Editor’s Note: the following is a lightly updated post by the late Carolyn L. Barkley on homesteading and homestead records. Her original post has been split into two parts. Part I, below, discusses the history of homesteading. Part II will discuss the utility of homestead records in genealogical research and how to obtain them.
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 with all my ancestors clinging steadfastly to their New England landscape. What follows now 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.
The homesteading plan was a quite simple government program. 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 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.
Image credit: Interior of claim shack, Quinn S.D. Kansas Collection, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.