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.