homestead, homesteading

Home sweet Homestead, Part I

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.

nonexistent town names

How to Find Nonexistent Town Names

Can You Find Obligation, Maryland?

Let’s say you learn from an old family Bible that your ancestor was living in Obligation, Maryland, in 1872. No one living today has ever heard of the place, and you cannot find it on any contemporary map. You must find out where Obligation is, or where it was, before you can search for your forebears in county records or the federal census. What do you do next? How do you find nonexistent town names?

As Gilbert Bahn reminds us in his book, American Place Names of Long Ago, place names fall out of usage for a variety of reasons. Suburban development has buried many a town or neighborhood under the wheels of a bulldozer, making the town nonexistent in more than just name. Sometimes residential land is flooded to make room for lakes or reservoirs. In such cases, many locations have either been abandoned or absorbed into other jurisdictions.

Place names come and go for other reasons, too. Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, took its name from a popular radio program. The town of Malverne, New York, jettisoned its original calling, Skunk’s Misery, in favor of a more salubrious image.  No matter why place names disappear, however, genealogists must locate them in time and place before they can move on in their research. Fortunately, whether you are looking for Obligation (which happens to have been in Anne Arundel County, Maryland); Moose Meadow, Connecticut; Kismet, Tennessee, or some other pre-20th-century place name, Mr. Bahn’s book is an excellent place to start.

American Place Names of Long Ago, in fact, is a republication of the Index to “Cram’s Unrivaled Atlas of the World, as Based on the Census of 1890.” Arranged by state and thereunder alphabetically by locale, this virtual gazetteer comprises an index of over 100,000 place names of “every county, city, town, village, and post-office in the United States [showing] the population of the same according to the Census of 1890.” Thus it is not only an exhaustive source of long-ago place names but also a rare repository for geographical and demographic information extracted from the lost federal census of 1890.

If your ancestor is associated with a town, body of water, or landmark known to have existed before 1890, American Place Names of Long Ago may be the best tool for finding the place name or nonexistent town name and ultimately, the correct town or county in which to do your research.

Image credit: The Ace Lodge, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, By Boston Public Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.



best apps for genealogy

10 Best Apps for Genealogy

Technology is an incredibly useful tool in genealogical research, especially when used in conjunction with traditional research methods. We love Evernote for genealogy, and that’s just one app that will help you stay organized.

We were excited when we found this article, “Tracing your family tree? The 10 best apps to help you find your relatives” by Laura Berry. Ms. Berry is the lead genealogist for BBC1’s Who Do You Think You Are? In her article, excerpted below, she offers an expert guide to help you in your online searches.

It’s important to note that these “10 best apps” for genealogy are most useful for content that has been digitized. As we mentioned in a recent article on why relying solely on the internet for your family tree research isn’t the best idea, not everything is available online. However, we understand that other than talking to your own family, beginning your search online is the easiest for most people just beginning their family research.

Please enjoy Ms. Berry’s 10 best app selections below!


interviewy app


Interviewing your family is the best place to begin. This voice recording app offers clear sound, good basic functionality and the option to tag audio files that you have saved. If you want to keep the interviews for posterity, using a plug-in microphone with your smartphone or tablet will improve the quality further still.




Start building your family tree and find your ancestors in billions of historic records. This works best when used with a monthly subscription to the Ancestry website. Individual family records can be bought by non-subscribers (up to £1.49 a document), which is useful, but the subscription allowing unlimited downloads is more cost-effective.

who do you



Who Do You Think You Are? magazine is the UK’s leading family history monthly. This forum app gives access to a rapidly growing genealogy community online. Somewhere for newbies to ask for friendly pointers and for experienced hands to share advice. It is also a good place to pick up birth, marriage and death certificates.




Family trees that are easy to build and to view even offline. There are three privacy settings and a function to create a fast family tree by connecting with relatives via Facebook. If you want to view historical documents, including census returns, wills and nonconformist records, you have to pay to subscribe via TheGenealogist website.




Another great tool for creating and editing your tree. A useful feature allows photographs to be incorporated. Has a good but basic facility for looking up records, but you need to pay a full subscription to view search results. It supports 32 languages and is renowned for its worldwide genealogy community, helping you link to relatives overseas.




Designed to help you search for family graves worldwide, but equally useful for those who want to share their findings via crowdsourcing. Add photographs of headstones and transcribe memorial inscriptions to build up the database. Also lets you post a request for local volunteers to search for your ancestor’s headstone in a cemetery. To maximise the results, use Find A Grave in combination with Billiongraves, another great app that’s suitable for Android and iOS.




Links with Dropbox and iTunes so that you can view trees and research logs created with RootsMagic desktop software. Gedcom files can also be converted from other genealogy software companies for viewing as RootsMagic files while you are out and about. Contains tools, including a date calculator, perpetual calendar, and relationship calculator.




Every genealogist needs a first-class filing system and One Note is proving a credible competitor to the popular Evernote app. Incorporate digital photographs of old letters, clippings from genealogy websites, videos and audio interviews into your searchable notes, share them with relatives and sync with all your devices.

reunion app


IPHONE, IPAD (£10.49)

Accompanies one of the best family tree building software programmes, Reunion. Easy to use and with detailed but simple layouts, this app lets you work seamlessly on the go. The one downside is that it is available only for those who already have the full software package installed on a Mac.




Pin old family photographs of a known area on to an interactive map and search for thousands of images uploaded by museums and archives. Great for comparing changes to the places where your ancestors lived or worked, as it overlays historical scenes on to Google Street View. Browse by date or location to find images and stories behind them.

Image credit: By pr_ip Primus Inter Pares [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. Original content/source article:  “Tracing your family tree? The 10 best apps to help you find your relatives” by Laura Berry from The Guardian.

Donald Lines Jacobus, Connecticut

Who Was Donald Lines Jacobus?

Who was Donald Lines Jacobus, and why should you know about him?

The Connecticut genealogist, Donald Lines Jacobus (pronounced ja cob’ us), was the founder of the modern school of scientific genealogy and the greatest American genealogist of the 20th century. Jacobus and his protégés taught us how to research and write family histories, how to solve genealogical problems, what sources should be used, how to interpret them, and why we must abandon unsupported findings which, in many instances, were built upon flights of imagination as much as on facts.

Jacobus has a long list of achievements, for instance, in 1922, he founded the esteemed periodical, “The American Genealogist” (TAG). We are more concerned with explaining why this sage’s teachings and writings are of importance to 21st-century sleuths. Jacobus’ book publications may date from 1922, but each one still stands as a model of genealogical scholarship. For example, Families of Ancient New Haven is the definitive statement on the ancestry and relationships of 35,000 residents of 18th-century New Haven, Connecticut, and it is the only publication that succeeds in treating every family of an entire New England region. In other works related to Connecticut, Mr. Jacobus, who built on Mr. Edgar Francis Waterman’s files in Hale, House and Related Families, Mainly of the Connecticut River Valley, succeeded in presenting exhaustive data from original sources, in providing new interpretations as well as additions and corrections to existing literature, and in making the family accounts definitive. The index alone bears reference to some 16,500 persons.

Jacobus’s Families of Old Fairfield is the ultimate authority on the ancestry and relationships of approximately 50,000 residents of Fairfield County, Connecticut. It is a vast compendium of family history, meticulously developed from original sources, and in every way an accurate reflection of the investigative genius of its celebrated author.

Jacobus left us scores of genealogy articles that appeared in the “National Genealogical Society Quarterly,” “The New England Historical and Genealogical Register,” and his beloved TAG. In 1968, the Genealogical Publishing Company assembled a number of those highly respected essays and published them as Genealogy as Pastime and Profession.

Genealogy as Pastime and Profession encapsulates Jacobus’ thinking. It describes the principles of genealogical research, the evaluation of evidence, and the relationship of genealogy to eugenics and the law; it discusses early nomenclature, royal ancestry, the use of source material, and the methods of compiling a family history. Jacobus was a wonderful writer, and he brought all of his wit and erudition to bear in this timeless volume. Beginners and experienced family historians will especially love the case study chapter in which the author the sets out to solve the mysterious ancestries of Ebenezer Couch, Nathaniel Brewster, and John Gill. Whether you do your genealogy over the Internet, by cranking the microfilm reader, or strictly by pouring over old documents, you’ll find that Genealogy as Pastime and Profession is as useful today as when it was first published 35 years ago. Jacobus’ advice, by and large, is as reliable as a wise old grandfather’s.

Image credit: Christ Church, Stratford, Connecticut, USA, second church, built in 1743. By/edited by Lucy Jarvis [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

popular names by state

Can you guess the most popular last names in your state?

Let’s play the name-game! Do you live in Massachusetts: Try to list all the Sullivans you’ve met in the last 15 years. How about those of you from Vermont: How many of your friends have the last name Johnson?

Go ahead, keep counting. We’ll wait.

The infographic featured in both the cover image and below, was originally posted by the Ancestry blog back in December of 2014, and has since been featured on and This map shows the three most popular last names by state. According to the data in the Ancestry blog post, every American knows about five Smiths each.

“Smith, along with Johnson, Miller, Jones, Williams, and Anderson make up most of the most popular surnames all across the country,” the blog reads. “But there are still regional differences. If you are in the Northwest, you are more likely to come across an Anderson than a Brown, which is slightly more common on the East Coast.”

Check out the top three results for your state (click image to enlarge):

popular names by state