Have you used the Homestead Act of 1862 to further your genealogy research? If your ancestors passed through or lived in the MidWest in the late 19th century, you should consider this resource.

One farmer said, “The government bet us 160 acres against five years of our lives that we could not stick it out.” The opportunity to acquire a farm at no cost except for the registration fee encouraged farmers and would-be farmers to venture out onto the Great Plains.(1)

The Homestead Act, enacted during the Civil War in 1862, provided that any adult citizen, or intended citizen, who had never borne arms against the U.S. government could claim 160 acres of surveyed government land. Claimants were required to “improve” the plot by building a dwelling and cultivating the land. After 5 years on the land, the original filer was entitled to the property, free and clear, except for a small registration fee.(2)

This week I attended a Legacy Family Tree webinar entitled, “The Homestead Act of 1862 and Genealogy” presented by Thomas MacEntee. He explained how undeveloped land west of the Mississippi (plus or minus a few states) was offered to qualified applicants. You paid a $10 registration fee, followed the government guidelines, and then after the specified time, filed for a deed title.

The paperwork generated by this process contains a wealth of information for genealogists. And it’s not just the people who filed and successfully acquired land. It also contains information about witnesses, affidavits, receipts, and notices. So if your 3rd-g-grandfather lived next door to someone who acquired land through the Homestead Act, he could have been a witness, or signed an affidavit for that person.

Thomas briefly went over this process. The claimant form contained 44 questions, and the witness form had 28 questions, both of which contain a gold mine of information for genealogists. Talk about putting flesh on the bones of your relatives. Wow.

One of the first places to check is the Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office Records. The search process is fairly simple. In the past I had located cash entry certificates for my 3rd & 4th g-grandfathers. But what I didn’t realize at the time was the legal land description that was included farther down on the page, as well as a map. I love maps! Thomas also explained the legal land description in a way that I could finally begin to understand it, you know, all that numbered section, township, range stuff.

The BLM website only contains records about completed homesteads. If your ancestor started a claim, but didn’t finish it, didn’t qualify or abandoned it, you need to check tract books and order records. This is where it gets tricky.

He went on to explain about tract books and how to obtain records. However, my note taking ability could not keep up with all of his directions. But if this is something you want to learn about, watch the archived webinar for free until Monday, April 28. After that, you need to be a member to view archived Family Tree webinars — well worth their introductory price of $49.95/yr since it currently has 237 hours of genealogy instruction and 627 pages of instructors’ handouts.

I really enjoyed the webinar and learned a lot about the Homestead Act. One of the last things mentioned was when it ended. Bet you can’t guess the date. I was surprised to learn it ended in 1976. And Alaska was allowed to continue until 1986!

So the Homestead Act was not limited to the 19th Century. It was still alive and well in the 20th Century.

Sod House

from the Wikimedia Commons

A Milton, North Dakota, photographer took this picture of John and Marget Bakken and their two children, Tilda and Eddie, in front of their sod house in Milton in 1898. John Bakken was the son of Norwegian immigrants, who homesteaded and built a sod house in Milton in 1896. This sod house was used as the basis for the design of the Homestead Act Commemorative Stamp in 1962.

Since living persons cannot be represented on US stamps, the children were blocked out by a haystack. Ironically however, John Bakken was still alive at age 92 when the stamp was issued.(3)

(1) National Park Service: Prospector, Cowhand and Sodbuster
(2) Our Documents
(3) Wikimedia Commons