded areas began in isolated areas, where there was no existing community, so homesteaders had to build it themselves. Depending on how large the tracts of land were that people homesteaded, other people in the local area might be spread out and difficult to meet, stay in touch with, and build a community.

        1. Wrap up activity by revisiting original questions:

          1. Why did these men and women decide to go west? What were the advantages?
            [The Homestead Acts, a great opportunity and deal provided by the government, cheap land, fertile farmland, lack of opportunity back East, exciting chance to make money, ability to own land, start a new life]

          2. What were the disadvantages of homesteading out west?
            [Long distance to travel, difficult work, takes time (five years) and effort to earn ownership of the land, could be lonely out on the farm (as opposed to living in a city), everyone—men, women, and sometimes even the children—typically needed to pitch in and help with farm duties, could be a more strenuous lifestyle for wives/mothers than living in a town or city would be, lack of community and local infrastructure or systems, lack of resources, needed to start completely over (i.e., building one’s own house, making new friends, etc.), harsh reality of farming one’s land all on one’s own]

            Discuss with students that because of these disadvantages, many homesteaders never earned the right to own their land because, for one reason or another, they could not last the five years required to do so. Typically, people who were already farmers and had some level of farming knowledge and equipment were the most successful.

          3. How did the Homestead Acts impact and affect Minnesota?
            [They helped to populate Minnesota by encouraging people to come out and farm their own tracts of land. They were one of the reasons people migrated to the state of Minnesota. They helped encourage farming the empty or otherwise unused prairie land.]

        2. Ask students: How do the Homestead Acts relate to what you know about Minnesota today? [The Homestead Acts helped to further the agricultural and farming industry in Minnesota today. They helped to bring out original settlers who would create families and help to build the Minnesotan population we have today.]

        3. Explain to students that the Homestead Acts were not the only reason people came to Minnesota. The American Indians were the first people to live here. As the United States gained more western land, people migrated to the Midwest and Western coast for plenty of reasons. Railroad expansion, the logging industry, and mining are other reasons in addition to homesteading that people migrated to and settled in the state of Minnesota during the 1800s and early 1900s.


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