Last month I sent away for homestead records from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). They arrived just a few weeks later in digital form. I love that you can now request digital images of these records. Homestead records are a great resource because they give a picture of an ancestor’s life when they were establishing their homestead. If you are researching an adult who lived in what is considered a Federal Land State, generally a state that wasn’t one of the original colonies (here is a complete map), after 1862, check if they successfully applied for a homestead. If the person was an immigrant, you may even get details about their immigration and citizenship, like in my example below.
A good overview of the Homestead Act is given by the National Archives at this site. An excerpt:
in 1862, the Homestead Act was passed and signed into law. The new law established a three-fold homestead acquisition process: filing an application, improving the land, and filing for deed of title. Any U.S. citizen, or intended citizen, who had never borne arms against the U.S. Government could file an application and lay claim to 160 acres of surveyed Government land. For the next 5 years, the homesteader had to live on the land and improve it by building a 12-by-14 dwelling and growing crops. After 5 years, the homesteader could file for his patent (or deed of title) by submitting proof of residency and the required improvements to a local land office. . . .
By 1934, over 1.6 million homestead applications were processed and more than 270 million acres—10 percent of all U.S. lands—passed into the hands of individuals.
Information about many of the successful homestead applications can be found at the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – General Land Office (GLO) search site. This is where I generally start my search. Once you find a land transfer, check the “Authority” field. If it includes the word “Homestead,” then the individual(s) went through the homestead process.
Ancestry has a database with some of the homestead record images: U.S., Homestead Records, 1861-1936. This currently only includes records from Arizona, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Nevada, and Ohio.
Copies or images of the homestead files can be ordered for $50 at NARA here under Federal Land Entry Files.
As an example, the set of homestead records I just received consists of the following documents:
- Declaration of Intention and Clerk’s Certificate with name, country of birth, birth year, name of immigration port, month and date of immigration, and head of country of current citizenship (17 Nov 1887)
- Homestead Affidavit with name, residence, citizenship status, when settlement started, description of any improvements such as house and plowed land with dollar value, signature, and date (17 Nov 1887)
- Homestead Application with name, residence, land description, signature, and date (18 Nov 1887)
- Homestead Receiver’s Receipt for fees paid to initiate homestead process (18 Nov 1887)
- Homestead Receiver’s Duplicate Receipt, same info as Receiver’s Receipt (18 Nov 1887)
- Certificate of Citizenship with name and date (21 Nov 1892)
- Affidavit of Legal Publication with copy of a newspaper article, and name of the newspaper, that states intention to make final homestead proof, name, land description, and names of witnesses (29 Nov 1892)
- Homestead Proof-Testimony of Witness (No. 1) with witness name, age, post office, character of the land, when claimant settled on the land, any absences from the homestead,how much land cultivated, improvements on the land (including house, well, etc.) and value, and signature (29 Nov 1892)
- Homestead Proof-Testimony of Witness (No. 2), same fields as No. 1 (29 Nov 1892)
- Homestead Proof-Testimony of Claimant with name, age, post office, citizenship status, when established residence on the land, improvements on the land and their value, number of members of the family, how much land cultivated, and character of the land (29 Nov 1892)
- Homestead Proof-Final Affidavit Required of Homestead Claimants with name, land description, citizenship status, settlement date, and signature (29 Nov 1892)
- Certificate as to Posting of Notice certifies that the Register posted the notice of intention to make final homestead proof (1 Dec 1892)
- Homestead Final Receiver’s Receipt for fees paid to complete the homestead process (1 Dec 1892)
- Final Homesteads Register and Receiver’s Report, checking off that all required homestead steps followed (1 Dec 1892)
- Homestead Final Certificate with name, land description, and date (1 Dec 1892, approved 13 Mar 1893, patented 3 Apr 1893)
Source: Svend P. Pederson (Kittson County) homestead file, final certificate no. 7642, Crookston, Minnesota, Land Office; Land Entry Papers, 1800-1908; Records of the Bureau of Land Management, Record Group 49; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
I particularly like the Testimony of Claimant document because it paints a great picture of the homestead. We get to hear about the kind of house and outbuildings they had, the size of their family when they completed the homestead claim, how much land they grew crops on each year, what kind of land they had. As a cool bonus, this set of homestead documents even includes immigration and citizenship details. Homestead records help add dimension to our ancestors’ lives, with information that possibly no other document captured.