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Homeownership is a quintessential part of the American dream. For the most part, that has always been true. Settlers in the 1700s were willing to work hard and risk much because they were convinced of the country’s potential.

 

It may be tempting to envision them essentially walking out into the untamed west and laying claim to whatever plot of land struck their fancy. It’s true that today, homeowners are inhibited by everything from our credit scores to local zoning laws.

 

But in the 18th century, while the technicalities may not have been as numerous as they are today, the risks were seemingly endless.

How It Began

Thomas Jefferson was one of the country’s first champions of homeownership rights. He believed that owning a space of one’s own was a goal that each family within the new world should have the means to pursue.

 

He wrote to James Madison in 1785, “It is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of a state.”

Jefferson truly believed that the individuals who were willing to work and fortify the fledgling society and economy of the United States should benefit by way of accessible home ownership; he was invested in the idea that owning your home should not be a result of mere class or birthright.

And indeed, the Land Ordinance of 1785 provided a way for farmers to buy the title for a section of land in the west. Townships were formed of 36 sections, each a square mile, for a total of 640 acres.

Not All Were Included

In the American West, owning property was not a free-for-all. Instead, it was largely restricted to wealthy, free men. The property rights of women were virtually non-existent. While, under the ordinance, slavery and indentured servitude were outlawed, it still did guarantee access for oppressed minorities.

The reality is that access to titles was largely limited, not only by race and gender but also by class.

As the Indiana Historical Bureau states, “After the survey, the land might be offered for sale at public auction in units of a section or more at a minimum price of $1.00 per acre. Few settlers had the necessary capital to make so large a purchase and the debt-ridden national government received a relatively small revenue from its lands until the terms of sale were liberalized.”

While class is something that still comes into play when individuals purchase homes today, a larger disparity existed back then. Additionally, already-built homes are available in virtually every market today and are typically more cost-effective than building from the ground up.

The Land Was Difficult to Work

For those who were eligible and could afford the title to land, there was still the job of navigating the challenges that awaited when they arrived there. In many ways, the context with which they built their homes was fraught with perils that we can’t even comprehend today.

The elements. Today, homeowners enjoy access to ready-made materials and skilled-laborers, thus making home-building a relatively efficient task. Today, when we consider when in the year it’s best to improve our homes, we usually have options. But America’s first homeowners were forced to live in the temporary housing they could provide themselves with, they were often without help, and they built their homes with fairly rudimentary skills relative to the task at hand. They did all of this while constantly exposed to the elements.

The provisions. The majority of the time title-holders were venturing to an area with a barely established township if one existed at all. Thus, they were required to provide both food and building materials for themselves as they built their home.

The people. Much of the land that the government gave away was near or in Native American land. This meant that settlers were tasked with building homes and towns in areas the native people had already established their homes. Thus, the 18th century was fraught with conflicts between settlers and natives.

Modern homeownership is often a complicated, expensive process. However, 1700s homeownership was also complicated and expensive, and it carried with it an element of risk that is typically absent today.

While many today are prone to believe that early-American home ownership was a simple endeavor, the reality is that in addition to many of the challenges modern homeowners face, an individual or family pursuing a permanent dwelling and the American dream in the 18th century was typically required to travel long distances, sacrifice financially, expose themselves to the elements, and find both provisions and companionship where there was little to be had.

About Author

Avery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.