Home Sweet Homestead

By Carolyn L. Barkley

The ability to stand on the exact plot of land where our ancestor lived is a significant goal in family history research. For me, land records are among the most fascinating documents I discover – a fact you may have deduced from the frequency with which I write about them. I have a friend, new to any sort of genealogical research, who searched for his ancestor’s homestead land record this summer during a trip to Nebraska and was able to identify the appropriate piece of land and visit it. I’m hoping that his enthusiasm for this experience will have “hooked” him for further genealogical research. In listening to the story of his trip and his research, I realized that I knew very little about homestead records (all my ancestors clinging steadfastly to their New England landscape). Here then, is a summary of my ongoing research about homestead records and what they can reveal about our ancestors.

The Civil War had been tearing North and South apart for a little over a year when the United States Congress passed the Homestead Act of May 20, 1862. Congressmen realized that by promoting settlement of western lands, they could support the increased flow of immigrants into the country, but perhaps more importantly given the tension between slave states and free states, could promote settlement by individuals with pro-Union sentiments. Their plan was to distribute public lands to those who were without lands in exchange for fulfillment of residency, cultivation and improvement requirements.

For a government program, the homesteading plan was quite simple. Any individual, over the age of 21, whether single or a head of household, was eligible, as long as that individual could swear that he or she had never borne arms against the United States and had never aided or supported its enemies. In many ways, this act was ahead of its time. Aliens who had filed a declaration to become a citizen were eligible and, even more importantly, women were eligible to acquire land and could not have their rights to the land forfeited at marriage.

There were few prerequisites, most of which were fulfilled during the application process. Between 1862 and 1909, the acreage available to each claimant was 160 acres. If the individual already owned 100 acres, for example, the applicant could only claim an additional 60 acres. (In 1909, a revised Homestead Act would increase this total to 320 acres for public lands in the Plains and Southwest that were difficult to irrigate.) An individual would choose a piece of land and file a claim, either at the local land office or at the General Land Office in Washington, D.C. The only costs at filing were a $4.00 commission and a $10.00 entry fee. The claimant received a receipt to prove that the claim had been filed. He or she was then required to reside on the property for the subsequent six months. Failure to do so would result in forfeiture of the claim. During the required residency period of five years, the claimant could be absent from the land for only six months out of each twelve-month period and could not maintain a residence elsewhere. (In 1919, this residency requirement was shortened to three years.) Following the five year residency period, the claimant was required to publish, often in a local newspaper, an” intention to close,” thus allowing others an opportunity to dispute the claim and his or her final application for a certificate of patent had to be made within two years. When the final certificate was issued, an additional $4.00 payment was required to cover administrative costs.

Homestead lands could not be repossessed for payment of debts incurred prior to the claim and a discharged soldier or sailor was able to subtract the period of his military duty from the residency requirement. In addition a soldier’s or sailor’s family could apply for a claim and live on the land while he was on active duty. The Homestead Act, therefore, superseded the bounty land legislation that had applied in earlier wars. In addition, there could be no assignments of land, although it could be mortgaged to finance improvements to the property. If a homesteader died during the initial five year qualification period, his widow (her widower) and heirs could qualify to continue the claim. If he or she wished to sell the land prior to the completion of the first five years (but only after at least fourteen months), he could “purchase” a patent at a cost of $1.25 per acre ($200.00 for a full 160-acre tract), otherwise the sale of homestead land was prohibited.

The filing requirements for claims and the final certificate created very detailed records, including name, age, marital status, and postal address of the homestead claimant, land description, and the dates of arrival and settlement on the property. Also included were detailed descriptions of improvements made to the property, including houses built, crops raised, trees cleared and fences erected. Other information might include the names of family members and others living with the claimant; dates, heirs, relationships, and depositions from witnesses in the case of the claimant’s death; and military service information.  In case of an alien, the file may include a copy of the declaration of intention, as well as when and where it had been filed, previous residences, port of origin and place of origin.

Not all homestead claims resulted in patents. Of the two million claims entered, only 783,000 resulted in  actual patents. A rejected patent may prove more information than one that was completed, as explanations as to why it was rejected or not completed will be included. These reasons may include death, relocation to another tract, citizenship issues, or a disputed claim. Individuals may have applied more than once, so all files for an individual should be investigated. To research your ancestor’s homestead claim, you will need to request his or her Land Case Entry File.

Land Case Entry Files for pre-1908 homestead claims are held by the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and are arranged by land office and final certificate number. Cancellations (forfeits, rejections, etc.) are kept separately from the completed claims. These entry files are not available on microfilm and have not been digitized. They can be ordered from the National Archives at the following address: National Archives (NNRI), Textual Reference Branch, Washington, D.C., 20408. Use NATF 84 form, which can be requested by emailing NARA at inquire@arch2nara.gov. Archives staff will assess the price for copying the file, depending on the number of pages, and will notify you of the total cost. Once payment is received, you will wait (and perhaps wait and wait) and the file will be mailed to you.

In requesting a file—please make clear that you are requesting the entire file–you will need to include the following information:

  • name of the land office
  • the land description (township, range and section)
  • the final certificate or patent number
  • the authority (legislation) under which it was acquired

One way to acquire the necessary information for NATF 84 is through indices that are available for pre-1908 homestead claims for Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada and Utah. No pre-1908 name indices exist for California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming.  For one of the indexed states, you will need to provide the name of the homesteader, the state in which the land is located, and the approximate date of entry. For those states which are not indexed, you will also need to provide either a legal description of the land or the name of the land office and land entry file number. You may also be able to find the information in local deed records and tract books for each county.

Final patents are available online and can provide the information necessary for your request. Ancestry.com has land patent information for Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. I found that it was easier to look for a land patent for one of these states on ancestry.com as the search form allowed me to specify the applicable legislation and I could filter for those patents issued under the 1862 Act. Here’s an example:

Ancestry.com included a Minnesota land record for a Hiram Barkley that showed that the land office was Jackson, the final certificate number was 1814, and the land was acquired under the Homestead Act of May 20, 1862 (12Stat.392). This information provided me with three of the four pieces of information I would need to request the Land Case Entry File.

To find the specific land description for Hiram’s 122 aces, I consulted the Bureau of Land Management site. Hiram’s record on this site includes a table with the following land description information: 5th Meridian, township 101N, ranges 027W and 028W, SW¼SW¼, section 19, and E½SE¼, section 20 in Faribault County, Minnesota. The BLM site also included a digitized copy of the final patent (taken from Minnesota Volume 249, page 288) that contained a textual description of the land: “South west quarter of the Southwest quarter of section nineteen, in Township one hundred and one, of Range twenty-seven, and the East half of the South East quarter of section twenty-four, in Township one hundred and one, or Range twenty-eight, in the district of lands formerly subject to sale at Jackson, now Worthington, Minnesota, containing one hundred and twenty two acres and twenty-five hundredths of an acre.” The patent is signed by President Ulysses S. Grant and dated 30 June 1876. By combining this information with the findings from the Ancestry.com database, I then had all four items necessary for my request to the National Archives. A related documents feature allowed me to view surrounding patents and identify a neighbor patentee, Richard Haggin. (For further understanding of the rectangular land description system, please refer to Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records Online, and E. Wade Hone’s Land and Property Research in the United States (Ancestry, 1997).)

I decided to take the research one step further and search for Hiram Barkley in the 1870 census (based on the five year residency requirement plus the possibility of a two year final application deadline). If the final patent was issued in 1876, Hiram would have had to settle on the land about 1869/1870. In checking the 1870 census for Faribault County, Minnesota, on ancestry.com, I was unable to locate a Hiram Barkley. (Note: the Barkley surname is very clearly written on the land patent.) A search for any male Barkley in the county was also unsuccessful. Searching for any Hiram in the county, I identified a Hiram Barley and a Hiram Bartley, both of whom lived in Elmore, Faribault County, Minnesota. I first looked at the Hiram Barley. His entry was included on a Production of Agriculture list for Elmore and indicated that Hiram Bartley (not Barley, or Barkley) owned 20 acres of improved land, 2 acres of wooded land, and 100 acres of other unimproved land, for a total of 122 acres. Based on the acreage, I believe that this individual is identical to the Hiram Barkley in the land patent. I then looked at the Hiram Bartley entry and found Hiram on page 2, line 32 (family and household number 16) in Elmore, Faribault County, Minnesota. Hiram was 46 years old. He was living with his wife Kate (44), son Benson (23), son Frederick (20), daughter Hannah (18), son Evert (13), son Milo (11), daughter Dianner (9), daughter Lydia (7), and daughter Rebecca (3). All were born in Canada with the exception of Rebecca, placing their year of immigration sometime between 1863 and 1867.

If I were researching Hiram Barkley, I would know a great deal about him after this search and would have several new avenues of research available to me to add to this knowledge.

A second example is found in Elizabeth Barkley who was granted a homestead patent for forty acres in November 1884. Her land description indicated that her patent was for the “north west quarter of the south west quarter of section twenty nine township one north of range thirteen west of the Fifth Principal Meridian in Arkansas.” The land office was at Little Rock and the final certificate number was 3638. I believe that she may be the same Elizabeth Barkley who, in June 1880 was living in Fourche Township in Pulaski County, Arkansas. Her relationship to head of household C. L. Ransom is that of aunt.

Homestead records represent one of the largest collections of land records in history, with most claims occurring between 1863 and 1917. They will allow you to identify the specific piece of property granted to an ancestor and will in many cases help fill in gaps between censuses and add documented detail to your knowledge of an individual and his or her family. If your ancestors lived in one of the states effected by homestead legislation, these records are worth the effort to identify and acquire.

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