by Roberta "Bobbi" King
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.
Example: Lydia Waddington
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.
Example: Sarah E. Copeland
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).