Signed into law 157 years ago today

He was a Union soldier home on furlough, so the story goes.

And he was determined not to lose his chance under a new law due to take effect on the first of January 1863.

Due to report back to his unit in St. Louis, he prevailed on the federal land agent to open the office and sign the filing papers just after midnight, even though it was a holiday, so that he could stake his claim and still leave on time to return to service.1

Five years later, he’d proved up his claim, and so it was that “Homestead Certificate No. 1. Application No. 1, Recorded on Page 1 of Book 1” was issued to Daniel Freeman in Gage County, Nebraska.2

Freeman Homestead

Daniel Freeman was the very first to claim land under one of the most forward-thinking pieces of legislation ever passed in the United States: the Homestead Act of 1862, signed into law exactly 157 years ago by President Abraham Lincoln on 20 May 1862.3

And with that began one of the biggest transfers of public land from government to private hands in the history of the world: by the time the law was repealed in 1976, “270 million acres, or 10% of the area of the United States (had been) claimed and settled under this act.”4

The statute itself was fairly simple, providing that:

Any person who is the head of the family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such, as required by the naturalization laws of the United States, and who has never borne arms against the United States government or given aid and comfort to its enemies, shall, from and after the first January, eighteen hundred and sixty-three, be entitled to enter one quarter section or a less quantity of unappropriated public lands, …5

The law went on to require the filing of an affidavit of eligibility and the payment of $10 before the claimant was permitted to enter on the land.6 A certificate or patent to the land itself could not be issued until the claimant proved by “two credible witnesses” that the claimant had “resided upon or cultivated the same for the term of five years…”7

The total amount of money paid over by a claimant to the United States for his or her up-to-160 acres of land was just $18 — the original $10 filing fee and a commission of $2 to the land agent up front, and then $6 for the issuance of the patent at the end of the five-year residence period.8 It was the sweat equity — the labor on the land over the five year proving up period — that was the real payment involved.

For a genealogist, there are few record sets as valuable as records of land acquired under the Homestead Act. Both the affidavit of eligibility and the proof required for the patent after five years contain detailed genealogical information. In many cases, because non-citizens were eligible to claim land but only citizens could receive a patent, the actual naturalization records of the claimants may be found in the files. Other files, by widows or children of original claimants, may include marriage or birth records.

Some of these land files can run into the hundreds of pages if the claims were contested or otherwise complicated. But even the simplest and shortest of homestead files will contain descriptions of the land itself, the improvements made on the land, any absences from the land during the five-year proving up and the reasons for those absences, and more.

It’s generally easy to check and see if an ancestor acquired federal land under the Homestead Act — and in fact under any number of federal land acts including those providing for cash and credit sales. The US Bureau of Land Management, custodian of many of federal land records, allows a search of federal land patents under many federal laws on its website, the General Land Office Records site.

Click on the Search Documents link at the top and you can search for land acquisitions, narrowing the search by location, by name, by land description, and even limit it in the miscellaneous box to the Homestead Act itself, in the authority box.

What you get on the BLM GLO website is an image of the patent itself and — if you’re lucky — related documents such as the original survey of the area and links to any tract books that have been put online.

But be aware that the records available on this site are only the tip of the federal land records iceberg. What you’ll find there is not the homestead file itself — that’s available generally only through the National Archives from which you can order the file for a cost of $50. The information on the BLM GLO site, though — things like the section, township and range number — is what you’ll need to order the homestead file.

In the case of Daniel Freeman, only the patent and the original survey are online at BLM GLO. The related documents link has links for the immediate neighbors to whom other patents were issued. His homestead file, on the other hand, includes a description of his 14-by-20-foot one-story house with two windows, shingle roof, and board floors that he called “a comfortable house to live in.” He also “built a Stable, a Sheep shed 100 feet long corn crib, and (had) 40 apple and about 400 peach trees set out.”9

In all, some 1.6 million homestead applications were processed by the federal government.10 And if our folks were among them, we can all be eternally grateful to be celebrating the birthday today of the Homestead Act.


Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Happy birthday, Homestead Act!,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 20 May 2019).

SOURCES

  1. “Daniel Freeman Passes Away,” Beatrice (Neb.) Daily Express, 31 December 1908, p. 1 col. one; digital images, Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/ : accessed 19 May 2019).
  2. Ibid.
  3. “An Act to secure Homesteads to actual Settlers on the Public Domain,” 12 Stat. 392 (20 May 1862).
  4. About the Homestead Act,” Homestead National Monument of America, Nebraska, National Park Service (https://www.nps.gov/ : accessed 20 May 2019).
  5. §1, “An Act to secure Homesteads to actual Settlers on the Public Domain,” 12 Stat. 392.
  6. §2.
  7. Ibid.
  8. About the Homestead Act,” Homestead National Monument of America, Nebraska.
  9. Daniel Freeman’s Proof of Improvements, “The Homestead Act of 1862,” Educator Resources, National Archives (https://www.archives.gov/education/ : accessed 19 May 2019).
  10. Ibid.
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