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Homestead files consist of unbound documents that include final certificates, applications with land descriptions, affidavits showing proof of citizenship, register and receiver receipts, notices and final proofs, and testimonies of witnesses.
These documents are part of the Records of the Bureau of Land Management (formerly known as the General Land Office), Record Group (RG) 49.
At Fold3, the land records are arranged by state; then by township, range, section; and ultimately by owner’s last name, with the certificate number in parentheses. This is different in some cases from land records archived or microfilmed by the National Archives, where the records may be filed by final certificate number.
When a man or woman, commonly called an entryman, wished to receive a free tract of public land as a homestead, the entryman went into the nearest district land office and completed an application for a specific tract. Then began a period of time in which to fulfill the requirements of the particular homestead act under which he or she was filing. Two General Land Office (GLO) officials worked at the land office: the register maintained the tract books and documents from the entryman, and the receiver accepted the fee payments and issued receipts. At the end of the required period of residence and tract improvement, the claimant returned to the land office to file final papers. The GLO officials stood ready to receive and help him finalize his proof papers, the papers with which the claimant provided affidavit (under penalty of law if he told untruth) that he had fulfilled the requirements, thereby "proving" up his claim.
The final papers, approved by the register, were forwarded to the General Land Office in Washington, DC, where official review would accord a final "stamp of approval" for the granting of the patent. The patent is the transfer of title of land from the government to a private entity; in this case, a private individual. Land is patented only once. Subsequent transactions are recorded by the county courthouse deeds officer.
Two copies of the patent were created at the GLO: one kept by the GLO; and one prepared, signed, and sent back to the land office to be placed into the hands of the patentee. The next step for the new owner was to go into his county courthouse and have the patent recorded, thereby making public his ownership of the tract. The subsequent transactions for this particular piece of land are recorded in the county deed recorder's office.
Cautionary note: Homestead patents show a line for the president’s signature. Presidents stopped signing patents in the 1830s, long before homesteading became policy. Existing historic family patents do not include the president’s signature. A functionary filled in the name in lieu of the president. Statistically, a president could not possibly have signed millions of homestead and other patents. To the disappointment of many descendants of a homesteader, the president did not sign the document, which careful handwriting comparison will verify.
These original papers, called case files or land entry files, reside at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, DC. They are public records. Copies of the original papers may be obtained from NARA when the proper information is provided and a fee is paid. You can visit the NARA website for details on ordering these files.
The papers in the homestead files offer a richly detailed picture of the entryman’s situation at that time in his life. They state the value of his property; the amount, description, and value of crops grown; and the dimensions of his house, barn, or corncrib. These are but a few of the fascinating details that present a picture of exactly how things were at that time, in that place, for that entryman and his family.
The entryman needed to go into the nearest district land office, where the register documented into the tract book the specific tract of land the entryman wished to claim. Recorded, and now set aside for this entryman, no one else could file claim to the property as long as no abandonment occurred. The entryman completed an application form, which noted his name, place of residence (some claimants lived elsewhere, intending to settle on the homestead), the date, the land office, and the complete land description. The claimant signed the application. It is one of many papers which will incorporate the claimant’s signature.
Significance: This document places a man or woman in a specific place on a specific date, helping us to establish the whereabouts of an ancestor in a certain time. The application contains the signature of the applicant. When identity is tenuous, a signature becomes the key for establishing a correct identity.
Example: Lafronious D. Morris
This image is an application to homestead. The pertinent information includes his place of residence; a first clue as to his whereabouts on this date. Another valuable piece of information is his signature. Signatures can establish identity among persons with very similar names in a locality. There are several papers within a homestead packet with a claimant's signature and the signatures of witnesses on their testimonials.
The claimant and two neighbor witnesses in good standing were required to answer, under penalty of law for untruthfulness, a set of questions to verify fulfillment of the homestead requirements.
The questions include:
- full name, age, and address (important information for a researcher);
- if native-born, where born; and if foreign-born, proof of citizenship (important information when a citizenship paper is included, noting court of citizenship and locality);
- married, with family information, or single;
- if a married woman, status of husband’s property;
- when actual residence was established;
- when house was built;
- whether absence has occurred, with dates and why;
- character of the land, improvements made (house built, outbuildings constructed, acres cultivated, property improvements);
- whether claimant has made other entries (as noted above, some modified homestead laws allowed for additional homestead or timber culture entries. Additional claims may be noted here.)
The claimant’s signature completes the affidavit.
Two witnesses gave testimony for the claimant, answering similar questions. Their signatures concluded their statements. Note names of the neighbors, as they possibly could be collateral family lines.
In Lydia Waddington's testimony of proof, she declares that she is a widow. The Homestead Act of 1862 assured widows, widowers, and surviving children the right to continue a proof in the event of the death of a homesteader. Here, Lydia provides her deceased husband's name, her age, and birth information about herself and her deceased husband, as well as his date of death. Nebraska vital records began registration after the 1900s, so this genealogical information might not be found anywhere else within official records.
Sarah E. Copeland contributes several genealogical facts on her claimant testimonial taken at the time of proving up her claim. She gives a former name (at first guess, a maiden name); she states her age and place of birth; and she states that she has a husband and one child. Her signature is at the bottom of the document.
Homestead amendments acts awarded veterans of military service credit toward the residency requirements of homesteading. If a veteran used his military service toward residency credit, he was required to provide proof of his military service, and the military papers would be in the homestead file. Look for dates of military service, units of service, manner of military service, discharge papers, and physical description within those papers.
Certain homestead amendment acts, commonly called the “grasshopper acts,” in the 1870s allowed homesteaders to leave for up to one year in order to provide for themselves during the time of a grasshopper disaster. Within these papers, you may notice a time of residence not in compliance with the usual requirements of the homestead law, but knowledge of statutes enacted for disastrous events in specific locales would resolve the question.
Occasionally, a homestead file produces a court case—such as contested boundaries—to add to the family saga.
A homesteader may have submitted medical information to explain incidents of noncompliance, in which case you may find reason for delay of residence, incomplete work done on improvements, or any inability to comply with requirements.
Papers proving citizenship status of foreign-born persons. A child, naturalized in the court of his father’s naturalization, might, years later, be compelled to provide his father’s citizenship paper to prove his own status. This might be the only time a researcher locates a decades-old citizenship paper.
Example: Hans Henirich Hein
This is an interesting example of an exception being made to the rule.
The homestead acts (there were several homestead acts subsequent to the original Homestead Act of 1862 which addressed special situations) required that citizenship be attained by date of proving up the entry.
It was common for non-citizens to have made their declarations of intent, or to do so after applying for homestead. The several years between date of application and date of proving up availed plenty of time for the homesteader to set about getting his/her citizenship status in order.
Human nature being what it is, this homesteader procrastinated until the last minute.
In this file, we see that Hans Henirich Hein waited too long to obtain his citizenship papers. Page 8 of this set of images is the first page of a two-page letter whereby Mr. Hein is seeking the indulgence of the Secretary of the Interior (the General Land Office is within the Department of the Interior). The commissioner relates how Mr. Hein did not obtain his citizenship until seventeen days after his proving up date; the reason is explained on the second page, page 9 (pictured here) of the images: " ...the district court for said county did not convene until November 9, 1899." Page 10 expands upon his dilemma.
A special note regarding the unexpected spelling of Mr. Hein's middle name: "Henirich" is not the usual spelling for Heinrich. The careful researcher would note this oddity and consider this a more accurate reflection of how this man wanted his name spelled, as written by his own hand (pages 10, 15, and other pages).
Using the collection
The most effective way to locate a record within the Homestead Papers is to search using a person's name, township, or certificate number. You may also browse the images by state, township, range, and section.
The land records are arranged by township, range, section, then by owner’s last name, with the certificate number in parentheses. (This is different from files in NARA's microfilmed records which are arranged by final certificate number.)
Most of the land entry case files for Nebraska are textual records scanned directly from the files at the National Archives. The Broken Bow, Nebraska, records are the exception to this. They are digitized from microfilm publication M1915, and are described below.
Broken Bow, Nebraska (M1915)
The NARA descriptive pamphlet for this title can be found here. Excerpted from this pamphlet is the following description of the images at Fold3, taken from the original microfilmed records.
On the 50 rolls of this microfilm publication are reproduced the 1,824 Homestead Land Entry Case Files of the Broken Bow Land Office, 1890–1908. These homestead files consist of unbound documents that include final certificates, applications with land descriptions, affidavits showing proof of citizenship, Register and Receiver receipts, notices and final proofs, and testimonies of witnesses. These documents are part of the Records of the Bureau of Land Management (formerly known as the General Land Office), Record Group (RG) 49.
These records are scanned from microfilm found in the National Archives publication M1915, Land Entry Case Files of the Broken Bow Land Office, Broken Bow, NE: Homestead Final Certificates, 1890-1908. The original records are at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, National Park Service, Homestead National Monument of America.
Discover how these records are being preserved in Filled with Stories: The Homestead Records Digitization Project, a video produced by the Homestead National Monument of America and NARA.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) maintains a website where patents may be searched at www.glorecords.blm.gov. Search for a patentee by surname, defining state and land office locations. The BLM is the successor organization to the General Land Office (GLO) and has custody of patent records delivered to private landholders from the federal government.
The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) website at www.archives.gov describes the land entry records, offering instructions for ordering the land file records, including the homestead records.
Visit the Homestead National Monument at www.nps.gov/home to learn more about the homestead movement and read about the Land Records Project, spearheaded by the Monument, which seeks to digitize and preserve the homestead records. Details about the first homesteader and the last homesteader are there, as well as a case study of the Neve Land Records.
Arphax describes Gregory Boyd’s published book-series containing maps and tracts with first-land-owner names. The website helps researchers search counties for which Arphax has published patent map books, and the researcher may search the surname indexes there.
The “Land Records” chapter in The Source, A Guidebook to American Genealogy (Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, eds., 3rd ed., Provo: Ancestry, 2006, p. 431) is a rich source of research material referencing land records.
Ancestry’s Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources (Alice Eichholz, ed., Provo: Ancestry, 2004.) is a source of data about each state and county’s courthouse records. This book makes it easy locating land records offices in each county of the United States.
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