In 1862 Congress passed and Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act. It in dramatic fashion changed the face of American migration. Anyone could have 160 acres for free provided that they lived on and improved (built a home, planted crops) the land for five years. This egalitarian method of land ownership was unprecedented in world history. Never before was the common man so empowered to shape his own future.
Homesteading the West
The Homestead Act opened up millions of acres in the Public Domain. The Public Domain can be easily defined as any state not including the Colonies, Texas, and Hawaii. That said, every acre in these states was not distributed through the Homestead Act. There were more than 3,000 legislative acts designed to distribute land in the Public Domain. A few notable acts include timber, mining, and bounty land for soldiers initiatives.
Homestead records are an absolute goldmine of genealogical information. Naturally they would include the application, testimony from witnesses, affidavits, receipts and the like – everything necessary to apply for the purchase of land. But there is more. If your ancestor was an immigrant – as many, many were – they had to prove citizenship to obtain Homestead land. So you will often find citizenship or naturalization papers! Huge!
The Big News Today
Heretofore, the only way to access Homestead files was to identify the parcel of land by finding the patent on the Bureau of Land Management website (which you can still do), then ordering the Land Entry Files from the National Archives (form 84) for $40.00 (which you can still do, too).
However, now Fold3 is loading the NEBRASKA Homestead files online. Right now they are about 50% of the way through the project. Fold3 (formerly Footnote) is working with the National Archives to put online original documents (not abstracts or indexes) and has built its reputation on military records. Now it’s making its mark with Homestead records. The site is a subscription site; however, check with your local library or archive. They may have a subscription and you can access the site for free there. All of the documents on Fold3 can be downloaded in pdf form.
One Step Further
Now that you have your homestead files and the patent from the Bureau of Land Management, you may want to know where precisely that piece of land is. Would you also like to know who your ancestor’s neighbors were, too? An excellent tool for putting the story in geographical context is the Family Maps of…. book series by Gregory and Vicki Boyd. The Boyds have mapped all original settlers, which would include Homestead Act participants, in this series. About a dozen central and western counties in Nebraska have been mapped so far, and I’m sure more are to come. You can find their list of published works for counties across America on their site here.
Go West, and find treasures in the land records of our pioneer settlers on the Plains.