Homestead Requirements and Results
In 1862 the United States enacted a homestead law to encourage development of mostly-empty western federal lands and promote the yeoman farmer ideal. The original homestead law gave an applicant up to 160 acres (1/4 of a section) of undeveloped land in any federal-land state or territory. To obtain the land a settler had to:
- file application papers, and pay filing fees, eventually a total of $18
- improve the land over the next five years (usually build a dwelling, and start a farm)
- file for a deed of title.
Between 1862 and 1986 about 10 percent of all land in the United States, 270,000,000 acres (420,000 sq mi), were transferred from federal to private control through 1.6 million granted homesteads.
Only about 40 percent of the applicants who started the process were able to complete it and obtain title to their homestead land.
Value of the Records
Homestead application papers are good sources of genealogical and family history information. Application papers often mention family members or neighbors, and previous residence as shown in dozens of papers which may include land application forms, citizenship applications, family Bible pages, marriage or death certificates, newspaper clippings, and affidavits. A researcher can obtain applications and related papers from the National Archives if he can provide a legal description of the land for which the homesteader applied (whether the homestead was eventually granted or not).
Researching the Records
The first step to finding homestead applications and related papers is to obtain the legal description of the land for which the homesteader applied.
- Obtaining the Legal Land Description of Completed Homesteads. The BLM-GLO Land Patent Search index only lists people who were actually granted a federal land patent (homestead or other government-to-individual land transfer). If you find an ancestor in this index, it will provide the legal description of his or her land.
- Obtaining the Legal Land Description of Incomplete Applications. The 60 percent of homesteaders who never obtained a patent because they did not finish are not in the Land Patent Search, but they are in the application papers. It is possible to get copies of unfinished applications from the National Archives. However, to see such application papers you must figure out another way to obtain the legal description of the land they started to homestead.
- If you know the approximate location (at least the county), the legal land description of a homestead may be found in the General Land Office tract books available at the National Archives in Washington, DC, or from Family History Library in Salt Lake City (on 1,265 microfilms starting with FHL Film 1445277 (Alaska and Missouri are missing)). These federal tract books are arranged by state, land office, and legal land description. States often have their own version of these tract books. For instructions see E. Wade Hone, Land & Property Research in the United States (Salt Lake City: Ancestry, 1997), appendices "Tract Book and Township Plat Map Guide to Federal Land States" and "Land Office Boundary Maps for All Federal Land States." Also, you may be able to obtain a legal description of the land from the county recorder of deeds in the county where the land was located.
Obtaining Homestead Papers from the National Archives. For detailed instructions online explaining how to obtain homestead papers for (a) homesteads granted, and (b) unfinished homestead applications see “Ordering a Land-Entry Case File from the National Archives” at the end of "Homestead National Monument of America – Genealogy."
- Homestead National Monument of America – National Park Service
- Land Patent Search – Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records
- Constance Potter “Genealogy Notes: De Smet, Dakota Territory, Little Town in the National Archives, Part 2” Prologue (Winter 2003), 35:4 at http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2003/winter/little-town-in-nara-2.html (accessed 5 February 2010).
- Texas General Land Office Land Grant Search
- United States, Department of the Interior, National Park Service, “About the Homestead Act” in Homestead National Monument of America at http://www.nps.gov/home/historyculture/abouthomesteadactlaw.htm (accessed 5 February 2010).
- United States, Department of the Interior, National Park Service, “Homesteading by the Numbers” in Homestead National Monument of America at http://www.nps.gov/home/historyculture/bynumbers.htm (accessed 5 February 2010).
- United States, Department of the Interior, National Park Service, “Homestead National Monument of America – Genealogy” at http://www.nps.gov/home/historyculture/upload/W,pdf,Genealogy,rvd.pdf (accessed 5 February 2010).
- United States, Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records, “Land Patent Search” at http://www.glorecords.blm.gov/PatentSearch/ (accessed 5 February 2010).
- “Texas General Land Office Land Grant Search” at http://wwwdb.glo.state.tx.us/central/LandGrants/LandGrantsSearch.cfm (accessed 5 February 2010).